Music for Heroes

Luis Andrei Cobo | New York | November 2019

I’ve always been a fan of film music. Ever since I saw Star Wars at age 4 where I was transfixed by the lush score that John Williams composed, I could not get enough of film scores and immersed myself in them as deeply as I could after that. I cannot watch a movie without listening intently to the score. Many an otherwise good movie has been ruined for me by a score that failed to provide service to the film; while occasionally a score carries an otherwise mediocre film into greatness simply by bringing scenes to life. It’s a fine and delicate art, practiced by some of the most talented composers and of course some not-so-talented ones.

Some of the best film scores make use of the 19th century idea of the Leitmotif. Championed by opera composer Richard Wagner, the leitmotif is a short musical idea or theme that is used and reused over the course of an opera or other programmatic work that is assigned to a fixed concept. For example, in Wagner’s Siegfried, the third opera in the vast Das Ring Der Nibelungen tetralogy, several motifs are used to describe the hero and titular character Siegfried (Fig 1). Some describe his horn call, others describe his anger or his mission, yet one describes him directly. It’s this motif that is the subject of this exploration into film music:


Fig 1: Siegfried’s leitmotif (Siegfried, Richard Wagner)

This motif serves to express the heroism and strength of character that is Siegfried. Since its inception, almost every movie that has a notion of a hero or superhero uses an element from this theme. The first two chords in this motif are C Minor followed by A-flat Major (Fig 2). These two chords are, in music theory terminology, the i and the VI chord.


Fig 2: the i and VI chord outlined by the Siegfried leitmotif

To understand what makes this particular chord combination special and appropriate as a heroic motif let us first define the term “hero”. During my lecture on this topic, I posed the question “What is a Hero?” to the class and my colleague, pianist Tamami Honma offered this definition:

“Someone who rises above a situation to solve a problem”.

Considering this definition, dissecting these harmonies may provide a clue as to their effectiveness. In a natural minor scale, the following notes are present:


Fig 3: Natural minor scale and the relative harmonies

In the tonic triad (Fig 2 – i), there are three notes: C, E-flat and G. The VI chord extends the harmony by rising above the tonic triad by a single half-step to A-flat. This very simple motion pivots from a dark tonic to a bright VI chord, signifying elevation, or a “rising above” if you will, to solve the problem of darkness by adding the light. What is also special about the relationship between i and VI is that they share two out of the three notes in their respective triads – in the case of C Minor, the C and the E-flat appear in both. The only difference is the G and the A-Flat. When you compare this to the natural minor scale (Fig 3), it is the relationship of the G to the A-flat that signifies the extending, the rising above the tonic, to get to the brighter VI chord.

Richard Strauss, in his 1909 opera Elektra, which also makes use of leitmotifs, has such a moment. Orestes, the long lost brother of Elektra returns to exact revenge, much to the delight of Elektra. At the moment of his arrival, Strauss provides a leitmotif in the form of low brass chords (Fig 4). Throughout the rest of the opera, whenever Orestes is talking about his destiny and the path he must walk to overcome the treachery of his past, Strauss intertwines this leitmotif into the music.


Fig 4: Orestes’ leitmotif (Elektra, Richard Strauss)

One of the most obvious examples of this in the world of film scores is from the 1999 blockbuster film The Matrix, with Don Davis providing the lush and thrilling score. The opening sequence draws the audience into the movie with an oscillating sequence of harmonies (Fig 5).


Fig 5: Main Titles excerpt from The Matrix. (Don Davis. ©Warner Bros. Entertainment, 1999)

This oscillation between the dark and the light is indicative of the ambiguity of the hero of the film, Neo. Neo, aka Thomas Anderson, struggles with accepting his particular role not only as a person displaced by a post-apocalyptic world, but also the prophecy that he is, in fact, the one that will fulfill the destiny of ending the war with the machines. Moreover, Neo’s raw potential to exceed all known abilities prescribes that a melodic theme is not necessary and simply these harmonies are sufficient. The color of the horns and trumpets intertwining their respective crescendos and diminuendos harkens those air raid sirens of WWII, drawing the listener into conflict immediately as the movie begins. As you watch through the film you will notice that whenever Neo (or Trinity) does something particularly heroic or seemingly supernatural, these two oscillating chords appear in the score.

Recently, there has been a flurry of films coming from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Most notably, The Avengers, has a theme by Alan Silvestri that exemplifies this pattern quite well (Fig 6).


Fig 6: Avengers motif (Alan Silvestri. ©Marvel Studios)

While this motif serves as a classic example of the i-VI paradigm, what is of particular interest is the third harmony – the move from C Major (VI) to the A Major chord. Relative to the tonic, in this case, E Minor, A Major is IV . From the context of the notion of rising above, the IV chord in a minor key raises the fifth (B) not only a half-step to C but a whole-step to C#. Alternatively, if we were to consider the relationship of A Major to C Major (the previous VI chord), we can ascertain that A, in the key of C, is also VI. Ergo, the progression here is i -> VI -> VI/VI; a doubling down on the “rising above” concept to emphasize the absolutely powerful abilities of the Avengers themselves. After all, the Avengers take on universe-ending catastrophes and emerge victorious. Why should they not, therefore, have a theme that takes them higher still than the ordinary hero?

Of course, the Avengers weren’t the first to have this concept applied to their theme. Monty Norman, in 1961, penned the James Bond theme which has become the quintessential theme synonymous with spy movies (Fig 7). What is particularly ambiguous in this example is that the shift from VI to the next harmony can be interpreted in several ways. However, what is important to note is the movement of the B to a C and then to the C# as in the previous example. James Bond was a superspy, but not without his dark side. He, like the Avengers, stopped world-ending calamities and larger-than-life villains from wreaking havoc, but had his own complexities and humanity to contend with.


Fig 7. James Bond theme introduction (Monty Norman ©Danjaq S.A.)

In 2006, the film Casino Royale, another in the long line of James Bond films was released with a score by David Arnold. Staying true to the original idea illustrated above and the various themes by both Arnold and songwriter Chris Cornell, who collaborated with Arnold on the opening song You know my name, all of the themes within the movie follow the ubiquitous i-VI-IV pattern (Fig 8). Note the inner voice in the supporting harmony outlines the same 4 notes that are present in the original Monty Norman theme.


Fig 8. Casino Royale excerpt. (David Arnold ©Sony Classical)

A few more examples of this pattern i-VI-IV can be found in the themes of Thor 2: The Dark World, Iron Man 3, Green Lantern: First Light, The Highlander, and Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles. All of these movies or TV shows represent heroes that go beyond any measure of the abilities of a common man.

Interestingly, Superman, the most indestructible and purely good hero does not get the i-VI in music to define his character; at least, in all of the incarnations up until the Zach Snyder’s film Man of Steel. One of the important characteristics of heroism as per this treatise is the need to rise above the darkness. Often, this means the Hero’s own human darkness as well. In much of the early comics, TV shows and the original films about Superman in the late 70’s and 80’s, Superman had little darkness to his personality. His powers were so insurmountable by all that any darkness would have made him a formidable concern. Instead, his personality radiated light and he always did the right things. Superman’s theme, as per John Williams, does not get the dark-light motif. Instead, his music is brightly C Major that shifts to an F Major 11th chord at its peak; the theme itself, however, interestingly also makes use of the 6th note of the scale (Fig 9) at the peak of the line. Even this subtle motion in the line demonstrates the idea of rising above the tonic chord.


Fig 9: Superman theme excerpt (John Williams ©Warner Bros. Records)

In contrast, the film Man of Steel illustrates a far more complex character that is Superman. Superman endures, firstly, a difficult adolescence where he had to contend with bullies. This theme, which appears several times in the film, paired with a scene which shows him exacting revenge on a bully, makes him more human, giving Superman ample fuel to exercise some of his darker impulses. This character is more complex than the Richard Donner version of Superman, and [SPOILER] even includes a moment where Superman, uncharacteristically, is forced to kill his enemy, which subsequently destroys his innocence. Hans Zimmer gives us a glimpse into the complexity of this Superman by opening the movie with the i-VI chords (Fig 10). This motif of i-VI appears several times throughout the film, notably when young Clark Kent rescues his classmates, and when he takes his first flight as Superman, at which time we are introduced to a new theme which also follows the i-VI-IV paradigm!


Fig 10: Man of Steel opening chords (Hans Zimmer ©Warner Bros Entertainment)

John Williams rarely uses the i-VI paradigm in his heroic themes. The most notable place where i-VI appears in Williams’ canon is during the film Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. At the point in the movie when Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi fight their long foreshadowed battle, the music in this scene is supported by an oscillating ostinato of i-VI (Fig 11), shifting through various keys. What makes this moment particularly amusing is that the name of the cue is “Battle of the Heroes”. The battle shows a balanced match between the two combatants, one who represents the light side of the force and the other the dark. It is no wonder, then, that the music should oscillate in this way, creating a sense of both ambiguity and balance.


Fig 11: Battle of the Heroes ostinato (John Williams ©LucasFilm Ltd.)

The examples provided here serve to show how the i-VI paradigm illustrates heroism. Circling back to the definition that a hero is “someone who rises above a situation to solve a problem”, what is important to consider is what kind of problem the heroes are often tasked to solve. In the case of Neo in the Matrix, he is there to prevent the extinction of mankind by the hand of the machines; James Bond continuously saves the world from catastrophe; The Avengers defeat world-ending villains like Ultron and Thanos; Superman saves the world time and again from nuclear holocaust (1978) and Zod’s world building/destroying machine (2013). The common element in almost every case of heroism depicted in this way is that the heroes must prevent both themselves and others from untimely death.

Even Wagner’s Siegfried was tasked to save Brünnhilde from a fire-breathing dragon Fafner, without getting killed in the process. At one point Brünnhilde seeks to warn Siegfried that should he try to rescue her, he will most surely die. Interestingly enough, the music here also uses the i-VI paradigm, this time not to express heroism directly, but to allude to the death-defying acts the hero must perform. The motif is called the ‘Annunciation of Death’ (Fig 12) and first appears in Die Walküre, but is used several times to warn of the coming of death.


Fig 12: Annunciation of Death motif. (Die Walküre, Richard Wagner)

Wagner’s use of the i-VI is not the first time nor the last that such a progression was used to illustrate death. In 1839, Chopin composed his second Piano Sonata which contains the now famous Funeral March (Fig 13). The oscillating harmonies present are none other than i-VI in the key of B-flat Minor. This may not even be the first example of this usage but it is considered that the era of Romanticism heralds the start of the programmatic music, or, the idea that music can move beyond concrete forms like the Sonata and into the realm of telling stories through music. While the Funeral March of Chopin is not, in and of itself, programmatic music, it certainly conjures an image of a slow procession akin to those traditional to Funerals.


Fig 13: Marche Funebre (Piano Sonata no. 2 Op. 35, Frederic Chopin, 1839)

Applying this to film, examples can be found everywhere. The most recent and compelling example being the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War. A ravaged Asgardian ship heralds the arrival of Thanos, the quintessential personification of Death in the Marvel canon. The ominous music (Fig 14) outlines the i-VI motif but in reverse! While a hero would rise above the darkness, a villain such as Thanos would aim to plunge his victims into darkness. Alan Silvestri uses VI-i in this case and the effect is profound.


Fig 14: Thanos destroys the Asgardian refugee vessel (Avengers: Infinity War, Alan Silvestri ©Marvel Studios)

In another famous and shining example of this, Howard Shore composed the music to accompany the scene where Gandalf falls into the abyss and Khazad-Dûm. Ostensibly having met his woeful end, the music shifts to a choir singing a lament while Gandalf’s friends mourn, in what is one of the most riveting moments in the film Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the ring. What is particularly interesting about this example is not only the use of i-VI, but the subsequent use of the VI-I motion (Amen) (Fig 15), giving the entire moment a sad yet reverent tone that is fitting for the wise and kind Gandalf the Grey.


Fig 15: Gandalf’s fall into the abyss (Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Howard Shore ©Warner Music Group)

Some other notable examples include the Lament from Evita by Andrew Lloyd Webber – which serves as Evita’s final words before she dies – and Isle of the Dead by Sergei Rachmaninoff, which, based on the Arnold Böklin painting of the same name, uses the i-VI paradigm in a mixed meter ostinato to create musical illustration of Charon’s boat crossing the river Styx. Even Darth Vader’s theme is i-vi (the minor 6) as Darth Vader is a hero who turned to darkness only to eventually be redeemed.

What has become clear is that i-VI has a very special place in the music of our time. It holds with it the promise of salvation or the ponderous weight of death that surrounds us at all times. Perhaps it was Chopin, or perhaps someone long ago, who discovered this two chord combination and since then we’ve not been able to find a better way to express these qualities in musical form; and why should we? It is clearly effective – the darkness rising to the light, but contextually could also signify the rising of our spirit above the darkness of our lives. These images have been extolled in many stories and within the vast majority of those, the music behind them has had the same motif. This cannot be an accident.

In all, I have personally cataloged 60 examples of i-VI in cinema, and half a dozen in opera from important and obvious places like The Avengers and Batman movies, to subtler and curious places like First Blood and Resident Evil. Among all of them, I believe the most beautiful comes in the M. Night Shyamalan film The Village. The soundtrack overall is lush and emotionally charged, but the only time in the entire film when the music shifts to i-VI is when Lucius rescues Ivy from a creature just inches away. The tense soundtrack of the frightened villagers and the ominous threat gives way to a return of the violin soloist in a new melody that uses the i-VI to demonstrate the bravery of Lucius and the love he has for Ivy. The track name is Those we don’t speak of and is worth listening to for just how effective this moment is.

Evil and Good. Darkness and light. Death and Heroism. However you may consider it, the i-VI progression is but two chords that hold with them the deepest meaning and allow composers to tell stories about what it means to be human, and the transcendence of the darkness around us and within us.

Would i-VI tell your story, I wonder?

About the Author: Composer, Luis Andrei Cobo, a native of New York City, has had a passion for music since he saw the movie Star Wars at age 4, which was also when he started taking piano lessons. Following a deep and abiding love of film scores, Cobo has been composing music since the age of 12. Having written music for a variety of media including a number of orchestral works, his passion lies heavily in setting poetry to music. In 1990 he was admitted to Manhattan School of Music as a composition student and won the Absolut Vodka Composers Award. Completing both his B.M and M.M., he studied with David Noon, Aaron Jay Kernis, Richard Danielpour and Giampaolo Bracali (whose sudden passing in 2006 inspired the work The Disarrange, for Soprano, Cello and Piano with poetry of Jennifer Michael Hecht which was performed at his memorial concert in NYC), and gained a profound understanding of technology while studying electronic music with the late Elias Tanenbaum. In 1996 Cobo was the recipient of the Concert Artist’s Guild Composers Award, which resulted in the commissioning of three chamber works: Prelude and Millennium for Oboe and String Quartet, Postlude for Baritone, Flute, Cello and Piano, and Personal Demons for piano trio. In 2005, he accidentally discovered the poetry of Jennifer Michael Hecht while searching for new poets online and has since set 5 of her poems. In 2017, in collaboration with pianist Tamami Honma and the Cambrian Symphony Orchestra, a piano concerto was born which went on to garner two Best of the Bay awards for new music for that season. Subsequent collaborations with Tamami Honma have yielded several short piano works and a song cycle which was premiered by the Cal Arte Ensemble and soprano Heather Green. By day, Cobo works as a software engineer for large reputable companies. He is a single dad, living in Jersey City with his dog, Darwin, and is currently taking applications for the position of muse.