Monday, June 05, 2006

Tritones... In... Spaaaaaace!

Scott Murphy, a friend from my Eastman* days, has an interesting article in the latest Music Theory Online: "The Major Tritone Progression in Recent Hollywood Science Fiction Films." The progression in the title, conveniently abbreviated MTTP for most of the article, is the movement from one major triad to another major triad with the roots a tritone apart (like C major to F# major). Scott has found this progression to be quite common in science fiction films, citing Flight to Mars (1950), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Destination Moon (1950), When Worlds Collide (1952), War of the Worlds (1953), Star Wars (1977), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Star Trek II (1982), Flash Gordon (1980), Dune (1984), Flight of the Navigator (1986), Men in Black (1997), Starship Troopers (1997), Soldier (1998), Planet of the Apes (2002), Lilo and Stitch (2002), Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001), and Treasure Planet (2002). The last movie is the main focus of Scott's analysis. In all these cases, the particular progression is used to signify outer space. Scott demonstrates why this particular progression would be a good signifier for the mysteries of outer space, thus making it a good fit with science fiction film scores. The article anticipates every question and rebuttal I could think of, especially the charge that a signifier isn't necessary for every film about outer space:
[32] However, a study such as this that focuses just on stylistic associations only sets the groundwork for aesthetic understanding. Robert Hatten, from whom I borrow the terms type and token, responds to Scruton's criticism by arguing that making such associations--or correlations, as he calls them--is just one part (but a necessary part) of a cyclical process whereby correlations guide contextual interpretations, which may further lead to new types and new correlations that feed back into the style. My analysis of Treasure Planet followed this cyclical path: a symbolic image of Treasure Planet was not correlated with the MTTP type, but strategically combined with a voice-leading variation on the MTTP, leading to my interpretation that the symbolic image represents to Jim a preliminary step to outer space, instead of representing outer space itself. However, this interpretation occurs multiple times, suggesting a new type that is operative within the confines of the film. The converse situation, in which the MTTP type accompanies something outside of outer space, can also generate interpretations. [I removed a footnote reference, to avoid confusion.]
The only deeply technical aspects of this article are the voice-leading justifications based on theories by Cohn and Lewin, and even those can be understood by someone who knows some basic music theory. Thus it is a very accessible article for non-theorists to peruse, seeing exactly what we music theorists do with our research time.

I also want to give a shout-out to three friends whose dissertations are listed in the latest MTO issue: Brent "Baby-face" Auerbach, Peter "The Beat Goes On" Martens, and Dave "I'm too cool for Eastman" Thurmaier. Brent and Dave were at Eastman with me, Dave taught at Lawrence for a year, and Peter was a fellow double-degree student at Lawrence (he did Music Ed and Classics). Peter is also a fellow music cognitionist, so we see far too much of each other.

* At one time there were three Scotts in the music theory program at Eastman. That was over the legal limit, so one was shipped back to Santa Barbara.


Hucbald said...

If he missed the placement of the tritone in the overtone series, methinks he missed out on a lot of the reason WHY major triads in a tritone relationship are so evocative of outer space.

A similar effect is evocative of the sea if the triads are a whole step apart. Gazillions of pirate/buccaneer movies use that in their scores. Again, the placement of the whole step in the overtone series has a lot to do with that progression's function as a signifier of oceanic voyages, and the fact that two fifths equals an octave-displaced whole step helps.

Scott Spiegelberg said...

Why do you think he missed the "tritone in the overtone series?" What is there to miss?

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