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!



I interact with scores of musicians on a daily basis. Even before my career at Long & McQuade, I encountered musicians from all lifestyles.

Musicians are more common than many people think, and this discrepancy is in part due to trouble defining the word. What is a musician? Does a musician make a living playing shows at a local venue? Is a musician one who is currently enrolled in a music-related degree or diploma program?

Yes, and more! A musician is anyone who engages with music and chooses to identify as one. From the eight year old piano student to the middle-aged mortgage broker who jams in his spare time, musicians are everywhere. Perhaps the most prevalent of them is the volunteer performer. As a musician, performance has always been the pinnacle of musical engagement for me, and I do this primarily in unpaid community-based ensembles.

Community Band 3

The benefits of performing in these types of groups are plentiful. Making music requires cooperation and connection – new ideas and projects come from the collaboration of two or more minds. Community ensembles usually have around 40 members, providing many opportunities for networking and planning new projects. They’re also ideal for people who work full time, as they don’t usually rehearse more than once or twice a week. Combine that with a generally laid-back atmosphere, and they’re a great way to unwind after a day at work.

Ainsley Lawson, President of the Rouge River Winds (formerly known as the UTSC Alumni and Community Concert Band), is a great example. Her musical journey began with a University of Toronto ensemble which eventually branched out to include alumni and local residents. In the seven years since the group’s beginnings, over 250 people have passed through, and several smaller performing groups have emerged as a direct result. By bringing together people who perform and practice for the love of it, she has helped to strengthen a community of musicians in the city. She’s also forged new friendships spanning generations via a love of music. Sound a bit corny? Perhaps, but the value of such an interaction has left a profoundly positive effect on the musicians involved.

Community Band 2

Community ensembles are fantastic because they benefit almost any type of musician. Haven’t played or sung since high school? A community band or choir is the perfect way to regain those chops. Similarly, gigging and professional musicians often find that community groups are a great way to maintain chops between heavier periods of playing. Even students who are considering graduate work in completely unrelated fields benefit from having ensemble experience on their applications.

If that isn’t enough to convince you, consider that many volunteer groups play at a semi-professional level and tour around the world. All of my international travel in the past seven years has been with an orchestra I belong to. Spending over a week in Shanghai and living as a musician was one the most memorable experiences of my life. Money didn’t seem to matter during a week full of performances with some of my favourite people, over 10,000 km away.

I like to encourage people to engage with music for as long as possible, and a community band or choir provides a reasonable, versatile solution for those on the fence. Regardless of skill, instrument choice or musical preferences, there are likely ensembles nearby that would love to have you as a new member. If there isn’t an ensemble nearby that suits your specific needs, consider creating a new group! All you need is a space to rehearse and people with a love of music (as well as someone brave enough to lead!)


I’ve been lucky to have a wealth of different musical experiences in my life. I have rehearsed, performed in festivals, given a solo recital, gigged in jazz combos, played in big bands, and conducted larger ensembles. This diversity has shaped my musical tastes and style, and it’s the bands I grew up playing in that allowed me to go on to these opportunities.

I encourage anyone who has been separated from music for a long time to dust off his or her old saxophone or trumpet. For me it will never be about money or fame, but about the music and the musicians who make it.