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

John Powell | Exploring His Brand of Symphonic Mayhem: Powell Power


Let’s start with an entree taste of this badass son of a bitch: this guy is a loose cannon. Powell is known to have a crude and honest mouth, openly swearing without filters, utterly entertaining to have a conversation with and is rather spontaneous when it comes to his creations. And boy does everyone want to know: how the hell does he come up with all these different ways to abuse the orchestra? Frantic string writing, relentlessly full compositions for every section of the brass, hopelessly complex percussion textures and brutally fast-tempo woodwind writing. Basically, no one leaves a John Powell recording session with an ounce of breathe left in their lungs and a single un-cramped limb. (Ok. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but let’s hope I can convince you by the end of this section.)

“One of the things I do during a session is…Basically we have the mics set up, the singers come, then I have no idea what we are supposed to do. So I just sit there and…normally for the first half an hour they would just sit there too, drinking coffee, while I try to get my shit together.” – Powell

So to musically introduce the man, here’s a track from the animation film Rio. While I won’t be analysing this score fully, I think this cue provides a pleasant and fully functional compilation of what Powell is like in terms of his musical personality.

You know…it wouldn’t be a stretch to call this one of the the single most unabashedly happy tracks ever written. The moment 01:12 hits the speakers, I doubt a single cheek would stay rested, a single pair of legs would remain planted and a head would not be nodding to the contagiously joyful rhythms and cheerful melody.

John Powell’s typical mannerisms in animation scoring mainly consists of full-throated symphonic and choral onslaughts, often combining every section of the orchestra to play multiple progressions and layers of melodies simultaneously, resulting in musical canvases that bathes in multiple melodic layers that may feel too dangerously complex at first, but ending up working out anyway. ‘Morning Routine’ already demonstrated two major facets of Powell‘s musical styles in glaring clarity: Immediate attention to establishing a central musical identity, and robust orchestral control. Upon waking the silent soundscape, a flute solo introduces the film’s main theme almost instantly, before the strings section takes over seamlessly. The melody then effortlessly dances across the flutes, violins and the bassoon. The handover at 01:12 erupts with enthusiastic energy, as the composer calls upon a collection of guitars, maracas, tambourines and bongo drums to set a regional base, upon which the clarinet, flute and oboe solos shared in another tango with the main theme. The soundscape only builds as the rest of the orchestras joins in; Powell further livening up the track with woodwind trills and his trademark brass fanfare texturing (01:57). Note how this entire track was dedicated to the exploration of the film’s main theme; Powell kept it from becoming repetitive through continuous melodic reinterpretations, instrumentation changes and a gradual buildup of energy.

For a live-action example of this creative habit, look no further than his opening track for X-Men: The Last Stand. Pay particular attention to how multiple sections of the brass carries the main fanfare through multiple alliterations at the same time, diving into and leaping out of each other in major melodic choke-points, resulting in a main titles track that feels epic, organic and lived-in. Again, note the usage of additional brass-led fanfare jabs (00:19) and frantically repeated string arpeggios (00:31: another Powell trademark) acting as supplementary texturing. In my opinion, this mediocre film received the best superhero score of every Marvel-branded film to date. And yes, that includes every entry to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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

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