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Why You Can't Forget That DUNE 2 Theme

Mar 16, 2024
Crafting an Unforgettable Melody
 
When you think of a Hans Zimmer score, you may not think of melodies at all.
 
Maybe you think about the powerful ostinatos and sequences in The Dark Knight. Or the layered orchestral textures in Inception. Or that catchy vocal riff and unique sound design from Dune, pt. 1.
 
I've seen it said many times that John Williams focuses on themes and melodies. In contrast, Hans Zimmer focuses on texture. A bit of a broad generalization but there's some truth to it.
 
So then, for Dune part 2, Hans decided to write....one of the most unshakable melodies in recent memory.
 
This is an analysis of the opening cue on the soundtrack, "Beginnings Are Such Delicate Times" if you'd like to listen along as we discuss it below.
 
It's certainly been stuck in my head since I saw the film last weekend, and it's a masterclass in melody writing.
 
The Theme (A Phrase)
 
This theme can be broken down into two primary sections. We'll start with this first part and call it the A Phrase.
 
It's performed with a lot of rhythmic freedom (rubato) so I don't know exactly how it's metered, but I've made this rough transcription that should give us the idea.
One of the first things we notice is that this A Phrase doesn't cover a very wide range. It's mostly stepwise motion or smaller intervals, like 3rds, 4ths, and 5ths.
The most memorable melodies are usually singable and this is one way to achieve that.
He's also saving the larger leaps for the B Phrase, but we'll get to that in a bit.
In the A Phrase everything is adheres to the key of A Major without venturing to any other key area. He's saving that too.
At first it's just the melody along with this A drone accompanying it. That's important - great melodies stand on their own. This also gives Zimmer a lot of options for variation depending on how he chooses to harmonize the melody at various point throughout the film.
When this A Phrase repeats, he provides a simple harmonization underneath it. But he still doesn't stray away from the key area. At least not yet.
So he doesn't tip his hand. He doesn't get nervous because he's stayed in the same place too long. He has the confidence to be still.
This makes the melody feel honest. There's no pretense here.
As composers we often get in our own heads. We think we need to run away from simple things and do something "interesting." In my case that's born out of insecurity when I know the existing material isn't strong enough.
Simple things can still be well crafted things. In fact, they're often harder to get right. When you're this exposed - much like in sand walking - one false step can ruin all you've done so far.
It's worth pointing out that this is performed on two really expressive instruments - the Duduk and the Cello (electric cello from Tina Guo in this case ). Later the powerful synth supersaws join in, and at the end of the film it's sung with female vocals.
But the thing also works incredibly well on piano (I tried it).
This is important because a well-crafted melody can stand up to almost any instrumentation. The ingredients for memorability are all here, it just depends on what flavor Zimmer wants to stay on our palette long after we've left the theater.
The Theme (B Phrase)
Now on to my favorite part of this melody, the B Phrase.
 
We can quickly see that we're in a new place. The melody not only shifts higher, it also starts this B Phrase with the largest leap yet - a minor 7th.
Uh oh. We've been adhering to A Major, but immediately we leaped away to a G natural, which doesn't "belong" in A Major. So he lets us know right away that we're in new territory now.
For theory nerds, it's a bit like a secondary dominant. A7 is now dominant in the key of D. But he returns to AM again, which we still sort of see as Tonic from the A phrase. So, it's a bit obscure.
Then he reharmonizes this for the climax and reveals that we're not really in DM but perhaps instead its relative minor - bm.
Ok, that's enough of that. The important thing is that we are no longer where we started.
Again he repeats that powerful opening phrase with very slight variations. Then he does it a third time!
Once again, this is such a powerful moment that not only are we NOT tired of hearing it, we desperately WANT to hear it again. It's a fine line to walk. You must give a moment like this its due without overstaying your welcome. He handles it perfectly here.
Just when we've had enough chance to bask in this wonderful moment, he takes a left turn.
My composition teacher would've called this a harmonic "freshness." It's about picking your spot to do something that diverts expectations just enough. But, it cannot feel jarring or out of place.
It's a moment of modality where Zimmer throws in this C Major chord. That chord doesn't "belong" to AM or bm. It's not only a nice surprise that he's saved for the end of his theme, it also serves as a sort of pivot chromatic mediant.... (is that a thing?) that takes us through GM then back home to A.
Conclusion
I think this melody will go down as one of those that's remembered for generations. And it's all born out of this incredible sense of honesty and carefully considered simplicity. It BEGS to be repeated and that's probably why it hasn't left my brain ever since I heard it for the first time.
P.S. There's a good chance you'll see a video about this next week, so be sure you're subscribed to the YouTube channel if you'd like to see this analysis in video form :)
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