James Horner Music Analysis Essay

Modulation is one the most important dramatic devices we film composers have in our toolbox. We can use modulation to increase the intensity of a scene, to propel the audience into a new frame of mind, and to get a lot of mileage out of a single theme.

In this article we’re going to take an in-depth look at how an James Horner uses modulation to bring out the significant shifts in a story.

Key Takeaways

As we analyze a cue of James Horner’s classic score from Braveheart, I’ll keep coming back to two core ideas. They both deserve much more detailed discussion, but for now here’s a general summary.

1. Chords from outside the key have a heightened sense of major or minor. In other words, a non-diatonic major chord feels more “major” and a non-diatonic minor chord feels more “minor”.

Here’s a quick examples. We have a little melody harmonized with diatonic chords. The melody note E is accompanied by an A major chord and it feels nice and happy.


But listen to what happens if instead we change the chord to C, a non-diatonic major triad:

The C chord feels far more uplifting, and in a weird way it even feels more “major”. Obviously a C major triad is just as “major” as an A major triad, but because it’s coming at us from outside the key the character of the chord is heightened.

2. There is a difference between a hit and a shift. A hit marks a specific moment as significant, such as a powerful action or an important line. A shift on the other hand, marks an entire change in the mood and character of the scene.

While a hit lasts for a moment, a shift can last for an entire cue. When you are able to back up and think about the major shifts in your cue you begin to have more control over the direction of the story.

Braveheart – They Will Never Take Our Freedom

In this clip from Braveheart, James Horner modulates three times. He starts in A Mixolydian, modulates to D Major, moves to D Dorian (the parallel minor with a raised 6th degree), and then brings it back to D Major.

Watch the clip first and then we’ll get into a deep analysis of Horner’s masterful use of modulation.

Opening – A Mixolydian

The beginning of the clip is A Mixolydian. Although you could make the case that this is just an elaborated A7 chord to prepare for the upcoming D Major, it is so long that you feel like A is the tonic. If the cue ended after 20 seconds on the pitch A it would not feel unresolved, which it would feel if we ended on a dominant chord.

Mixolydian is a great mode to use when you want a generally positive feeling but find that the raised 7th of Ionian (traditional major) feels just too darn happy. The b7 degree adds a sense of neutrality and softness.

Modulation #1 – A Mixolydian to D Major “Sons of Scotland”

The first modulation comes at :30 when Wallace says “Sons of Scotland.” As we already noted, A Mixolydian is arguably just an A7 chord, or the dominant of D major. Thus a modulation to D feels incredibly natural and satisfying. We would expect it, and having our expectations met feels good!

We land without doubt on a solid D major chord immediately after the line, and D major has become our home key. The mood is much warmer and nobler to accompany Wallace’s sense of purpose.

Notice an important distinction with what’s happening here. Marking the line “Sons of Scotland” is a hit, but modulating to D major is a significant shift in mood. Horner could have just as easily hit the end of the line “Sons of Scotland” with an A major chord and kept the music humming along in the same key. It’s the modulation that carries the story forward.

Modulation #2 – D Major to D Dorian “In defiance of tyranny”

Our next modulation comes in at 1:00, under the line “..here in defiance of tyranny.” The modulation is a change from one key of D to another, and so to make the transition as smooth as possible Horner ends the D major section with a perfect cadence, holds nothing but the pitch D, and then introduces new material in the minor mode.

Moving from the major to the minor mode (ionian to dorian) gives us a much stronger sense of minor than simply using a diatonic minor chord from the key of D major. If we had just moved to B minor we would still feel the pull of D major.

It’s sadder, but not necessarily much more tragic.

Instead, a move to the parallel minor (in this case with raised 6th degree) feels like an actual change in mood, like things have taken a turn for the worst. It’s more than a hit, it’s a shift.

Also make sure to notice that the shift is accompanied with changes in orchestration and texture. All of these elements help us feel like we have moved to a different place in the story.

So why Dorian and not natural minor? One reason might be that the Dorian mode has a certain Scottish flair to it (often associated with Ireland, but the feel is similar). Another might be the very same reason to use Mixolydian instead of Ionian; the raised 6th makes Dorian a “softer” minor key. It needs to be sad, respectful and noble, but it’s not a funeral.

Modulation #3 – D Dorian to D Major “Run and you’ll live. At least a while.”

Our final modulation comes at 1:40 when Horner moves back to D major around 1:30, after the line “Run and you’ll live. At least a while.” William Wallace has reached the hearts of his audience and captured their attention. Seems like we’re due for a shift!

Yet again notice that the shift occurs after an authentic cadence. The minor “tyranny” section has come to a complete close before Horner makes a shift to the major feeling for the rousing speech. And just like before, he holds out the note D for a moment without any other pitch before moving into D major. It makes for a very smooth transition.

Modulation with an authentic cadence is not a requirement, and surely should be used on a case-by-case basis, but obviously we can see here that it’s quite an effective technique.

Lastly, notice that Horner has done the exact same thing as the previous modulation only in reverse. Before he moved from major to the parallel minor, which feels more “minor” by being non-diatonic. Now he’s gone from minor to the parallel major, thus feeling more “major” by being non-diatonic.

And why parallel? My best guess is that it’s extremely smooth. We get a significant shift in mood from major to minor to major, without actually pushing the energy or intensity into extremely new heights. A raise in a half step would feel like we all of a sudden had much more urgency (that’s a topic for another day!).

Where To Go From Here

  • Plan modulations into your cues. Zoom out your perspective and find the moments that are not just hits but actual distinct sections. You don’t have to modulate every single time (which would become tiresome if you did it too often), but you should at least consider a modulation every time you want to rouse a new feeling in your audience and push the story forward.
  • Expand your approach to include shifts, not just hits.
  • Take advantage of the heightened feeling of major or minor from non-diatonic chords, especially with the ways to use them for deceptive cadences and modulations.

Have a different interpretation of the Braveheart clip? Or want to share your tips and tricks for modulating from a film composer’s point of view? Let’s hear it in the comments!

“The music’s job is to get the audience so involved that they forget how the movie turns out,” Mr. Horner said in an interview on the James Horner Film Music website last November.

Mr. Horner’s refrains were soaring, though some called them soupy; he was credited with elevating movie orchestration to new heights, though a few critics complained that he would sometimes recycle his own works (or other composers’). His productivity, without dispute, was staggering.

“I do it at a desk with pen and paper,” he told The New York Times in 2000. “I don’t use a computer in writing at all. I’m sort of old-fashioned about it.”

A serious student of classical music, he also learned to accommodate Hollywood’s demands.

“I tend to write it and then let go emotionally,” he said in the Horner website interview. “I’ve learned that over the years I used to hang on to things, and it’s so dangerous because you’re in love with your bride, and then once it leaves your hands it goes through sound effects and mixing, and all the stuff you worked so hard on now is pushed down.

“Sometimes it ends up sounding great, and that’s what movies are about, but sometimes you work so hard on something, it gets so beat up by a film director about making every atom perfect and you hear it in the final mix, and you can’t hear any of that stuff,” he continued. “What was the point of getting beat up for a week to get that sequence perfect? It’s covered up by car crashes. It’s insane!”

James Roy Horner was born in Los Angeles on Aug. 14, 1953, the son of Harry Horner and the former Joan Frankel. His father was a set designer and art director who won Academy Awards for “The Heiress” in 1949 and “The Hustler” in 1961.

Raised in London, James started piano lessons when he was 5 and trained at the Royal College of Music. After moving back to California in the 1970s, he received a bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Southern California and a master’s and a doctorate, in music composition and theory, from U.C.L.A.

“My tastes went all over the place, from Strauss to Mahler,” he recalled in the website interview. “I was never a big Wagner or Tchaikovsky fan. Benjamin Britten, Tallis, all the early English Medieval music, Prokofiev, some Russian composers, mostly the people that were the colorists, the French.”

He is survived by his wife, Sara, and their daughters, Emily and Becky.

Mr. Horner began scoring student projects for the American Film Institute in the late 1970s. That led to work on low-budget movies for the producer and director Roger Corman and on “The Lady in Red,” a 1979 gangster film set in the 1930s. His breakthrough was “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982), after its director, Nicholas Meyer, said the studio could no longer afford Jerry Goldsmith, who had scored the first “Star Trek” film. Mr. Horner went on to score “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock” as well.

He received his first Academy Award nominations in 1986 — for best original score, for “Aliens,” and, with two co-writers, for best original song, “Somewhere Out There,” from the animated feature “An American Tail.”

Nominated 10 times, he won two Oscars, both in 1997, for his work on “Titanic” — for best original dramatic score and, with Will Jennings, who wrote the lyrics, for best original song, “My Heart Will Go On.”

Mr. Horner and Mr. Jennings also won three Grammy Awards and two Golden Globe Awards for the soundtrack and the song, sung by Celine Dion, whose recording of it became a huge hit and earned her a Grammy as well.

“Steep yourself in the footage,” Mr. Cameron suggested to Mr. Horner during the making of “Titanic.” “Crack the melody, and it doesn’t matter whether you play it on solo piano, it’ll work.”

In the book “Titanic and the Making of James Cameron,” Paula Parisi wrote that three weeks later, having decided on Celtic instrumentation to reflect the ship’s origin and manifest — it was built in Belfast and carried hundreds of Irish people, mostly in steerage — Mr. Horner “invited Cameron out to his studio and with no preamble launched into the ‘Titanic’ theme on his piano.”

“Cameron’s eyes were tearing up by the time Horner finished,” Ms. Parisi wrote. “The music was everything he had hoped and prayed it would be, gliding from intimacy to grandeur to heart-wringing sadness. Effortless, the music seemed to bridge the 85 years between then and now.”

In the 2000 interview with The Times, Mr. Horner singled out his score for the animated film “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” in discussing some of his compositional methods.

“If the music is too emphatic and emotional, it might drown the comedy,” he said. “But if the music is toned down too much, the scene might not give the audience the emotional catharsis it wants from the climax.

“It’s like being a tightrope walker with one foot in the air at all times,” he added.

“When it makes me cry, then I know I’ve nailed it,” he said. “I can’t do any better.”

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Correction: June 25, 2015

An obituary in some editions on Wednesday about the composer James Horner misstated the number of Grammy Awards he won. It was six, not five.

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