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Film music

Composition of film music

Film music must be understood immediately, so there is no time to develop long themes. It rarely uses conventional compositional forms such as the sonata.

Film music is composed to accompany the action on screen and often uses:

  • quick and abrupt changes of tempo, harmony and melody
  • rapid shifts from one musical idea to the next

Film music composers often use leitmotifs to help build a sense of continuity. A leitmotif is a recurring musical idea (a melody, chord sequence, rhythm or a combination of these) which is associated with a particular idea, character or place.

Leitmotifs are manipulated to match the action and mood of a scene.

They could be altered by:

  • changing the rhythm or pitch
  • changing the instrumentation or accompaniment
  • adding new material
  • developing fragments of the idea


Leitmotifs can be found in the film scores of many film music composers including Bernard Herrmann (Psycho), Jerry Goldsmith (Planet of the Apes) and Danny Elfman (Batman). Probably the best known leitmotif in film is John Williams' shark leitmotif in Jaws. The two notes F and F sharp, played on the low register of the cello signify something threatening and getting closer and closer.

Listen again to the opening of Batman. Notice the five-note motif which is heard at the very beginning. It is used throughout the film in various transformations.

Example - Goldfinger

The title song of the Bond film Goldfinger is very well known. John Barry’s music includes two striking leitmotifs. One is melodic and the other is made up of two chords.

Melodic leitmotif

Look at the melodic leitmotif. Notice how it rises by a fifth and then falls down a major second.

Chordal leitmotif

The chordal motif features an F major chord followed by a D flat major chord. Notice how the bass line falls a major third and the top line falls a semitone.

Listen to this passage taken from the Raid on Fort Knox scene in Goldfinger. Notice the appearances of the two leitmotifs.


Now listen to a passage taken from later on in Goldfinger. Notice how the leitmotifs have been transformed.

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