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

How to Train Your Dragon | Unrestrained Creativity and Emotional Resonance

(Note: this section in particular will have the maximum impact if you have already watched the film in its entirety. Having already heard the soundtrack separately is also a bonus, but not required.) 

After listening to the samples of John Powell I’ve provided above (or if you were proactive enough to search his name on YouTube), chances are some of you have started imagining what action music sound like, when this guy writes them. And how. (We’ll get there. eventually.)

How to Train Your Dragon stands as one of the most singularly resonant animation franchises of the 2010s. Not only commanding respectable box office returns, its two entries thus far soars with passionate storytelling, lovable characterisation and intricate world building, and has triggered worldwide acclaim across all ages. Surprising almost no one in the film music fandom community, standing proudly amongst the centre of the praise was John Powell’s breathtakingly old-fashioned score.

French horns immediately heralds the film’s main/flying theme, as the first track ‘This is Berk‘ opens to a black dragon silhouette over the night-covered seas. A bassoon solo, fiddle and humming female choir leads the theme onward in a quietly nostalgic manner. The film’s immediate opening action scene then allowed John Powell to introduce his theme for the Berkians: aggressive lower-register strings, stampeding percussion and multi-layered brass bursts forth with a melody that shines with masculine pride. A sub motif was also performed at 01:46: an authoritative fanfare that introduces the village chief, Stoick the Vast. Adding to the already dense soundscape, Powell unrelentingly adds in his trademark brass textures and a war-crying male choir. However, taking into account the actually goofy personalities of the Viking characters, Powell’s theme for Berk was written with multiple dispositions in mind: when it was utilised by playful woodwinds instead, the theme actually starts to sound like a lighthearted jig. In addition, the composer introduced another theme for the Vikings at 03:15, a more homely and comedic theme that accompanies Hiccup’s interactions with Gobber, further adding to the feel of the world and emphasising that the main characters are hard-boiled eggs with hearts of gold. Not to miss out on moments of straight-faced comedy: as Hiccup daydreamed about his life-long crush Astrid catwalking towards him in slow-motion against the backdrop of a fiery explosion, Powell took the opportunity to foreshadow his love theme for the film (03:00): an introduction that pays off big time later.

So, in just one track that accompanied a Bond-style opening action scene, Powell was able to introduce all of his major themes for the film, and promptly establish the musical personality of How to Train Your Dragon: grandiose, action-packed and proudly romantic.

Needless to say, the relentless energy shown off by this track, along with its more quieter, introspective moments were peppered all over the entire album, featuring a full 70 minute experience, during which the world of Hiccup becomes musically entranced within Powell’s vision. Tracks such as ‘Dragon Battle‘ and ‘The Dragon Book’ exemplifies the composer’s continuing efforts in fleshing out the world, as he begins to establish the mythos behind the dragons. The theme for the beasts was introduced in the former track with arrogant sneers from the tubas; the rest of the brass section played in unison, a melody that felt oppressive and dangerous. Coupling that with marching percussion and the clangs of anvil strikes, the Vikings’ aggressive depictions of the dragons were made glaringly clear.

Significantly, in a telling creative move by John Powell, the rest of the score from the track ‘The Downed Dragon’ and onward is characteristically anchored by the ascending and descending note progression that accompanied Hiccup’s first encounter with Toothless; a resulting musical leitmotif that constantly shifts in personality to narrate the changing beats of the film as the story moves along. This motif is first introduced at 03:13 of ‘The Downed Dragon‘, following almost a minute of musical suspense. The tortured progressions of the strings competently depicted Hiccup’s conflicted values, as he battled with his father’s expectations and his own moral values. The french horns’ minor chord shift of the flying theme seemingly concludes the exchange. But instead of ending it there, Powell immediately shifts the table as Toothless took advantage of Hiccup’s moment of weakness, pinning him down with his claws as the motif explodes into a powerful frenzy of electric guitars, bagpipes and a strangled fiddle: a perfect demonstration of the Night Fury’s raw power. Note that this motif is repeated alongside yet another altered reprise of the main theme in ‘The Dragon Book‘, as chimes, bells and the harpsichord take over the role in performing the motif at 01:06. Listen for reprises of the idea throughout the entire soundtrack, and take note of how it depicts the shifting moods of different scenes.

Speaking of the main theme…similar to the above-mentioned leitmotif, Powell has been constantly reprising it since the beginning of the film. The narrative implications of this decision cannot be overstated: starting from the humble french horn solo in ‘This is Berk’, Powell later established this theme as the central musical device to tell the story of Hiccup’s evolving companionship with Toothless, notably kickstarting it with the masterful track ‘Forbidden Friendship‘.

This scene in the film features some of the most organic and quietly heartfelt thematic progressions ever put to animation: few directors and writers would risk keeping the two main characters trapped next to a lake for five whole minutes, with nothing to depict but the slow changes in their relational nuances. The risk paid off as the scene is one of poetic simplicity. As for the music, John Powell’s score elevated the atmosphere to the next level, as he completely diverged from the rest of the score’s usual mannerisms, this time opting for a more unique soundscape of the marimba, xylophone, sleigh bells and the female choir as the basis of the track, all the while reconfiguring the main theme into multiple slightly altered progressions. The result is a gradually building musical environment that effortlessly complements Hiccup and Toothless’ curiosity in each other; a curiosity that entangles and binds them, eventually ending with a cathartic moment as Toothless finally acknowledging his trust in Hiccup, by resting his head on an outreached hand in acceptance. A beautiful, forbidden friendship indeed.

Following this highlight, the composer’s attention to maintaining his tapestry of thematic ideas was showcased once again by the track ‘See You Tomorrow‘: a wonderfully youthful montage accompaniment that plays off Hiccup’s theme, the flying theme and Berk’s theme in seemingly conflicting progressions that depicts Hiccup’s double life of befriending a dragon (note the grand return of the Hiccup/Toothless motif again at 01:05), and becoming a celebrity back home for supposedly knowing ways to defeat them that the vikings had never thought of. The usage of the penny whistle, bagpipes, the fiddle and a harpsichord in such spirited enthusiasm and relentless tempo gave the montage an undeniable sense of forward motion, with Powell harking back to his old days scoring Chicken Run (when’s the last time you hear kazoos in a film score?) and Shrek, as well as finding inspiration in legends such as the works of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (though granted, Korngold’s brand of swashbuckling high adventure film scoring was heard all over this soundtrack).

The flying theme comes to an eventual full realisation, as Hiccup perfected his flying gear for Toothless and went on for a ‘Test Drive‘. Riffs of electric guitar, bagpipes and the full Powell symphonic treatment affords this flying scene with the exhilarating sense of soaring in high velocity on the back of a dragon.

By now, I think I’ve made some clear points of Powell’s mastery of thematic development. So, in summarising his action music for the film, I believe ‘This is Berk’ more than sufficed in giving you a general feel of how much thought is given to a battle music track. However, listening to tracks such as ‘Astrid Goes For a Spin‘, needless to say that I feel my readers need to experience more of his How to Train Your Dragon action music right here, right NOW.

Take the 9 minute long duo of ‘Battling the Green Death‘ and ‘Counter Attack‘ for instance. To musically narrate the climactic battle between the vikings and dragons, the humongous task of matching the epic visuals almost felt like a small fry to Powell, as his ability to breathe energy into the entire symphonic and choral ensemble at his disposal was perfectly showcased by the sheer complexity of the two tracks: thematic development, dense orchestrations that navigate multiple emotional spectrums from despair to hope and finally triumph, and of course the emotional epicentre of Hiccup’s reunion with his father.

Quiz yourself on just how many themes, motifs and different reprises of them John Powell was able to write into his final battle scene music.

Hey wait…did I forget something? Remember that little detail I mentioned Powell teasing at the beginning of the film?

Astrid and Hiccup are perfect opposites of each other. One represents the youth as expected by Berkians: self reliant, physically strong and goes for the kill head on. The other waits and navigates his world through logic and innovations. Like magnets of opposite attractions, the two eventually found the middle ground: a romantic flight with Toothless as the most awesome wingman ever.

I think a little insight from the filmmakers themselves would help me talk about this…legitimately wonderful scene. From the filmmakers’s commentary track:

Chris Sanders (Co-writer/Co-director): “It’s a moment where we can really indulge the flight, like all things ‘flight’: the way the camera’s relating to the dragon, they way we cut between shots…The whole idea of this sequence was to evoke this real, beautiful expanse both inside and outside of the characters. The other thing we were trying to do (but not too much so), was to gently disorient the audience. We do our best in these shots to barely ever show the ground. Once they are clear and they are in the clouds, it’s just a landscape. There is no up or down.”

Bonnie Arnold (Producer): “You’re all with Astrid in discovering this…fabulous world that Hiccup knows. And he’s sharing it with her, which I think it is so touching. I also think this is my favourite music cue, actually.”

Dean DeBlois (Co-writer/Co-director): “It is a beautiful cue. John brought this in very early on, and it was just one of those winning melodies that we stood by to make sure it didn’t get tampered with.”

Sanders: “This is one of the shots that people pick out of the whole film to talk about. I think it’s brilliant and it does so much to accomplish that sort of disorientation that makes you feel you’ve left the ground behind.”

As Astrid’s elevated breaths fades into the background, all evidence of diegetic sounds melted away, and John Powell’s music takes over. No dialogue. No sound effects. It is such a cookie-cutter love theme: violin solo, passionate note progressions, cooing angelic choral work. The usual. And yet, it works wonders here.

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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