Fantastic Scores and Where To Find Them

ScoreKeeper on the music of the HARRY POTTER universe, culminating in FANTASTIC BEASTS.

illustration by Alamo Drafthouse graphic designer Kelsey Spencer

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The literary and cinematic world of Harry Potter is heavily invested in modern pop culture. Everywhere you look you’ll see signs of Harry’s spells tingling every nook and cranny of the Muggle world, including our fashion, societal behavior, architecture, art and, of course, music. The film scores of Harry Potter have earned a privileged seat at the table of pop culture where other scores like Psycho (1960), Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977-2016), the James Bond films (1962-2016) and Star Trek (1966-2016) have resided for decades. All of these scores transcend the boundaries of the paper on which they were written and infused themselves into the very fabric of our public awareness. Walk down the street and ask random people to sing you a theme from any one of these films, and you’d be hard-pressed to pinpoint somebody who couldn’t fulfill the task. The fact that the Harry Potter films are only fifteen years old is impressive as it typically takes decades for that kind of infiltration to be this culturally permanent.

Through the eight Harry Potter movies, five composers have taken up the baton and woven their musical magic into the ears and hearts of audience members not bound by age, sex, ethnicity or status. William Ross, Patrick Doyle, Nicholas Hooper and Alexandre Desalt have all built upon the foundation laid by John Williams in the first film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001), using their own unique voice within carefully prescribed limitations. Each composer value adds to the musical lexicon instead of simply mining it. While fans are eager to hear familiar themes in subsequent films, a great sequel score often relies more on well-crafted new material cut from the same cloth as the previous. Yet, when the opportunity is ripe, those familiar themes can present themselves and aid in the nostalgia of the narrative.

Now that the cinematic universe of Harry Potter is expanding beyond the confines of the original eight films, the opportunity to develop this bountiful cornucopia is limitless and represents another unique paradigm in the annals of film music. It’s rare we see such a rich and vast collection of stories tangentially related to a central character or narrative that has been scored musically by so many diverse composers. The Star Wars universe represents a huge collection of narratives; however, its music has been primarily defined by a single composer (although this is beginning to change).The James Bond films typically call upon the titular theme at opportune moments; however, beyond the melody itself, there doesn’t seem to be as many common ties between each individually composed score. Perhaps the most congruent model to compare the potential direction of the Harry Potter scores is Star Trek.

Throughout the last half-century, Star Trek has been an exemplar for creating a multi-faceted cohesive musical universe using common melodies, harmony, rhythms and textures. Even though more than a dozen composers have left their fingerprints on the rich musical legacy of Star Trek, you can feel the aural connection between the earliest episodic scores to the latest cinematic blockbusters. Yet each cue is unique to its individual composer which allows the musical language of the Star Trek universe to expand naturally and with artistic grace.

Upon first listen to James Newton Howard’s evocative score for Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them (2016), it seems that is exactly where the music of Harry Potter is headed. Newton Howard is definitely incorporating the original Harry Potter themes which are the mortar that binds the bricks to that universe; however, what is more interesting to note are the bold original themes. While entirely fresh, they seem oddly familiar. Why is that? Perhaps it’s because Newton Howard fabricates his musical vocabulary from that which is homogenous to the original. If you are familiar with Newton Howard’s music you’ll notice some of the distinct characteristics of his style: odd time signatures, pounding percussion ostinatos and infectious thematic material built upon smaller melodic fragments or motifs. However, if you listen closer you’ll hear the idiomatic characteristics of what is already familiar: simple themes, verbose harmony, kaleidoscopic orchestrations, huge dynamic contrast and that intoxicating playfulness that is essential to any strain of Harry Potter music.

While Newton Howard’s score for Fantastic Beasts greatly contrasts the personal style of John Williams on many levels, it still feels like a score from that universe. The subtle differences should also be embraced as this fresh narrative features new characters, concepts and situations, thus warranting a distinctive voice. Together, the collective efforts of all of these composers - past, present and future - should continue to build a legacy that is rarely rivaled in film music history. It also further proves how dissimilarly-styled composers can address the same source material and value add a particular creative work rather than destroy it through mutual opposition. The future is certainly bright for Harry Potter’s musical universe. As long as we hear “Hedwig’s Theme” a time or two, there will be no limits to where it goes.