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The iconic riffs of film music


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I was listening to Rod Stewart's Maggie May on the radio yesterday and as the instantly recognisable guitar riff kicked in at the end of the song I immediately began thinking of how the iconic nature of its sound, its subconsciously memorable aesthetic, applies to film music. I'm not talking about whole themes and entire cues of famous movie music, but rather like the thread title states - the incidental "riffs" of a certain cue which at their time of recording were just ancillary melody and texture acting as complimentary highlights within the greater cue and score. Sometimes they may have become strikingly noticeable by design, or perhaps it was just the naturally satisfying depth of orchestration which gave the essentially short musical signal its legs.

I'm thinking along the lines of something like the ostinato motor rhythm of Superman, or the whirling hypnotism of Vertigo's Prelude flutes; two instantly recognisable and arguably iconic signatures of the medium. Those two in particular have also just gotten me thinking about whether their shared repetition in terms of construction plays a part in their eventual fame, it certainly seems likely. But I'm sure there are other examples of score riffs which don't adhere to the same musical design, standing out perhaps for more unconventional or seemingly unlikely reasons.

Any examples to share?

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I was listening to Rod Stewart's Maggie May on the radio yesterday and as the instantly recognisable guitar riff kicked in at the end of the song I immediately began thinking of how the iconic nature

The opening rhythm from Bernstein's theme for The Magnificent Seven. As trailer music goes, the guitar riff from Led Zep's Kashmir!

I'm not sure about "unconventional or... unlikely", but here's one "riff" that you should be intimately aware of, Quint: the main title from "Jaws". Apart from The Shower Scene, it's the most iconic piece of film music ever composed. It's interesting that you compare film music to rock music, with its riffs ,and hooks. I shall listen for more film music riffs in future.

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Aye it is. Another one I'd say is the bridge in E.T.'s flying theme. The wonderous horns have a warmth to them which encapsulate the spirit of the piece perfectly I think, and yet they are but three short notes in the middle of that most famous of themes. But the texture and progression of that short line is probably just as well known as those broader sweeping strings which bookend it.

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Hmm, do you mean the actual theme? That's not really what I mean't. But you did inadvertently remind me of another - Big Country's hugely famous strings intro; a riff which is perhaps even more instantly recognisable than the actual theme itself, which is also played by the strings section.

Lee - who thought this would be a lot easier to list 'em off than it is.

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Hmm, do you mean the actual theme? That's not really what I mean't. But you did inadvertently remind me of another - Big Country's hugely famous strings intro; a riff which is perhaps even more instantly recognisable than the actual theme itself, which is also played by the strings section.

Lee - who thought this would be a lot easier to list 'em off than it is.

No the intro, the fanfarish gallop.

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That amazing brass "duuuDUH!" when Jaws first reveals itself to Brody on the boat. One of the most iconic moments in the score and lasts for less than a second. Also the spooky string tremoloes that immediately follow -- as Brody says you-know-what -- would also count, I think.

The whirling bridge on strings/celesta after the opening statement of "Hedwig's Theme" comes to mind. I think it only appears that one time in the concert piece, and hardly at all in the score, but it's as memorable and essential as anything else.

There's a repeating ostinato in Catch Me If You Can that is mostly just used to introduce/support "The Float" theme, but it's used so often that it's possibly the most readily identifiable thing in the score for me:

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Big Country's hugely famous strings intro; a riff which is perhaps even more instantly recognisable than the actual theme itself, which is also played by the strings section.

That's a good one. Which reminds me, the opening riff of "Point of No Return" from Back to the Future: Part III is vaguely reminiscent of that, starting in high strings and then switching to piano. One of Silvestri's finest moments -

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VidNiRREd5U

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I get what you're after, Quint. Too many people are singling out short expressions of major themes; you're looking for secondary iterations that stand alone, part of the original "framework" of a piece that were never designed to become iconic—and yet they have, because of the moment they underscore in the film or just through the gradual patina of repetition. We all know the themes and their every variation forward and backward, but I think this makes for a much more interesting (and challenging) question, because these sorts of "riffs" are harder to pin down.

The echoing, fading trumpets that pervade Goldsmith's Patton, for instance, don't qualify because they're a central and very intentional effect accompanying the main theme. They sound "riffy" 'n' all (almost an obstinate ostinato, even), but that's not the point. Theyr'e iconic because they're supposed to be. We're hunting for the unintentional textures that have transcended their original purpose. So far, I think mrbellamy's reference from BTTF III strikes closest to the mark.

I've had to wrack my brain (really) to come up with a few myself. Here's what I've dug up so far:

- The quiet, building, six-note steps that open "Battle in the Mutara Nebula" from Star Trek II. (I'd probably also include the rhythmically-excited high strings in the section that follows.)

- The trumpet fanfare as Ben Kenobi introduces Luke to "Mos Eisley."

- Or what about curious, understated electronic tones that emerge from the silence whenever David Lightman comes across an interesting discovery in WarGames? I can't hear those without instantly associating them with that movie.

But the clear winner—at least in my mind—is a towering classic:

- The virtuoso trumpets riffing themselves silly as Indy runs ahead of the boulder in the Peruvian temple.

This subject brought another interesting thought to mind: a few composers actually use specific non-thematic riffs in more than one of their scores. I don't have to tell anyone here there's no one who does this more prominently or frequently than James Horner, who's practically built a career out of mix-and-match riffing. Then there's Jerry Goldsmith, who turned a four-note motif (featured in "A Busy Man" in Star Trek V) into a constantly-riffed highlight in the Next Generation films. But is any of this really so bad? After all, we expect to hear a certain sound from the rock bands we listen to. We like them because of the way their lead guitarist lays into his axe, even if just about every solo sounds the same (Van Halen, anyone. . . ?).

Anyway, it's an excellent topic, Quint. Makes for good discussion fodder. Well done.

- Uni

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Uni! You're back - and by god you're absolutely bang on the money!

Thanks for contributing (and returning). The War Games example, whilst not actually being all that iconic, is appreciated for the fact that it is at least known to score fans and to folk who remember that cult movie with a certain fondness.

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How about the buildup before Indy's theme in "The Fast Streets of Shanghai"? does that count?

That brings up a good point. How many of these snippets that we would identify here as "riffs" are simply buildups to expressions of main or secondary themes? Is it fair to say that we love these composers not just for their primary motifs, but also (and just as much) for the magnificent flourishes they perform in setting up those motifs?

- Uni

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More licks than riffs, but I was watching Home Alone last night with the family, and I noticed a couple instances in the burglary sequence that might qualify for this, or at least go along the lines of tiny musical ideas/phrases that -- for whatever reason -- immediately leave a strong impression with me.

The opening clarinet (as Marv peeks his head through the doorflap) and 1:01, the flute (as Harry is trying to scramble his way up the icy stairs)

0:09-0:21, the three high, whiny string glides (as Marv slowly walks through the basement)

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First Ren returning then you? Are all the evils of the world going to be undone?

Nope. We've just decided we'd rather weather them here with you guys, that's all. :peepwall:

And it's good to see you again, too. Funny how, no matter how long I'm away, things stay pretty much the same in this place. (Which is one of its greatest comforts, incidentally.)

Your comments on Prometheus caught my eye. I'm getting ready to uncork another big post, on that thread and on that subject. Wait for it. . . .

- Uni

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