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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Musing Pictures: Tower Heist

I recall 9th grade Jazz Band, the day we were so excited to get the sheet music to Lalo Schifrin's classic "Mission: Impossible" theme. Where a classical score might instruct the musician to play slowly or quickly, gently or harshly, Schifrin's score had a different instruction: "Driving".

We quickly learned the perils of 5/4 time. As listeners, it pulled us along. As players, it caught us off-guard. In both cases, we were used to the cyclical feeling of most popular music, wherein it comes in bursts of three or four (or six or eight) beats. Music in 5/4 is sneaky. You get to the fourth beat and expect a new phrase or musical moment to begin or repeat, but it doesn't. There's an extra beat that throws us off the musical trail, and only then does the next phrase or expression begin. Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" is another well known piece in 5/4 time. Five beats to the measure instead of four.

On screen, I find the effect mesmerizing. The music is at once aggressive, forcing its way past the expected starts and stops, and at the same time, elusive, hard to pin down. In "Tower Heist", the theme by Christophe Beck comes at us in 7/4 time, an even more complex extension of the 5/4 effect. In both cases, the music seems to infuse its visual element with momentum and determination. 5/4 doesn't stop at 4, but goes on to a 5th beat. 7/8 doesn't settle at 8 beats, but jumps to a new down-beat after just 7. This propulsive effect of 5/4 and 7/8 music makes it (to my mind) particularly effective in soundtracks and scores. And since the music is hard to "pin down", it becomes easier, to an extent, to allow the music to dissolve in to the scene, even if it's loud, blaring and brass-heavy (like that of "Tower Heist").

I don't know of many films with themes or scores that rely on 5/4, 7/8 or other unusual time signatures. If you know of more, please mention them in a comment here!

-AzS