Jaws was a film made in 1975. Directed by Steven Spielberg, it was the story of a shark that terrorized the ocean, and was arguably the first movie to introduce the world to one of the best composers in the film industry, John Williams.
The soundtrack for Jaws is filled with sweeping orchestral arrangements, original themes for the main characters 1, and a high level of musical craftsmanship. However, when you think of the music in Jaws, what is the only thing you remember about it?
You don’t have to know a thing about playing a musical instrument to play the theme to Jaws. Just find a piano, pick a note on the far left-hand side, find the note directly above it, and play those notes alternately, increasing in speed and volume. And yet, it’s one of the most famous movie themes in history. Ridiculous, isn’t it?
But what can we learn from this?
Lesson 1: Simplicity
Do you want to make a memorable song? Then make it a simple song.
Simplicity is harder than it looks. As creators, all artists seem to have a belief at some point in their careers that the more complex something is, the more memorable it will be. Usually, this is not true. For example, the Death Star and the Starship Enterprise can be drawn to a recognizable level in about 15 seconds. Simplicity is powerful.
In music, it’s the simple songs you remember. The Beatles had simple themes, and guess what, they’re played on the radio a lot more often than Beethoven. On that note, what’s the most memorable thing Beethoven ever wrote? Ba ba ba bum. Four notes. Noticing a pattern, here?
Lesson 2: Dynamics and speed
The same two notes played over and over in sequence should be boring. In Jaws, it’s not. Why? Dynamics 2 and tempo. By playing the notes gradually louder and gradually faster, the message is communicated: “Uh oh, that shark is getting closer. We are in more danger than we were before.” A song that never changes its dynamics sounds robotic or mechanical. In some musical genres, that’s what you may want (dance club music, for instance). Changes in tempo are less frequent, especially if you’re going for memorable songs that you can sing along with, but they have their place, and should be kept in mind. 3
Lesson 3: Intervals
An interval is the distance between two notes. Some intervals are pleasant, such as the perfect fifth (C and G, for instance). Other intervals are unpleasant, like the minor second, which is what Jaws is, or the tritone (C and F#). If you want to ruin a light, heroic, or joyful melody, a bad interval will probably do it.
Knowing what intervals to use where is one of the best places for scales to come in handy. If you’ve learned your scales4, you can more easily identify when you’ve put a “wrong” note in a composition.
- When a character in a movie or play has a specific theme relating to them, it’s called a “leitmotif”. John Williams uses a lot of these in his movies, and the technique brings a great deal of consistency to his work. ↩
- Basically, the volume of the notes being played. ↩
- I’ll have to talk about tempo changes in another chapter… too much to go through here. ↩
- Did I seriously just encourage you to learn your scales? I’m afraid so. Scales are to a musician what doing push-ups are to an athlete. No one likes them, but they strengthen your ears and your fingers. Major and minor scales are the basic ones to learn, but there are others, like the blues scale. ↩