Back to the Future Analyzing a fantastic movie soundtrack (Part 1)

Introduction

You simply have to love this soundtrack from the 80s classic movie Back to the Future! Even if you’re not a child of the 80s, this soundtrack by Alan Silvestri stands out from the rest. In a series of articles I want to analyze parts of the theme music and deduct valuable lessons that you can use in your own songwriting. Let’s start with theme 1 and the opening fanfare in this article…

The first theme is rather short (from 0:00 to 0:28 in the YouTube video above). In this article I will talk about three interesting features:

  1. The fanfare
  2. The „rock move“
  3. The half cadence

 

But for starters it is worth to have a look at the usage and placement of this theme in relation to the movie…

Usage and placement of theme 1

Usually the first theme of a movie soundtrack is the main theme that people remember. Not in this instance. Although people certainly recognize the melody of theme 1 and it seems that Silvestri composed it as the main hook, it much more plays the role of a supporting second theme in the movie.

This peculiarity of the soundtrack might happen because of another very non-typical attribute of a movie soundtrack: the soundtrack does NOT play during the opening of the movie! In fact, the theme music does not appear until about 30 minutes (!) into the movie. Only when Marty gets into the DeLorean to escape from the terrorists, do we first hear this theme. This placement of the first appearance of the soundtrack has two huge effects: First, it enhances the impact of the music. If you didn’t hear any theme music for such a long time, you soak it up even more and perceive it with higher intensity. Second, it marks an important point in the plot of the movie. Marty moves from act 1 into act 2 of the three act structure – the car chase is his „call to adventure“ moment, where his ordinary life changes.

Of course there is another important reason the theme appears so late in the movie: a huge part of the soundtrack of „Back to the Future“ consists of pop/rock songs. The most notable are probably „Power of Love“ by Huey Lewis & The News and „Johnny B Goode“ by Chuck Berry. But other songs are just as rememberable (e.g. „Earth Angel“, „The Wallflower“ or „Back in Time“).

So let’s get going with the analysis of theme 1 now…

The fanfare pexels-photo-164703-2

The theme starts with a typical fanfare. This melodic move from the root over the fifth to the octave sounds quite heroic. The choice of intervals comes from early brass instruments, which could (for a lack of valves) only play natural intervals from the beginning of the overtone series. These first overtone intervals happen to be the fifth and the octave. Needless to say that a fanfare is most often played by brass instruments ;). You can hear it everywhere, such as in „Also sprach Zarathustra“.

To create this fanfare, simply play the root, the fifth and the octave above the root one after the other. In C major this would mean C, then G and finally the C an octave higher. And by the way: it’s the same for major and minor.

But almost any „melody“ consisting solely of fourth, fifth and octaves can make a great and heroic fanfare. Listen to the theme of Star Trek: The Next Generation for example: This fanfare (starting around 0:30 in the video) consists of fourth.

So we can summarize the recipe for a heroic fanfare as:

  1. Use only natural intervals (fourth, fifth and octave)
  2. Use horns or other brass instruments

 

If you need your song or parts of it to sound heroic, consider using a fanfare melody and maybe even play it with a brass instrument :).

The „rock move“

Look at the chord changes of the first theme:

C   Eb   F   C

C   Eb   F   G

(Chords of 1st theme. I simplified a little by omitting slash chords and transposing to C.)

Most of the chords are diatonic to the key of C major, only the Eb major does not fit. So where does it come from and why does it sound great?

I have three explanations for this chord. All three describe the same thing, but from different points of view.

Rock move

Using the major chord on the b3 step of the major scale is rather common in rock music (from its early ages until today). A million songs have been built on the simple changes C Eb F C. Although this move a minor third up from the tonic is most common in rock music, you can just as well find it in and thus apply it to any other genre. If you want to be mean, you could say, this progression comes from the fact that rock guitarists only know few chords and simply move them up on the fret board ;). But there are more sophisticated explanations to this progression…

Parallel minor

The Eb major chord is a chord of the parallel minor key of C major. Let’s take it step by step: The parallel minor key of a major key is that key, which a) has the same root as the major key and b) is minor. So to get the parallel minor key of C major, you simply have to build the (natural) minor scale on the root C. So you end up with C minor, which has three flats. Now you can find the relative major chord of C minor. The relative major chord/key of a minor chord/key is that key, which a) has the same accidentals as the minor key and b) is major. So the relative major chord of C minor is Eb major, which also has three flats. And voilá, we can explain the strange Eb chord in C major: it simply comes from the parallel minor key (or more explicitly: from the relative major of its parallel minor key).

Moving between parallel and relative minor keys sounds very convincing, so you can use it without any setup of a modulation. Only beware that relative keys share the same chords and accidentals, which might make the move between them totally imperceptible, unless you support it with a modulation cadence.

Circle of fifth

A third explanation for the effectiveness of this progression is to look at the circle of fifth. We begin in the key of C major, which has no accidentals at all. The progression then moves to the chord of Eb major, which – lacking a point of reference – we interpret as a tonic in the key of Eb major. This new key has three flats. This also means, that Eb major is three steps away from C major in the circle of fifth. As a listener we experience this „yanking“ into a far away key as „tension“ that needs to be resolved. The third chord F major then makes the previous Eb major and F major look like a subdominant and dominant chord in the key of Bb major. Or, if you want to interpret it differently, we could see F major as yet another tonic in the key of F major. In any case would the F major chord bring us closer to C major in the circle of fifth, because we now have two flats (for Bb major) or even just one flat (if we view F major as a tonic chord). Moving back to C major even gives the impression of F major being the subdominant in C major, which would mean no flats at all.

Viewed from this angle, it yanks us out of our key, only to gradually release the tension created by this move. This is a common technique in music. Think, for example, about how drum fills work: they „stumble“ and yank you out of the beat, only to gradually bring you back on the next „one“. Use this technique freely in your compositions to create interest and build arcs of tension. You can also watch my video on „Radio Gaga - building tension w/ functional harmony“ for another technique to create arcs of tension.

The half cadence

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The last feature of this theme I want to mention is the use of full and half cadences. The theme has a full (plagal) cadence in the middle and ends on a half cadence. So what are full and half cadences?

A cadence is simply a progression of chords ending a phrase. The term comes from the latin „cadere“ for felling or falling, so you can compare it to the „falling“ pitch of your voice at the end of a sentence. But of course you also know sentences that close by raising your pitch slightly, like in a question or when encountering a comma. And this is exactly what half and full cadences are: the half cadence is a comma or rhetoric question, while the full cadence is a period. They even have a similar effect as the interpunctation marks: the half cadence let’s the listen long form more, while the full cadence tells everyone, that the phrase finishes here.

A full cadence (the „period“) achieves this effect by releasing all tension and returning to the tonic. The half cadence (the „comma“ or „question mark“) achieves its effect by NOT releasing tension. In the example of the „Back to the Future“ theme here, the first phrase closes with the tonic (C), releasing all tension. The second phrase is almost the same, but it closes with the dominant (G), making it clear, that there will be more to follow. It’s almost like a rhetoric question with the promise to be answered in the second theme to follow.

Use cadences to your advantage to structure songs. Cadences clarify where phrases and sections end. And, like in „Back to the Future“, cadences can create tension to leave your listeners longing for the answer to follow.

Summary

Apart from the unconventional use and placement of the theme music in the classic movie „Back to the Future“, you learned a few aspects of the first theme, that you can apply to your own songwriting:

  • Use a fanfare to make anything sound heroic.
  • Freely use the „rock move“ as a basic progression for any song.
  • Use parallel minor keys for increased chord options.
  • Understand that jumping through the circle of fifth creates and releases tension
  • Use half and full cadences to structure your songs.

I hope there was something in there for you that you can apply right away to your next songwriting session. I will keep writing and tackle the (more complex) second theme in one of my next articles.

Meanwhile check out my YouTube channel and my other articles here.

 

Matthias Orgler

I play music on stages and in studios :). My passion is to help other musicians wherever I can. With www.gixtra.com I want to make gigging easier and with my "Real World Music Theory" series I want to make music theory fun to learn.

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