The Descendants: Scoring with Songs

Gabby Pahinui (and family), who's music is featured in The Descendants

I saw The Descendants a couple of weeks ago. It’s an excellent film, and much has been made about the fact that it uses no score. Instead, the soundtrack employs music by Hawaiian artists, much of it featuring existing recordings by some of the greats of Hawaiian slack-key guitar. This is entirely appropriate given the film’s subject and locale, and this strategy has been praised by Hawaiian musicians tired of Hollywood’s overuse of surf music and hula dancing to portray the islands. The music is beautiful and quite effective in the film, but I couldn’t help but notice a few of the disadvantages of creating a soundtrack using only songs.

Resolution

Almost every song in The Descendants ends by resolving comfortably to the home chord (the “I chord” in musician-speak). While this is exactly what a song should do, it doesn’t always work for a film cue. Film music is often more successful when it remains unresolved and leaves the viewer up in the air, subconsciously wanting the film to continue so they can hear more of the story. It’s a subtle trick that film composers play, but it’s quite effective. When a cue resolves to the I chord, it gives the impression, however faintly, that the story is over and there’s nothing left to see. Obviously, this isn’t something you want viewers thinking in the middle of your film!

To make my point more clearly, here are a couple of examples I wrote of the two types of endings. First, one that resolves:

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Notice how it comes to rest nicely on the home chord. Now here’s one that’s left hanging:

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Notice how the second example ends on a question mark. The music feels incomplete and makes you want more, which is precisely the feeling film viewers should have in the middle of a film. Most songs don’t end this way. It is possible in some cases to edit an existing song so it ends on an unresolved note, but it doesn’t always work or work well.

Variation

Another trait often missing when you use a song instead of a composed cue is music that evolve with the scene, moving from one emotion to the next alongside the actors. Songs tend to revolve around one singular emotion. They often capture that one feeling extremely well, but in a complex, nuanced film scene the music often needs to follow the drama more closely. An example might be a love scene where the heroine and the audience slowly realize that the other party doesn’t feel the way he claims to and is in fact using the heroine for his own devious reasons. A composed cue would move gracefully from romance to betrayal and mirror exactly what the character and the audience are experiencing. It would be difficult or impossible to find a song that could parallel the drama so precisely. Here’s another example, from a film I scored called Bobby Ellis Is Gonna Kick Your Ass. (Warning, the clip contains harsh language):

As you can see, the hero traverses a wide range of emotions during this short scene: uncertainty, apprehension, shock, doom, and finally, resignation. It would be next to impossible to find a song that paralleled these emotions so precisely.

Conclusion

Of course, none of this means you shouldn’t use songs in a film. Quite the contrary. Sometimes they’re just the thing. I composed one cue for a short film recently where the entire rest of the soundtrack consisted of songs by the band Mr. Gnome. In the context of the film they worked extremely well and the soundtrack was a perfect fit.

Nor does it mean I disliked The Descendants soundtrack. I thought it was quite good, my quibbles above notwithstanding. I do wish some of the songs had been edited so they didn’t always resolve to the I chord, and I felt a few of the songs were too static for the scenes they accompanied. But overall, I applaud the use of Hawaiian slack-key guitar music and thought it was an excellent choice for the soundtrack. If anything, I wish the music department had edited the songs a bit more heavily to avoid the above two issues.

4 comments

  1. Eric Goetz

    I haven’t seen the Descendants, yet, but I agree with your statements. I have two things to add. Firstly, a major advantage that you didn’t mention about a custom score over songs is that a custom score can use recurring thematic elements (leitmotifs) to help give cohesion to your film and to act as story-telling devices, something that you can’t do with songs (you can reuse a song in different spots in your film, but you can’t develop variations on that same melody to serve different dramatic contexts).

    Secondly, to your point about authentic slack key guitar music…. a good film composer is going to be able to research traditional music from the film’s setting and incorporate it into the score. A good, though admittedly not well-known, example is when Italian film composer Carlo Siliotto scored Nomad, he immersed himself in the history of the music of Kazakhstan. It worked out so well that his score was nominated for a Golden Globe and Siliotto himself is now producing a documentary about the music of Kazakhstan. There doesn’t have to be a compromise on authenticity, as long as your composer is willing to do the research.

    Finally, nice work on the Bobbi Ellis clip! Can’t wait to see the film!

  2. Jeff Tolbert

    Thanks for the great points, Eric. True, I didn’t mention the use of themes as another advantage of score over songs, but it is an important consideration. Honestly, The Descendants probably isn’t a movie that would require a heavy use of themes. I almost felt as though the unique and quite specific sound of the slack-key guitar almost functions as a unifying element in itself, and the lack of themes wasn’t a huge issue for me. But yes, it is an important advantage a composer can bring to a film.

    Regarding your second point, I did consider mentioning that a good composer could have crafted an authentic-sounding score and would likely have used Hawaiian players in the recording session. But I believe Alexander Payne’s whole concept was to showcase the greats of Hawaiian music and expose them to a wider audience, so the point was a bit moot in this case (though very relevant in a more general sense).

  3. Wanda Certo

    The Hawaiian music used in the film was so very appropriate to the scenes that they were used in. All of the previously recorded music, even when presented as instrumentals, have lyrics. Those lyrics all had something appropriate to say about the scenes they were used in. In order to criticize about the I chord being used to resolve the chord, you perhaps need to understand a bit more about Hawaiian music, about how “western” music conventions came to be used in their mele (songs). You will find that probably 99% of the songs (not chants or `oli) are written in a major key, use perhaps 3 chords, always have a vamp and are there primarily because singing the song is only half the story. The other half of the story is the hula that was danced to assist in telling the story. Those musical conventions were needed to successfully permit dancing and the conclusion of the dance (pau hana). Hawaiian music is deceptively simple sounding, but as I said, the music is only part of it. The words and the underlying hidden meanings (kaona) are what elevates this music beyond any I have ever heard.

    • Jeff Tolbert

      Hi Wanda,

      I certainly wasn’t criticizing Hawaiian music for ending on the I chord. Most songs do, and that’s great—for a song. I was merely saying it doesn’t always work for film music. I do think the music used in The Descendants was wonderful and fit the movie extremely well. My only comment is that film cues often work better when they don’t resolve to the I chord. It’s absolutely no criticism of the music itself, since most of it was written years or even decades before the film was made, and none of it was originally intended as film music.

      Thanks for enlightening us about the importance of the lyrics in Hawaiian music. Indeed, most of the songs used in the film were instrumentals, so that part of it was lost in the film. But hopefully the popularity of the movie will inspire more people to check out slack-key music and introduce more fans to the genre.