If you would like to participate in discussions, please sign in or register.

In this Discussion

Most Popular This Week

    Due to changing needs and technologies, the SMT Executive Board has decided to retire SMT Discuss (effective Nov. 9, 2021). Posts will be preserved for archival purposes, but new posts and replies are no longer permitted.

    James Horner Polyphony

    edited May 2020 in Analysis

    Several years ago, Scott Murphy referenced "Horner Space" (June 22, 2017) on the anniversary of the composer's death. I thought of this concept after recently returning to Horner's music. In addition to this particular musical progression, I am struck by Horner's pandiatonic polyphony. A melody is opposed by a countermelody that does not relate harmonically, remaining in the key but striking dissonances freely. Examples include Titanic ("Southampton"), Braveheart ("End Credits"), Pas de Deux ("Part 2"), Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius ("St. Andrews"), etc. A related technique is the quodlibet(?) of Braveheart ("Freedom/The Execution/Bannockburn"), for example.

    Am I analyzing this correctly as pandiatonic polyphony? (I am more than a half-decade out from practicing theoretical analysis, so my terminology is dated and rusty.) Examples in Horner abound (and are the leading influence on my piano improvisation style). Has anyone done a more thorough analysis of this musical technique, either in Horner's music or that of another composer (film or otherwise, e.g., Prokofiev)?

    Sign In or Register to comment.


    • 5 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • Conor,

      More than the question of appropriate analytical terminology for Horner's polyphonic writing, I'm curious about the implications of the language you use in formulating your question. For instance, when you say, "a  melody is opposed by a countermelody that does not relate harmonically, remaining in the key but striking dissonances freely," how are you thinking about what constitutes harmony and harmonic relatedness? In Horner's diatonic, polyphonic tonal style (a thing ubiquitous in film music), despite the free use of dissonance, the music, as you say, "remains in the key." I understand this to mean that free dissonance under these conditions does not imperil tonality--or are you meaning to indicate some state less than tonal by the use of "key?" 


    • I'm not familiar with the musical references you are referring to, but have composed and explored "pandiationic" techniques.  An interesting idea is to use more than one tonal center simulateously as the basis for harmony, counterpoint, progressions.  The music remains tonal, but the vocabulary for harmominc choices, intervals, melodic contour, progressions is greatly expanded.  Even writing a piece using the triad collections of C and Eb (for example) expands the harmonic possibilities and resolutions which can be analysed in fairly traditional manners if going beyond mere modulations and using both or more centers simultaneously is essential.  Another interesting related avenue is the use of mirror scale formation in calculating complementary tonal regions to be used in pandiationic technique.  

    • Darryl, that sentence about which you are curious reflects the primary source of my consternation. It seems a fairly simple thing, free dissonance within tonal harmony. Yet the freedom of that dissonance weaving in and out of harmonic structures intrigues me. The harmonic motion is generally slow ("Southampton", Titanic: in eight measures, over a pedal tonic, the counterpoint outlines I [- IV6/4 - ii4/2 - I] - V etc.); the free dissonance serves the harmony.

      I'm curious if any analysis has explored the relation of the free dissonance to these slow harmonies, whether the dissonance more often gives way to consonance at important moments of progression, and whether the dissonances at a broader level follow contrapuntal rules of preparation and resolution.

      The musical technique displayed by Horner is strikingly simple (to which my rudimentary improvisations attest) and yet contains complex components and interplay, as my Titanic example shows. Darryl, I am not sure I've answered your curiousity, except to say that I am not sure I meant what I said.

      One thing that has struck me in thinking about this is that I don't observe this technique coinciding with "Horner Space." Carson's comment suggests that it would be possible to navigate expanded tonal regions with this free dissonance counterpoint, but Horner did not seem to superimpose the two techniques.

      On a broader level, this just makes me think more about whether composers "feel" their way around or "think" their way through. Most film composers don't have the luxury of time for thinking, though Horner notoriously explored ideas more than once, so he wasn't simply writing what sounds good but was instead investigating the implications of a particular idea.

      Perhaps I should have labeled this "musings," but my question remains: What analyses exist investigating free dissonance counterpoint in tonal music, where it supports and subverts the harmonic structure?

    • You might find some published analyses and explanations related to these examples if you conduct a word-search query using the phrase "dissonant counterpoint." Not all dissonant counterpoint is diatonic -- far from it, perhaps -- but a combination of the principles of dissonant counterpoint and pandiatonicism -- or diatonic macroharmony, to use a more recent, argubly mostly equivalent, term -- yields to some significant degree the examples you've shared. (You could try adding a composer known for pandiatonicism, like Copland, to your search query.) This combination results in a "compositional space" that is not as narrow or focused as "Horner space," but it's still a space, I suppose, that a composer can "feel one's way around."

      P.S. Brainstorm has one of my favorite cues with this kind of writing from Horner, and, as an added bonus, there's a score of it in at least one of the editions of the book "On the Track."

      It looks like these embedded URLs don't support deep linking, so start at 16:05 for the cue

    • Carson Farley's mention of polytonality suggests one way to generate dissonant counterpoint in tonal contexts. So, writings by and analyses of Milhaud and the many composers working in tonal layers (see e.g., Britten) in the first forty years of the 20th c. would be helpful. Scott Murphy's mention of Copland is also relevant (as are some of the neoClassicists). His pandiatonicism and Billy-The-Kid, 'wrong-note' harmony might tie in.