Welcome back to Back to the Future week!
Yesterday, we looked at the ‘pop’ songs from the Back to the Future soundtrack. Today, I want to talk about Alan Silvestri’s iconic main score.
I’m sure most of you are familiar with the main theme of BTTF. I’m sure just thinking about it you can hear the twinkling sound effects, or the large booming main melody of the theme. If not, have a listen before we get started.
The story of how the score got written is rather interesting. At the time, in the 1980s, many film scores were traying away from using traditional orchestras and began using synthesisers and other more ‘pop’ instruments in their main scores. However, the director of Back to the Future, Robert Zemeckis, wanted a score that resembled such classic adventure film scores as John Williams’ Indiana Jones and Star Wars themes. He reportedly said to composer Alan Silvestri that he wanted “big”. And so that’s what he got. Silvestri put together the “Outatime Orchestra”, which was the biggest orchestra created for a film at the time. He wrote a grand, adventurous theme, with iconic motifs and use of instruments. So let’s look at this theme in detail:
If we have a listen or a look at the main melody of the theme, we can see that the same melody repeats multiple times.
What is interesting here is the use of a tritone interval.
In music, we count the steps in between notes and call them ‘intervals’. A tritone is when there is three whole steps in between two notes. Tritones are often used to create tension and drama in pieces of music and also to create a sense of restlessness.
Normally, following a tritone interval, the note normally moves up a half step, ‘resolving’ the note. In other words, moving back to a melodic note. In this example, However, in the BTTF theme, interestingly, it does not resolve, it just sits there. The effect of this melodic dissonance is that it creates forward momentum, so the melody wants to go somewhere.
A fun explanation of why the tritone is used here is that these 3 notes sum up the ENTIRE plot of the movie (Pogson, Golding & Buc 2017). Yeah. I mean think about it. We start somewhere (1985, G), then go back (in time to 1955, to C), and then we don’t make it back exactly where we started (come back to 1985 but it’s not quite right, the F#). Interesting stuff, huh?
Anyway, this tritone is used throughout the main theme, but there is one variation, and it’s in what’s called “Marty’s Theme”.
Instead of moving to the F# or the tritone, the melody moves to a Perfect 4th or three half steps up. The use of the perfect 4th creates a very different feel to the tritone. It is more personal, as this is generally used in the scenes where Marty and Doc’s friendship is highlighted. It also feels wholesome, homely, happy, safe and innocent.
The BTTF theme uses what’s called a triplet in its rhythm. A “triplet” is a group of three notes played in the time of two.
A triplet is written by putting a “3” over the top of the notes to show that 3 notes should fit in where there would normally only be 2. In the BTTF theme, three notes equal 2 beats instead of 3.
Triplets are normally used to make something faster or more interesting. In the context of Back to the Future tho, I feel like it might have some connection to the plot. Marty and Doc are always running out of time. It is possible that using this musical technique symbolises the race they have throughout the movie to ensure Marty gets back to the future, particularly in the final climatic scene, where the funnily enough the score is most prominent.
The type of instruments used in a piece of music can severely effect the interpretation of the piece. The BTTF theme uses big, loud brass instruments, as well as some string instruments as well.
Firstly, French Horns are the most prominent instrument in the piece. Generally, horns can turn a simple tune into something that both soothes and lifts the spirit and something tremendously powerful. They often used by composers to tie the orchestra together to create a unified sound which makes sense in the BTTF theme as it is used the most.
In the string section, the violin is used. Violins are used in movies and pieces of music to tug the heart strings. In BTTF, the violin features in “Marty’s Theme” to create a more emotional and heartfelt vibe to the appropriate scenes.
In the woodwind section, the flute is used throughout the score. The flute blends perfectly with all instruments and provides background colour to foreground activity elsewhere in the orchestra.
Looking at the percussion section, cymbals are probably the most prominent percussion instrument used. Cymbals are used when composers want to make a very big point, which is basically the definition of the opening line of the Back to the Future theme.
These are just some of the instruments used in the BTTF score, but the most prominent ones.
That was a brief analysis of some musical aspects of the Back to the Future theme. I really like to delve into my favourite music and nerdily analyse them, so this was a lot of fun for me. I really hope you enjoyed it and that you learned something about music theory!
Until tomorrow’s post,
BACK TO THE FUTURE WEEK
Day 2: Dissecting the Iconic ‘Back to the Future’ Score