A Melodic Comparison: Film Music’s Many Invaluable Personalities | Joe Hisaishi, John Powell

Creativity’s Fountains of Youth | Freedom of Flight & The Rhythm of Oceans

Before ANYONE start talking about Ponyo’s or Princess Kaguya’s music…Let it be known that it has become borderline tradition for composers to be inspired by grandiose concepts rooted in nature. So let’s talk a bit about flying and water as inspiration for musical masterpieces waiting to be written.

Flight is an universal human dream. To many it optimises the concept of freedom, expression and to be one with nature. For others, diving into large bodies of water and the resulting sense of weightlessness can also be considered gaining a spiritual connection with the natural forces. Music embodies that notion of an universal language; a language that literally every human can understand, so musicians and composers worldwide would certainly have written or conceptualised ideas in expressing these above sensations through music. In fact, this drive is so powerful…when a composer scores a film, more often than not, tracks that are written specifically to express the sense of flying or diving into water, are often the best tracks written for the entire film:

International film music legend John Williams’ flying theme for Buckbeak was composed with exhilarating complexity, but the honest emotion expressed by the entire track is clear: percussion’s intense start offers instant perspective on suspense and a frantic heart beat, before a layer of strings and woodwinds glides across the soundscape with effortless grace, following Harry as he races across Hogwarts’ surrounding lakes and rivers, unable to contain his excitement, as are the trumpeting brass that tried in vain to contain their urge to burst forth in full force.

What if a composer was fortunate enough to score a film that lives and breathes expressive freedom, blissful children’s imagination and flying? Having gained back his creative voice after suffering a family tragedy, Australian composer Nigel Westlake’s love letter to childhoods came in the form of a film score that relishes in its expressive freedom: composers almost never get to write music like this for live-action films any more. Absolutely entrancing in its depiction of long memories past, harps and the recorder introduces Paper Planes’ flying theme in ‘Ready to Launch‘. With still the rest of the orchestra to utilise, the theme slowly builds momentum as the strings slashed with impatience, the percussion joins in, the lone triangle, trumpet and oboe following along as well. Finally, the paper plane leaves the throwing hand and the orchestra erupts. Hardly done, Westlake’s utilisation of the full ensemble showcases its versatility in ‘My Journey Starts Here‘, this time barely even trying to mask that sense of glee in finding melodic inspiration from the likes of classic adventure fantasy film music as the track reaches the 03:00 mark. Needless to say, the film’s entire runtime is blessed with music of this quality.

How about I give you people a reason to like something, that came as the result of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender adaptation? Listen to the music. Taking inspiration from the four elements, veteran film composer James Newton Howard readily utilised the orchestras’ various sections to personify the musical textures related to each element throughout the film: the percussion for Earth, the woodwinds for Air, the brass for Fire and strings for Water. Not only that, the climactic musical finale ‘Flow Like Water‘ was written with direct influence from all four elements, with obvious emphasis on Air and Water. The resulting musical gem is a glorious passage of curious sounding textures, lyrical beauty and inspired artistic vision. Music more than fit for a cinematic masterpiece…rather than the film it was written for instead.

So what does this have to do with the rest of the post? Everything. You’ve got films taking place under the sea, a princess from the heavens and worlds of Vikings and dragons. Might as well let you know a little about just how much composers love writing for flying scenes and oceans.

Ponyo | Musical Landscapes, Personalities And the Sublime Nature of it All

At this point in Joe Hisaishi’s career, it would be overly obvious to say that his ‘Studio Ghibli sound’ has very much solidified. However, that is not to say that the composer is willing to sit idle. His respective film scores for two different directors showcases musical experimentation that are very much unique to modern Hisaishi, including the increased utilisation of a sizeable choir ensemble, opera soprano solo, and rather ironically… exploring soundscapes that are more of an oriental personality.

The loose narrative inspirations Hayao Mizayaki took from the classic The Little Mermaid for Ponyo can be considered to be too minute for critical detailing, however, when examining the music from a more comparative angle, Hisaishi’s creative inspirations and his own touches becomes diverse and colourful.

For one thing, how about we start off with a little exercise? After closing your eyes and with putting your headphones on (or with your stereo on high in a quiet room), listen to the track below ‘Deep Sea Pastures’ for one whole minute (or…when the choir dies down).

As a combination of checking how many people made it this far into the post…and as an interesting experiment: in the comments section describe the sensations, mental images, the feelings and state you find yourself in upon listening to that passage.

Ok. Done?

Alright, let’s…think about this. Miyazaki purposefully opened Ponyo with an almost diegetically silent atmosphere-building scene, showcasing underwater sea life with subdued sound effects that quietly flows along. In contrast, the entire cinematic frame is abundant with life, ambience and texture. And so, for the entire four and a half minute pre-opening scene, Hisaishi’s music was given complete sensual control. And boy does he take advantage of that.

In terms of describing the first minute…the performance of the main theme is a perfect showcase of musical texturing to create tangible, sonic environments that completely envelops the listener, and Hisaishi perfectly emulates the weightlessness and sensations of being underwater with wave-like progressions in the orchestral and choral undertones: the harps glides underneath and over the steady flow of strings, the woodwinds trilling continuously upwards and downwards, along with the choir awwwing majestically, as if attempting an impression of the gentle ocean waves. Dare I say it sounds absolutely heavenly?

Incidentally, allow me to point out that Hisaishi sought out quality inspiration for music like this. This ‘Deep Sea Pastures’ segment and of course sections that repeats its basic tonal progression follows a particular brand of symphonic writing that is very much impressionistic and rather…harmonically abstract at first glance. However, as one learns to listen more closely…the seemingly bizarre orchestral colours all coincide to form a rainbow, metaphorically speaking.

Listening to impressionist composer Maurice Ravel’s so-called choreographic symphony ‘Daphnis et Chloe‘, the inspirations sounds as clear as day, and it’s certainly not hard to guess why Hisaishi chose to follow this particular influence for Ponyo’s first scene. (I implore you to at least listen to Ravel’s piece from the beginning to 05:11. Wonderful stuff.)

Side note: Yep, ‘Impressionist’ can describe both painters and composers. They even work with the same basic creative angles, it seems (Do correct me if my interpretations were off the mark).

Much like Ravel, Hisaishi’s intentions in scoring this scene were to convey a sense of flowing movement, taking into account the masses of individual energies that interact within the landscape simultaneously, creating an environment that sounds and feels overwhelming, alive and breathtaking.

Ponyo herself also gets a whimsically childish theme, usually carried by flighty woodwind and strings passages or charmingly simple glockenspiel solos. This was immediately introduced in the first film track as well, after the second musical climax helmed by the main theme (from 03:55 in ‘Deep Sea Pastures’). And much like Laputa, Hisaishi had a little fun playing around with the theme.

From the innocuous mickey-mousing in ‘The First Meeting‘; where Ponyo’s theme was deconstructed and performed by an ensemble of plucked strings, harp and xylophones, to the hilariously epic British fanfare rendition in ‘Ponyo Flies‘, the composer was able to capture a wide range of character-based antics; whether Ponyo is depicted as being stuck in a glass bottle, or gliding across a sea-storm; just by altering her theme performances.

The minor characters were also catered to with themes that composed with their unique qualities in mind. The stern by gentle mother Lisa was given a warm theme in ‘Night Signal‘, performed by a violin section, piano and clarinet (curiously similar theme to what Hisaishi wrote for Granmamare, but we will go into that later), while Fujimoto’s eccentric quirks and a rather weird sense of fashion was depicted musically with a slightly heavy and clumsy theme.

Finally, one simply cannot leave this conversation without mentioning Hisaishi’s absolutely stunning theme for the Mother of the Sea.

Masako Hayashi returns from Princess Mononoke to lend her voice to Ponyo’s soundtrack, this time showcasing her vastly improved vocal range and control, having introduced a more aggressive operatic tone that absolutely soars in vibrato. For such a mystical and graceful character, I couldn’t think of a better musical style with which to depict her.

Also…not sure if it was a coincidence, but the final notes of this track seems to echo Alan Menken’sPart of Your World‘ composition for The Little Mermaid.

English lyrics:

Within the blue, the sea lilies sway,
I spoke with countless siblings
In the language of bubbles.

Do you still remember?
In the distant past, you and I lived together in the blue sea,

The jellyfish, sea urchins, fish, and crabs
Were all your siblings
Do you still remember?
In the distant past, you and I lived together in the blue sea

Within the blue, the sea lilies sway,
Do you still remember?  Your brothers and sisters

Hardly done, Joe Hisaishi afforded this master stroke with a few more instrumental performances, the best of which being a violin solo with full orchestral and choral backing in ‘Song for Mothers and the Sea‘. The track also blends the former motif with the main theme for one final monumental explosion of musical colours, before leading into the grand finale.

Oh, and the end credits is where you get this diabetes-inducing track, turning Ponyo’s theme into a children’s song.

6 thoughts on “A Melodic Comparison: Film Music’s Many Invaluable Personalities | Joe Hisaishi, John Powell

  1. Oh.my.gosh. This is really extensive. Wow. Impressive. Well done. I must confess that I’m not familiar with a lot of the composers you mentioned here, but of course I’m a fan of both Hisaishi and Powell. I love listening to Hisaishi’s Ghibli collection whenever I’m doing household chores because his music put me in a semi-meditative state where my mind is relaxed while my body automatically cleans the house. So instead of feeling tired after doing chores, I actually feel relaxed, even energized. Excellent post, as always. Thanks for sharing this with us at my blog carnival. Keep it up. Cheers!


    • Thank you.

      As per usual, like I wrote in the post, this is a publication meant for extensive revisits, also, I implore you to explore the composers you’re not familiar with. Watch the films, listen to the music, note how they tell their story. As always, this post will be here for you to return to, if you either have problems finding words to describe what you found, or you just need interesting ideas to start exploring.

      I hope this post is a useful eye-opener to perhaps look beyond the purely reactionary reasons as to why you like the film music written by a certain composer.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a wonderful, insightful, and thoroughly enjoyable read! The musical pieces were fantastic and the writing was smooth.

    Despite having maybe two hours worth of musical training (I tried), I could follow most of the post, which is great. But needless to say I was taken through an emotional journey through this post and all the musical pieces. I’ve only started to listen to more soundtracks. Now I’m starting to notice and understand a little–of why these great pieces are so effective, and how each of them are unique. It’s certainly fascinating to read and listen to how HIsaishi has evolved (and also returned to his roots). He is one of my favorite composers and that Budokan concert is sublime. How I wish I was there!

    And to answer your question re Deep Sea Pastures, and having not actually watched Ponyo (yet), I actually felt like I was exploring a shiny and colorful world under the sea, filled with diverse sea creatures moving around me, and I was filled with curiosity and excitement like a child. One alternate image I had was being a kid walking through a huge toy store (lots of shiny and colorful things as well)…like…Home Alone 2 sort of, I think. And nearing at the end of the piece, it was as if I was surrounded by something majestic, powerful beyond my control, but benign. Like being surrounded by magnificent, crashing ocean waves. And somehow I still retained that kind, childlike curiosity till the end. If that make sense.

    …Damn, now I just remembered how coral reefs are going to get bleached….polluted…killed off… T_T

    Anyway! Having watched a lot of anime, I really like Yoko Kanno’s works, except people has been saying she just takes other people’s works and modifies it? I don’t know. Hmm…ReLife’s soundtrack is unconventional but I liked it a lot as far as I can hear from the anime. More jazzy piano. Samurai 7 soundtrack is cool, lots of traditional Japanese instruments! But my personal honorable mention goes to Nobuo Uematsu’s “Cloud Smiles” as the first piece of music I’ve ever truly listened to – and what got me into music. Every time I hear woodwinds played so beautifully, I die a little. Also worth the mention I guess is MCU Captain America Winter Soldier’s Theme, which is effectively disturbing. Arcade Fire’s (?) piano pieces for Her are also my favorite – that and Lullaby of Pi!

    Thank you so much for writing this post and sharing this with us. You must’ve put an incredible amount of time and effort into this! I love this post and all the music, and I will definitely return to this post again and again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your comment alone already made this 6 month project worth it. Interest in something can only turn to love if you understand what and why you liked it in the first place. I’m glad that the little questions I popped in the posts were responded to so wonderfully by you, and I agree! The ability of music to transform the experience is almost impossible to describe at times.

      From your list of film music you like…Hmm…regarding Yoko Kanno’s plagiarism: every single composer does it one way or another. It is practically a part of the medium, taking ideas from around you and reinventing it. Kanno’s just a lot more guilty of not trying hard enough to hide her inspirations and making them uniquely hers. Remember what I said about Hisaishi taking inspirations from Ravel and Menken’s Mermaid for Ponyo? Also…you have a really diverse canvas of examples from film music. I love that!

      I’m glad this was a great read for you, if this piece made you love film music more, then my job is satisfyingly complete.


  3. Having already seen Ponyo, the mental image I got from this scene might have been a little biased by knowing where this theme comes in. Nevertheless it’s been a while since I’ve seen the film so I’ll describe what I imagined.

    The strings and choir softly starting up before getting louder almost seemed like a sunrise. The vast sea is slowly waking up and emerging from some sort of sleep. Then when the sound starts to pick up, the scope of the scene hits me. We are in a vast space, and the ocean IS vast. But the flutes that come in give a sense of detail-they’re the fish flitting about reef, and there are alot of them. The track feels extremely filled out (not sure what musical jargon describes this feeling), I just feel life brimming from every note of the piece!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.