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Assigning Musical Themes

Choosing when, where, and how to assign a music theme to a character can be challenging, especially if your scene has more than one central character. During the spotting session, the director and composer must determine which character(s) are having the greatest effect on the drama. It could be what they doing, what they are thinking, or their mere presence in the scene that warrants a musical theme.

So let's take look at a few scenes and analyze how and why the filmmakers chose to assign a musical theme to a specific character.

Holding all the Cards

The classic interrogation scene from The Dark Knight is a great study on how to handle a scene with two main characters facing off.

As the Joker reveals that Batman must choose to save Harvey Dent or Rachel Dawes, the music associated with the Joker starts to creep in. The big takeaway here is that even though Batman is the physically dominant aggressor, the Joker is the man holding all the cards. In fact, Batman’s music would seem inappropriate as he has become somewhat unhinged and chaotic, which are characteristics more in line with the Joker.

The choice to highlight the villain’s music here is a subtextual one that lets the audience know that even though he’s getting beat up, the Joker is the character that is in charge.

Heard but Not Seen

The ring in The Lord of the Rings films can be considered a character of its own. Even when it is not visibly shown, its presence is always felt and even has its own musical theme.

On the surface, this scene looks to have two characters (Frodo and Boromir) but director Peter Jackson and composer Howard Shore want to remind us that the main character at work here is the ring.

When everyone realizes Frodo is missing there is a camera push-in on Boromir’s shield followed by a cut to Frodo wandering through ruins. As that cut is made the ring's theme starts. Starting the theme that soon can also be considered a bit of foreshadowing.

The ring theme continues as Boromir talks to Frodo. He is trying to come across as he cares about Frodo while trying to manipulate him, just as he is being manipulated by the allure of the ring.

This is a great example showing that the characters visibly present are not always the characters driving the emotion. Highlighting the musical theme of another character or outside force not seen can remind the audience who the boss really is.


Of course, there are times when both characters will have their theme played. This will require a subtle touch to keep it from sounding hokey. The scene should have a push-pull feel where both characters have equal power over the drama.

In this scene from Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker are having a back-and-forth conversation about good and evil. As Luke tells Vader that there is still good left in him and that’s why he couldn’t destroy him, he turns away and we hear a brief quote of Luke’s “force theme”. Luke earns his theme here because the drama is clearly shifted as we see Vader seems more conflicted and starts to open up about his feelings and even calls Luke “son”.

By the end of the scene, Darth Vader regains his position and sends Luke to the Emperor and we hear a version of Vader's Imperial March theme. The initial statement of the theme is much larger and more complete than Luke’s theme from earlier. This is because it’s the end of the scene and Vader has the upper hand. Still, as Luke is ushered away the music simmers down because Vader is still conflicted.

Having multiple musical themes in the same scene can be great and it's best to keep it subtle and brief, typically highlighting the character that takes the upper hand.


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