Themes from the Marvel Cinematic Universe – Episode 007

How much can melody affect what we think of an experience?

We’ve all had times where music changed what we thought about an experience.

Maybe the romantic music at the wedding reception ended and the party music started, and suddenly it wasn’t a romantic event anymore; it was a party. The music made us think it was a different experience.

Maybe you were at a restaurant with pop music from 10 years ago that made you think that you weren’t in a fancy sit-down restaurant, so the food should be fast and cheap, and you should get it to-go. The music made us think it was a different experience.

How much can melody affect what we think of an experience?

We’ve all had times where music changed what we thought about an experience.

Maybe the romantic music at the wedding reception ended and the party music started, and suddenly it wasn’t a romantic event anymore; it was a party. The music made us think it was a different experience.

Maybe you were at a restaurant with pop music from 10 years ago that made you think that you weren’t in a fancy sit-down restaurant, so the food should be fast and cheap, and you should get it to-go. The music made us think it was a different experience.

Maybe you saw a movie with an innocent-looking character who had a theme that made you feel uneasy, and that made you think “What’s wrong with this guy? Is he going to, like, betray the main character or something?” The music made us think it was a different experience.

But it’s more than just the genre and the tone that makes us think we’re having a different experience. Just the tune can be enough to change what we think an experience is, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or MCU) is a great example of this.

 

I’m Hunter Farris, and for years I’ve wondered “Why do we like the music we like?” So in today’s episode of Song Appeal, let’s take a look at one of the effects of the main themes from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

I’ve been a guest to discuss this topic on several other podcasts in the last few weeks. You can find those podcasts, as well as the full transcript for this episode and the shownotes at SongAppealOfficial.com/MCU. That’s M for Marvel, C for Cinematic, and U for Universe. SongAppeal.com/MCU.

 

A few months ago, I heard the theme from Thor: Ragnarok for the first time. And I was surprised to find how similar it was to the theme from Doctor Strange and the theme from Spider-Man: Homecoming, even on a level of music theory. That led me down a rabbit hole over the last 3 weeks that included rewatching all 18 movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (one a day), listening to the soundtracks for several of their movies, and relistening to all 18 main themes in 1 day. And after over 50 hours of research, I’ve found that the Marvel Cinematic Universe frequently has movies that don’t feel like superhero movies, and it frequently has movies that do feel like superhero movies even though they don’t act like superhero movies. And the difference comes because they use a specific style of main theme that the MCU has established is the MCU superhero theme. In short, something as simple as the melody completely changes our perception of what movie we’re watching and what experience we’re having.

 

I have an equation: When the Marvel Cinematic Universe uses its trademark style of superhero theme, the movie suddenly feels like a superhero movie, whether or not the movie itself acts like a superhero movie.

The first Iron Man movie has the MCU’s trademark style of superhero theme, and it feels like a superhero movie. Well, Iron Man 1 acts like a superhero movie, so maybe there’s more to it.

The Avengers has the MCU’s trademark style of superhero theme, and it feels like a superhero movie. Well, The Avengers does act quite a bit like a superhero movie, although it does act a bit like an ensemble sitcom. It’s almost the feeling you might get if you gave the characters from Parks and Recreation superpowers. So are there any other examples?

Well, Doctor Strange has the MCU’s trademark style of superhero theme, and it feels like a superhero movie. Even though it acts like a martial arts fantasy movie.

And Spider-Man: Homecoming has the MCU’s trademark style of superhero theme, and it feels like a superhero movie. Even though the movie acts like an 80’s high school comedy that keeps getting interrupted by a superhero movie every once in a while.

And Avengers: Age of Ultron… OK, let’s be honest, that’s kind of cheating. Avengers: Age of Ultron uses the same main theme as The Avengers. Yes, it feels like a superhero movie. But it also introduces a new theme, and that theme follows the MCU’s trademark style of superhero theme. So Avengers: Age of Ultron uses two MCU superhero themes and feels like a superhero movie, even though it’s basically a robopocalypse movie that happens to feature superheroes instead of featuring Detective Spooner or Kyle Reese.

And Thor: Ragnarok has the MCU’s trademark style of superhero theme and it feels like a superhero movie. Even though, in the words of Mark Ruffalo (one of its co-stars), it’s a “universal road trip movie”. “It’s not where you’d think it will be, so it’s not your classic road movie but it has that structure”.

Captain America: Civil War has kind of a major version of the MCU’s superhero theme, and it feels like a superhero movie, even though it acts more like a classical tragedy like Othello or Star Wars: Episode III, mixed with a bit of a spy thriller.

And Iron Man 2, well Iron Man 2 has a more classic superhero theme. It’s a major theme, played on brass instruments that focuses on fourths. It has a bit of a pop feel, but other than that, it feels like your general superhero theme from 20 years ago, a theme that might be trying to impersonate the “Superman March” rather than trying to impersonate the X-Men theme. And Iron Man 2 feels like a superhero movie, even though it doesn’t really act like a superhero movie. It kind of does, it kind of doesn’t. It has a superhero, yes, but the story beats and the plot elements focus more on a mystery thriller than on a superhero movie.

And Iron Man 3 has the MCU’s trademark style of superhero theme and it feels like a superhero movie. Even though it acts more like a standard Shane Black Christmas action thriller that happens to feature a superhero. In fact, it acts so much unlike your typical superhero movie that I felt like the movie would have been better if they had made it a standalone Bruce Willis movie titled The Mechanic.

And Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 both have the MCU’s trademark style of superhero theme, and they both feel like superhero movies, even though Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 acts like a space opera like Star Wars, or Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, or like Jupiter Ascending. And Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has an A-story between Ego and Star-Lord that acts more like a psychological horror, taking its cues from The Twilight Zone (and like a superhero movie also), while the B-story involving Yondu and Rocket acts a bit like a pirate movie, and the C-story involving Gamora and Nebula acts like a family drama.

And yet, no matter what genre it is, every time the MCU uses their trademark superhero theme, the movies feel like a superhero movie, regardless of whether the movie acts like a superhero movie when it comes to the plot.

On the other hand, when the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t use its trademark style of superhero theme, the movies don’t feel like superhero movies anymore.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier feels like a political thriller, and it doesn’t use the MCU’s trademark style of superhero theme. Instead, it uses basically a descending minor scale with an unexpected rhythm. Well, what better way to get the audience to feel like everything’s falling apart than theme that causes a gradual decline in energy, is associated with negative feelings, and has a rhythm that just feels wrong?

The Incredible Hulk doesn’t have the MCU’s trademark style of superhero theme. Its theme focuses on dread by using high-pitched violins on a minor scale and these low “growls”. Well, I asked a friend a little while ago what genre it is, and she replied “It’s a fugitive movie and a superhero mo- wait, it’s not actually a superhero movie.” To her, it didn’t even feel like a superhero movie. And what do you know, it didn’t have the superhero theme that the MCU loves.

The first Thor movie has a simple fantasy theme. It’s a theme in major that focuses on very small intervals. And it doesn’t really feel like a superhero movie. I distinctly remember 8 years ago, lying in the bed of a truck, watching Thor for the first time, and being honestly a little disappointed. Not because of something wrong with the movie. I just expected to watch a superhero movie, and this just didn’t feel like a superhero movie.

Thor: The Dark World has a darker fantasy theme. Larger intervals. It’s in minor. But it’s still not the MCU’s trademark style of superhero theme. And it doesn’t feel like a superhero movie. In fact, it feels like an episode of Doctor Who stretched out to 2 hours and put in a dark fantasy aesthetic.

Captain America: The First Avenger has a patriotic military theme based entirely on fourths and with rhythms just like the theme from Patton. And what do you know? It feels like a period war movie, and it acts like a period war movie. Perhaps one of the rasons why it brings to mind patriotism and military music is because (as the film music writer Mark Richards suggested), “fourths tend to suggest strength and heroism”, truth, justice, patriotism.

Ant-Man feels like a caper movie, a comedy heist movie. And it abandons the MCU’s trademark style of superhero theme in favor of a theme that’s essentially a love letter to the Mission: Impossible theme. Up until that time, Ant-Man and Mission: Impossible were two of the only popular pieces in 7/8 time. Both have melodies in minor that focus on playing arpeggiated chords in the melodies. Each has a short repeating musical section (called an “ostinato”) that never has an interval larger than a minor 3rd. And what do you know? Not only does Ant-Man feel like a caper, it acts like a caper.

And Black Panther doesn’t feel like a superhero movie. In fact, it feels genre-bending. But Black Panther doesn’t use the MCU’s trademark style of superhero theme. Instead, for this movie that’s essentially a coming of age spy thriller with an Afrofuturist aesthetic and theme – essentially The Lion King meets James Bond – the composer wrote a theme that focuses on royalty with with fanfares and melodies that focus on fifths.

Now, while 18 films isn’t exactly a large sample size, 100% of the MCU’s movies that use the MCU’s trademark style of superhero theme (or a more classic style of superhero theme) feel like a superhero movie, whether they act like a superhero movie or not. And 100% of the MCU movies that don’t use the MCU’s trademark style of superhero theme (or a more classic style of superhero theme) don’t feel like superhero movies, whether they act like a superhero movie or not. It’s strange, maybe, but who am I to judge?

 

Now after I’ve said “MCU’s trademark style of superhero theme” over 20 times, you’re probably wondering “What on earth is the MCU’s trademark style of superhero theme?!”

The Marvel Cinematic Universe solidified an emerging style of superhero theme, a theme that follows these rules:

First: The theme is almost always played on a minor scale.

Second: The most common notes in these melodies are notes 1, 3, and 5 on a minor scale.

Third: The rhythms are very simple.

So how did they establish this theme?

Our brains usually establish meaning in music through repeated exposure. For example: After hearing this theme in every trailer and every movie, we think Harry Potter every time we hear this theme because we’ve been exposed to it so repeatedly.

We’ve experienced repeated exposure to this kind of theme for over 15 years. Since 2001, we’ve heard similar themes with movies that were purely superhero movies. They weren’t martial arts movies that happened to feature superhero movies, they weren’t romantic comedies that happened to feature superheroes, they weren’t running man movies that happened to feature superheroes, they acted like superhero movies. Movies like the X-Men trilogy and Spider-Man trilogy. After hearing a similar theme for about 15 years in movies that were purely superhero movies, people were getting the idea that this kind of theme meant “superhero”. Once Marvel solidified this theme, they used it in more than half their films, leading to further repeated exposure.

Our brains also establish meaning in music through significant exposure. For example: “Hooked on a Feeling” is played in Guardians of the Galaxy once. And yet every single time I hear “Hooked on a Feeling”, I think Guardians of the Galaxy, and frankly, every time I see the poster for Guardians of the Galaxy, I think “Hooked on a Feeling”. Now, I don’t feel that way about really any of the other songs in Guardians of the Galaxy, but “Hooked on a Feeling” was used so powerfully in the film that it and the film are almost synonymous in my mind. That’s what I mean when I say “significant exposure”.

We’ve experienced significant exposure to this kind of theme for a decade. In 2008, Marvel used this style of theme for the first time in their groundbreaking Iron Man, which was really their only purely superhero movie. A few years later, they used this style of superhero theme in their most memorable theme: The Avengers. And then the same rules applied to the theme that plays over the Marvel logo in the most recent 5 movies they’ve made. All of those were forms of significant exposure.

After over 15 years of repeated exposure and after a decade of repeated exposure to this style of theme being used in purely superhero movies, we have a psychological “anchor” about this music. Robert Dilts, one of the founders of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, defined an anchor as “an internal response [associated] with some external or internal trigger so that the response may be quickly… reaccessed”. That anchor gives us the idea that this type of theme means “superhero”, because we’ve been exposed to the MCU’s specific style of superhero theme in pure superhero movies for over a decade, long enough for us to associate this theme with superhero movies in our mind.

 

Now there are a lot of different reasons why this might have happened, that might range from coincidence to Marvel’s music supervisor telling each composer what theme to include.

But whatever the reason, the effect is impressive. By now, we associate the MCU’s style of superhero theme so clearly with superhero movies that even if a movie doesn’t act like a superhero movie, it can still act like a superhero movie. Now that might not feel that significant, but to put it in perspective, the melody of the music alone changed what genre of movie we thought we were watching.

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 our perception of an experience – if there’s meaning in that melody.

That’s the psychological power of a really good melody.

 

Thanks for listening. If you liked this episode, check out SongAppealOfficial.com for the shownotes, the transcript, more episodes, and other podcasts where I got to be a guest to talk about this subject.

If you’d like to discuss this subject further or maybe discuss a film that you wish I’d talked about, but that I didn’t get to talk about in this episode, please, contact me. I’d love to get to hear from you. You can find me on Facebook at Facebook.com/SongAppealOfficial. You can e-mail me directly at SongAppeal@gmail.com. You can connect with me on Twitter or Instagram at @SongAppeal. Or you can support this channel on Patreon at Patreon.com/SongAppeal.

I’ll talk with you soon. In the meantime, enjoy your music.