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Action music: gradual progression or steady level?

In films, music can scarcely take on a bigger job of enlivening a scene than when said scene features action. Without music, the firefights, punches, kicks or car chases seem bleak and pointless. True, there are noted exceptions where the absence of music adds a layer of grit and realism (such as in The French Connection), but for the most part the emotional contents of action music is essential to tie us to the characters’ inner turmoil amid the danger.

However, there are two distinct approaches: a gradual increase of tension, or a steady level of high pace and energy. Both have their merits, of course. Sometimes the scene itself will dictate which technique applies. But for the most part, it’s up to the composer’s own style. Most prefer one approach to the other.

Let’s take Jerry Goldsmith for instance. He was famous for his very distinctive action sound. His use of ostinatos and repeated short melodic lines with an inventive rhythmic figure is the stuff of legend. He is the epitome of the Steady technique. A perfect example (among so many) is the battle music of First Knight. At the onset of the action scene, Goldsmith charges in full tilt. Since he’s already got the pedal to the metal, a gradual increase is out of the question for him: he’s already at 100% and can’t go any higher. However, he sustains this 100% level of energy for the duration of the action scene, making listeners of the music (and viewers of the movie) feel breathless and drained by the end of it. Thus is the power of the Steady technique. Sure there’s no increase, but it leaves one saying: “Whoa that was intense.”

Of course, the Gradual technique needs no such analysis. Its power is evident. Each time you think a scene has climbed as high as it can go, it grows in intensity (and the music follows). Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis are masters of this kind of filmmaking, whereas James Horner is the composer who makes Gradual music his stock-and-trade. The track “The Ambush” from Clear and Present Danger is the perfect example.

Of course, these two techniques are not limited to action music. The same could be said about dramatic emotional scenes. Is it best to open up with a high level of emotion right off the bat and maintain it throughout? Or would a crescendo suit the scene best? Again, both are valid and it often depends on the qualifications of the composer.