How can music change what we think of an experience?
Think of the last restaurant you went to. Did they play pop music from the last 10 years? Maybe that helped you think “The food will be fast, cheap, and served in a brown paper bag”. Did they play smooth jazz? Maybe that helped you think “The food will take a while, be expensive, and be served on a silver platter.” The music helped change what you thought of the experience.
How can that idea work in something like a movie? Imagine you watch a movie that straddles the line between two genres, but the music focused on just one of those two genres. And by the time the movie was over, you forgot there was more than one genre to the movie.
That’s not just an imaginary experience. That’s something that actually happens when we watch some movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Welcome to Song Appeal, where we dive into your favorite songs to answer the question “Why do we like the music we like?” I’m your host, Hunter Farris. And on today’s episode, let’s take a look at one reason why we like the main themes from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
You can find this episode’s transcript, references, and links to hear the themes at SongAppealOfficial.com/MCU (that’s M as in Marvel, C as in Cinematic, and U as in Universe).
Thanks so much to my Patrons for making this show possible. If you want to help support this show and get great perks like the full versions of the interviews from these episodes and exclusive minisodes, head to Patreon.com/SongAppeal.
If you like this analysis of movies and music, check out Kinotes, a long-form podcast that analyzes in-depth the innovative ways music is used in film. In the past, the show has run episodes on Planet of the Apes and Blade Runner, and its most recent series is on the music in Alfred Hitchcock films.
You can listen to Kinotes (that’s K-I-N-O-T-E-S) on your preferred podcasting app.
This episode will be spoiler-free.
Have you ever wondered how a composer chooses what tune they should use for a theme? I know I have.
Imagine for a moment: composer Alan Silvestri and director Joss Whedon have just agreed that The Avengers should have a main theme, and now Alan Silvestri needs to write the tune for that theme. How did he choose this?
A few years later, composer Tyler Bates had to come up with a theme for Guardians of the Galaxy. How did he choose this? [Guardians theme]
One possible answer: Those main themes affect how we think of the movies.
Most of us define “superhero movie” as “a movie with a superhero as a main character”, but movies start to feel like superhero movies when they start to do what superhero stories usually do. And nobody’s analyzed what superhero stories do quite like Peter Coogan.
[PC:] “I’m Peter Coogan.” [PC:] “I’ve been teaching comics and superheroes now for about 2 decades at Webster University and Washington University in St. Louis.” This guy definitely knows superheroes. In fact, he literally wrote the book the topic when he wrote Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre. So if anyone can tell us what makes people think “That’s a superhero”, it’s Peter Coogan.
[PC:] “In genre, you have conventions of plot, character, setting, icon, theme, and effect.”
So if you use the typical conventions of a superhero movie – origin stories, dead relatives, third-act final fight scenes – people are going to feel like it’s a superhero movie. But there’s one important convention that’s subtle enough for us to overlook it: a specific type of musical theme.
The MCU has distilled the modern superhero theme down to its purest form. Then Marvel used our psychological associations about this music, so the themes could make their movies feel like superhero movies. In short, the movie’s tune changes the movie’s tone.
The first time I heard the Thor: Ragnarok theme, I was struck by how similar it was to the Spider-Man: Homecoming theme. Now, they don’t sound very similar in their instruments or in the music behind the melody, but if you just take their melodies and play them on piano, well, here’s the Thor: Ragnarok theme. And here’s the Spider-Man: Homecoming theme.
I expected the modern superhero theme to sound like the “Superman March” – the classic piece of hero music from the first superhero movie.
But the modern superhero theme acts more like the X-Men theme, tunes that rarely (if ever) played the same note twice in a row, used extremely simple rhythms, and heavily emphasized the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of the minor scale.
Before the MCU, modern superhero themes followed these patterns, but they were a bit looser about it.
In fact, out of the 30 superhero movies that came out between X-Men and Iron Man, exactly half of them used some variation on this type of main theme.
But when the MCU started using these melodies, it seemed like their composers took those 3 principles and made them their rulebook. No more variations. They distilled this theme down to its essence and somehow created a new melody with these qualities every time they had a new movie.
You can hear this type of theme in: Iron Man 1, every Avengers movie, Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians 2, the “New Avengers” theme in Age of Ultron, Civil War, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, and Captain Marvel.
That’s more than half of the MCU using this type of superhero theme.
After decades of hearing these themes at the same time as watching superhero movies, we started to mentally associate the music with the movie.
This is kind of like the musical version of Pavlov’s Dog, but over the course of decades, where we only heard this melody with this meaning. This sort of classical conditioning definitely wasn’t intentional (after all, it spanned dozens of composers and decades of movies) and it definitely wasn’t malicious, but it was effective.
But these themes take Pavlov’s Dog and Classical Conditioning so much further. This isn’t just associating one piece of music with one movie. This goes into the realm of stimulus generalization, where we have the same response even if the stimulus changes a bit. Like if Pavlov rang a different bell for his dog and it still salivated. Remember that episode of The Office where Jim used classical conditioning to get Dwight to expect a mint every time he heard the Windows Start Up noise? Imagine if Jim pulled up a more modern Windows sound and Dwight still wanted a mint. That’s stimulus generalization.
And the best part is: This isn’t something that needs to be intentional. It just naturally comes with classical conditioning.
That’s why Marvel doesn’t need to give us the same theme to every movie. They can give us a theme that’s similar enough to their other themes, and we’ll still associate it with the superhero genre.
That helps tip the scales towards these movies being superhero movies. After all, [PC:] “The superhero genre has always been hybrid.” In particular, [PC:] “That’s one of the things Marvel does that’s interesting is that they really try to hook each of their films to some other genre.”
Spider-Man: Homecoming is probably the best example of this. It acts [PC:] “like an 80’s high school movie that just keeps getting interrupted, in a way that the first Spider-Man movie didn’t.” But we think of it as a superhero movie with elements an 80’s high school comedy, and not the other way around. Why? Partly because it uses that superhero-style theme.
Doctor Strange balances superhero movie and martial arts fantasy movie (a la Jackie Chan), to the point that you could say the plot is “Doctor House Goes to Hogwarts”. You could think of it as a superhero movie. You could think of it as a martial arts fantasy movie. It really could go either way. But what makes us think “This is a superhero movie” is the main theme.
And Infinity War acts like a superhero movie and a classical epic – the kind of thing Homer might have written, but from the point of view of the harpies, the sirens, and the cyclops. It really could go either way. And the music tips the scales towards us thinking of it as a superhero movie.
James Gunn, the director of Guardians 1, said that he wanted to make his movie a space opera, like Star Wars and Star Trek. But we still think of it as a superhero movie. Why? [music] That’s why.
And those are just a few of the examples of Marvel movies that straddle the line between superhero movie and some other genre in just the right way so that you could think of it either way. [PC:] “The Marvel movies, they do a good job of incorporating a range of genres so that they can appeal to the broadest audiences. … I think that having a balance works.” So when Marvel needs you to think of it as a superhero movie, they give us a superhero theme. And when Marvel needs you to think of it as a superhero movie mixed with something else, like in Ant-Man, they give you a theme that emphasizes the other genre. The music helps tip the scales towards one genre or the other.
It seems to me that the MCU has perfected the modern superhero theme and learned what our association is with this type of theme so they can perfect the art of letting the movie’s tuen change the movie’s tone. This isn’t “Learn the rules so you can break them”. This is “Learn the rules so you can exploit them”.
That led me to wonder “How does the MCU exploit this quote-unquote rule?”
This style of superhero theme can give a common tone to completely different movies. Kevin Feige himself said that these movies “from a genre… perspective, they’re all very unique. Civil War may as well be a different genre from Age of Ultron.” So Marvel uses their music to make the movies all feel like they’re in the same vein.
Because sometimes, these movies need to feel like they’re part of a larger world. Doctor Strange is a very standalone movie. If the music hadn’t given it the MCU feel, he would have shown up in Ragnarok and Infinity War and it would have felt like Luke Skywalker just showed up: awesome, but really confusing. That’s one of the major differences between Marvel music and, say, the “Superman March”. [PC:] “no Marvel movie stands alone in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s always connected to the others.” [PC:] “the Superman theme had to stand alone whereas the Avengers theme doesn’t. The Avengers theme is part of this larger thing.”
On the other hand, some MCU movies need to feel like their own thing instead of one chapter in a larger narrative. Ant-Man, Black Panther, The Incredible Hulk, even Winter Soldier each need to feel like their own stories, so they use different tunes to give different tones.
People sometimes criticize the MCU’s music for not being memorable, but I think its forget-ability is its greatest strength. The music subconsciously changes how we think of these movies individually, and how we think of them in the larger context of the MCU. And if we noticed it, it wouldn’t work quite as well.
The power of music is so much deeper than just the power to change our mood.
The power of music is so much deeper than the power of the genre of the music.
Something as subtle as the melody can be powerful enough to change how we think of an experience – if there’s meaning in that melody.
Thanks so much for listening. If you liked this episode, check out SongAppealOfficial.com for more episodes.
Thanks so much to my Patrons for making this show possible. If you want to support this show and get some great perks, including access to the full interview with Peter Coogan, visit Patreon.com/SongAppeal.
You can find more from Peter Coogan in his books Superhero: The Secret Origins of a Genre and What Is a Superhero?
If you liked this analysis of the psychological effects of music, check out Coursera’s program “Music As Biology: What We Like to Hear and Why” at Bit.ly/MusicAsBiology.
Again, thanks so much for listening. I’ll talk with you soon. In the meantime, have a great day. And enjoy your music.
This episode was made possible by the generous support of the following Patrons:
Music provided by RFM: https://youtu.be/VvQ8aM3MVR0