Hollywood Sound: Simple Action Scene

A number of the action films coming out of Hollywood today have orchestral action music as a background music. This music is generally built on fairly simple repetitive elements layered to create a rich sound. Perhaps the easiest way to demonstrate this is an example.

We start the first example with strings. The element is two bars in length, but basically a series of running 16th notes. We then add percussion, timpani and a snare drum - although for a full sound we'd probably want to add a bass drum, and tom toms in the final mix. I added the timpani at bar 3 and snare drum at bar 5 to create a longer build. The accents in the percussion are different than in the strings, creating a syncopated pulse in the music.

The third layer is the melody. This particular one is pretty cheesy, but demonstrates the concept. The brass play pretty much in unison octaves, with only a coloring of harmony. The more elaborate the harmony, the more dense the music and the less effective it is at creating the simple background tension for an action scene. Again, the stresses of the brass are different (but not completely) from the percussion. This creates three different layers of sound and rhythm. The repetitive nature of the music means it can repeat again and again maintaining the tension for the action sequence.

If you want to heighten the tension add some woodwinds on sustains, lower strings (taking the part of the lower brass)and doubling the upper strings (either down or up and octave). Adding octaves and enrich the music without making it muddy or dense. Another way to add tension would be to transpose the music up a semi-tone or two.

A second variation to this simple background action theme is to accent the strings a bit differently. In this example, rather than a shimmering effect with the strings bowing twice each bar with the movement of the notes created by fingering or shifting between two strings, this second option has the bow shifting direction between each note - and, except for the first note, all the notes are the same pitch.

The timpani has a slightly different rhythm as well, but the snare drum can stay the same.

Then the brass adds the final layer with a much slower melody this time. I included the entire collection of instruments as the strings make a slight adjustment in the fourth bar of the phrase playing an E-flat for the first note rather than the E-natural they would typically play in the 2 bar series. This keeps the notes more in line with what the brass are doing harmonically.

These very simple themes would be modulated and developed so they didn't just repeat over and over again through a scene - but they are the core bits of music an action scene could be built from. The key is to use multiple layers, but to keep it simple in terms of harmonic movement and depth. It should be repetitive to create a sense of always moving, but not necessarily going anywhere specific (the audience doesn't know where the scene will end, so the music should give the same impression).

Harmonically, the layers start on the tonic and end with a dominant 7, leading back to the dominant - to start all over again. Certainly other forms of leading chords can be used, but it should lead in a circular motion.

For those films that have more modern (pop) sounding background music, the elements are very similar, only the instruments have changed. So, once you've grasped this concept using orchestral instruments, try doing the same thing using synths, drums and guitars.

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