It started with Inception. Or, more accurately, it started with Inception’s third trailer. The music, ‘Mind Heist’, by trailer music specialist Zack Hemsey (yes, such a profession exists), was the world’s first glimpse of a sound that has since dominated our aural landscape. It was an inarticulate, spectacular, overblown, deep brass exclamation mark: Bwarrrm.
Though Hemsey’s trailer music was our first exposure to the Inception sound, on the film’s release it quickly became clear that the film’s actual composer, Hans Zimmer, was its true source. Zimmer’s Inception soundtrack was defined by deep brass in a way no other film had been before — the trailer was but the tip of the reverberating iceberg. Bwarrrm.
In a way, this was no surprise: Zimmer has been working for years to refine the system of leitmotif in film music into a tight, masculine package. ‘The whole form language of current cinema music derives from advertising,’ wrote Adorno and Eisler in Composing for the Films in 1947. ‘The motif is the slogan.’ With few exceptions, Adorno and Eisler have been proved correct in their caustic summation of the Hollywood music business; film music is now, more than ever, a kind of brand to be attached to a movie that can be instantly recalled and identified with its corresponding franchise.
Zimmer himself has gone from writing quirky and cheesy tunes for films like Driving Miss Daisy to Hollywood’s kind of brooding, muscular branding for films like Pirates of the Caribbean and Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. The emergence of digital composing tools has played no small part in this shift. Zimmer now composes, records, and tweaks his film scores almost wholly with the aid of digital software — that orchestra you think you’re hearing is, most often, a series of digital samples and synths. ‘At one point or another, every note that is in the score has been played by me,’ Zimmer said about his Dark Knight Rises score. What this high level of sound manipulation and high-resolution tweaking means is that there is an enormous emphasis on rhythm and texture over melody and harmony in modern film music.
Thus, the sound of modern movies is almost singular. Zimmer’s Dark Knight scores are a case in point — while Danny Elfman’s Batman music of the early 90s were gothically melodic, Zimmer’s central Batman theme is just two notes. It should therefore be no surprise, then, that with Inception he took this approach to its logical extreme — a film that can be identified with just one note, one sound: Bwarrrm.
That’s not to say that there isn’t something deeper going on here. In fact, the Inception score is highly rhythmically complex: as each level of dream in the film’s lengthy climactic sequence plays out, a new level of rhythm opens up. At the top, there’s just quavers. At the bottom, there’s that huge, iconic semibreve — one note to rule them all. And that’s not even mentioning the ties that the Inception sound has to Edith Piaf’s ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’, which plays a role as a pivotal plot point.
But there’s something to the way that this sound has taken hold in popular culture. Inception might have been the beginning, but we now find similar sounds everywhere, from ads, to reality TV, to videogames, to practically every film trailer going around. What is it about this sound?
In the same way that Brad Nguyen proclaimed viral clip Kony 2012 the film of the year here at Killings, I’m tempted to label this sound as the sound of our contemporary age. In many ways, this sound is representative of the most visible trends in popular culture — it is the sound of inarticulate sensory overload. It is the sound of amazement, the sound of shock and awe, the sound of a bodily impact from our media. It is the sound of eyelids widening, of backs stiffening, of fists clenching. This is what the most popular of contemporary entertainment media do: Christopher Nolan films shock with baroque plot and spectacle; dubstep shakes and jars with rhythmic intensity; first-person shooter videogames blow us away with virtuosic performance; the bodies of professional sportspeople collide: Bwarrrm.
That is what this sound is. It is the sound of modern spectacle.
Dan Golding is a Killings columnist, freelance writer and academic interested in videogames, film, music, and most other cultural forms. Find him on Twitter.