The Music of Villains

I work alone in my basement, mostly on tasks that leave my mind partially or entirely free. Accordingly, I need something to prevent the un-engaged part(s) of my mind from over-analyzing every second of my life since I was born.

I listen to stories. Not books on tape; that would require too much attention – I listen to visual media, playing my favourite movies and shows over and over. I know them by heart so my brain can tune in and out as required by whatever task I’m doing, and the familiar sound of my TV friends’ voices keep me company through the solitary hours. (Don’t get me wrong – I totally love my job, not least because it allows me to listen to stories all day long!)

So yes, I listen to the entire 20-hour Harry Potter movie saga about 8 times a year. I am a proud nerd. (Here’s my DVD shelf in my work/music room.)


Spending so much time listening to movies has given me a wonderful appreciation for the power of music in storytelling. In many cases I haven’t actually watched the on-screen action for years, and when I do occasionally look up at the screen for a few moments, I am usually disappointed. The scenes conjured in my imagination by the music are far more exciting and alive than anything Hollywood’s cinematography or CGI can produce.

When creating a score, composers write particular music for specific characters; the technical term is “leitmotif” or “light motif”. This musical motif may highlight an aspect of their personality, origin, emotional state, or other important qualities that help flesh out the character’s behaviour and role in the plot. The same motif will reoccur, sometimes in different variations, whenever the character plays a part in the action, or is feeling the same way they felt the first time the music was played. Composers will often hint at what is coming by reintroducing a motif before the character actually appears on the screen, or when other characters are talking about her/him. If you’re not obsessed with music like me you may not notice it, but your subconscious is taking it in and heightening your enjoyment of the story.

And what’s the best part of any tall tale? Usually, the villain! A well-developed antagonist is the cornerstone of most enduring stories, and my favourite villains usually become so as a result of great music that deepens my understanding of them.

Here are my top 5 favourite villain motifs, the best part of any soundtrack:

#5 The Goa’uld, from 90s sci-fi institution Stargate SG-1 (Joel Goldsmith)

I love 90s soundtracks! Their style is so distinct – cheesy and just a tiny bit rock ’n roll. This leitmotif is used across all 10 years of the show whenever the Goa’uld (galactic villains bent on total domination) come on the scene. Creepy descending string glissandi are used to let us know a scary dude with an inferiority complex has arrived, and the drums in the background convey the importance of his hierarchical relationship with his minions (of course this is all played through a synthesizer for that wonderful 90s flair).

#4 The Wolf, from Peter and the Wolf (Prokofiev)

This scared the living daylights out of me when I was a kid! The swelling cymbal roll behind the flickering semi-tone in the horns is perfectly calculated to give nightmares to kids of all ages.

#3 Darth Vader – the Imperial March (John Williams)

Effectively conjuring the fearful grandeur and might of Vader, the three repeated trombone notes that begin the theme are like a fanfare but also evoke some kind of alarm bell letting the listener know someone bad is coming. The snare drum lets us know he carries the authority of the military establishment, and the wild intervals of the motif give us a clue as to the emotional turmoil under that shiny black helmet.

#2 Professor Umbridge, from the Harry Potter franchise (John Williams)

This theme is just pure magic – the jumpy octaves in the bells and strings perfectly illustrate the fussy mid-50s Umbridge’s ridiculous way of attempting to carry herself like a girl – trying to be cute and sweet but actually ending up brash and heavy (hence the lumbering bass accompaniment), not fooling anyone as to the warty toad under the façade. This music is so incredibly annoying, just like Umbridge! The brass and string call-answer that follows is reminiscent of the circus, further ridiculing her behaviour. Prof. Umbridge is one the Harry Potter series’ best-drawn characters, and the combination of Imelda Staunton’s flawless portrayal and Williams’ leitmotif highlighting her most irritating character traits elates me every time I hear this film.

#1 The Orcs from Lord of the Rings (Howard Shore)

Probably partly cause I love anything in 5/4 meter, but the way this music evokes the dirty industrial character of the orcs is just perfect. The unsettling 5/4 pulse with the trombone theme played over it in an irregular timing makes it feel ferocious and grimy. The metallic pounding effect is achieved by hammering metal plates and jangling chains over the wires and soundboard of a piano (a method that might make pianists cringe, but what a cool sound!). The sound of these metal implements in the music helps the orcs’ weapons jump right off the screen; I can almost feel the rusty blades against my skin as I cringe in fear for the Fellowship of the Ring.

Music has been used in storytelling ever since the first tales were told. A few years ago in Scotland I had the pleasure of hearing Clan Maclean’s seanchaí (storyteller) tell the traditional tales of his clan at their family seat in Duarte Castle, and while he spoke he played a lap harp. It was magical!

As you continue to enjoy your favourite movies and shows, I invite you to notice the music and how it deepens your experience of the story, its characters and the settings.

At the Festival Wind Orchestra’s upcoming concert on June 2 we will be celebrating the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein, one of the 20th century’s most well-known musical storytellers. Bernstein composed a vast body of music, much of which was written for theatre and ballet. Our upcoming concert will feature a variety of his best-loved pieces, and we will bring the stories behind them alive for you.

Hope to see you there!


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