Motif: How to Tell a Story with Music!

Apr 08, 2019

Last week’s discussion about exposure was a good intro to what happens when we hear sounds more than once, but this week I wanted to take that topic a step further and look at how composers use repetition to amplify a story. I focused on cinema, since many film compositions use repetition to supplement the meaning of a scene.

Here is my favorite scene from Up, by Pixar.


Although the melody of this piece of music repeats consistently, the delivery of that melody changes throughout. The instruments are constantly switching to represent the theme of the scene. For example, when the couple is thinking about having children, the melody is played by a xylophone which is an instrument that we associate with babies.

The score also has fun moments such as during the rise and fall of the balloons. This instrumental flare not only syncs great with the visuals, but also foreshadows the plot of the movie.

The chords of the music change throughout too to indicate emotion. Louie Zong made an excellent demonstration of how chords can be used to create different feelings even with the same melody. I’ll link the video here.

The opening scene of Up uses a single melody, used to represent the relationship between Carl and Ellie, and displays that melody in different ways to show how their circumstances are changing. It’s heartwarming how they continue to love each other despite obstacles. Even when they meet something that threatens their relationship, they find a way back to the melody that keeps them happy together.

Many other films repeat musical phrases associated with a theme or idea throughout an entire film. These are called leitmotifs and since we’re already on the topic of animated films, allow me to show another video about leitmotifs in the recent movie: Spiderverse.

I hope you enjoy these videos! I think Youtube was aware I was about to do this project because I found a lot of these right before this whole semester started. Catch you next week!

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