Film Music Criticism: Croaching tiger, Hidden Dragon


The previous essay of the film scoring analysis of Croaching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is revised for reference.


Film Music Criticism: The Croaching Tiger and Hidden Dragon


    Music is the heart of a film. A film without music is just like a man without a heart, only a body of no feelings. From this sense, if the film only contains story-line carried out by characters’ dialogues, though it works, it hardly touches audiences’ hearts. Indeed, music is essential to trigger audience’s feelings and emotions, creating the overall atmosphere ready for them to immerse into an alien world of imagination.

    Try to imagine the popular film in the 70s, “Jaws”. If this film has not used the driving two-note percussive motive to anticipate the approach of the huge white shark, or the film “Star Wars” without the now-famous noble trumpet fanfare theme to represent the princess’s lofty and majestic disposition, would the audience be so exciting and shocking? The top-selling of film soundtracks in the commercial market always evidences the important role of music in a film. Instead of the top-selling billboard that reflects the commercial value of the music in a film, its artistic value can be largely lies on the attribute of expressivity. Film music likens to the program music of western music in the 19th century. Program music can be story telling, attempting to describe a scene, a person, a subject, creating a related mood and atmosphere through sonic images. Similarly, Film music also can easily steps in an audience’s soul so as to express what neither pictures nor words can, creating a new meaning to the audience. Furthermore, music adds extra-dimension to a given scene, not only to emphasize but also to provide more body and depth to the story, to the characters, to the dialogues, and to the actions. To demonstrate the power of music in a film, let us discuss  three scenes in The Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon.


    In most action films, such as martial art film or Kung Fu film, the music always parallels and underscores actions. For example, in the scenario of ‘Catching the thief’, the plot is about the night fight between Jen and Shu Lien. Jen, because of her wild arrogance, she steals the precious antique sword which belongs to Li Mu Bai, the famous swordman of Wudong. Shu Lien attempts to catch her. The fighting occurs after Shu chases her for a period of time. Tan Dun, the composer, skillfully employs percussive sonority to create an exciting atmosphere by employing Chinese traditional percussions in this fighting scene. Doubtless a pair of Chinese drums can easily conjure audience up an imagination of a battlefield with the violent fight, since drum is always used in the real battlefield, so as to give signal to, and raise the valor of soldiers. Hollywood film music composers are without exception to exploit this handy, ready-made timbre, in many of the film scorings.


    In the scene of ‘Catching Thief’, the two Chinese drums are used to enhance the both characters’ vigorous chasing on the roof. Shu Lien tries her best to catch Jen to get back the Li’s sword. By employing the musical devices of repeated rhythmic pattern (ostinato) and accelerando to speed up the tempo, the climax of this chasing scene is gradually built up. Furthermore, a pair of Chinese drums creates a contrapuntal texture so as to increase the intensity of the actions of two fighters. Hit points are multiplied because of the vivid percussive sonority. The pace of the fighting is thus intensified. And the audiences can easily be caught up with the lively actions and the violence of the fighting that made by the contrapuntal hit points of the heavy beating drums. However, is the violent mood the only purpose that Tan Dun wanted to create in this scene? Not really. Times Magazine once said that this ‘flying-running’ fighting was a fantastic exemplar of a Ballet dance, somewhat a Chinese style. Undoubtedly, Tan Dun successfully imbues the fighting percussive music with the noble, yet graceful, elements that the dance music should have possessed. Accompanying with the slow motion, the two fighters’ elegant gestures of “flying’ and “chasing” on the rooftop just looks like a pair of dancers swinging to and fro, and up and down, on the dancing stage. In the climax of the fighting scene, the volume is gradually increased, locking the audiences in a hysterical abyss, seemingly to transport them to participate to the fighting world, as it were, letting them to share the glory of win and the loss of failure with the fighters. To be sure, without music, nothing can be experienced indeed.


    The scenario about how Jen loves at first sight with ‘Dark Cloud’ is also worth of considering. In this scene, the somewhat exotic style of music is played by yun, a Chinese ethnic plucked instrument, supported by the western strings at the background. This is a typical example of how music can locate a geographical location. The plot is about the leader of the gang of robbers, Lo, an local Xian Jiang whose nickname is called ‘Black Cloud’, comes to rob Jen’s troupe in the journey to Xian Jiang, an area of minority ethnic group. After Lo has taken Jen’s comb, Jen chases Lo, endeavoring to get it back. It is Jen’s arrogance and self-centered personality that forced her to do so. When Jen is fighting with Lo, the lively Xian Jiang dancing folk music enters. The fast tempo Xian Jiang dancing tune played by yun not only intensifies the pace of their fighting, but also creates an aura of Xian Jiang territory. The fighting between Lo and Jen, in this sense, is thus romanticized, seemingly to utter to audience that a romantic love story replete with exotic feeling just begins. The exotic feeling of the tune largely relies on the use of Arabic scale, or the Xian Jiang scale, which contains a distinctive feature of augmented second interval. Undoubtedly, the dance rhythm, together with the exotic style melody disperses the exotic, however romantic, aura. Afterward, while Jen stayed in the house of Lo for rest, the low-tone, quasi-murmuring cello stealthily steps in. The cello thematic melody easily reminds audience of the song ‘Love Before Time’, which elicits the endless sorrow of love, since their love of each other is not in the right place, as well as not in the right time. True, the romantic love, however ‘genuine’, is doomed to be a tragedy since Lo and Jen belong to different social status and backgrounds. No matter how deep is their loves, such ‘distance’, social status gap, still cannot be filled. The use of thematic song melody here not only enhances the coherence of the story-line, but also tells the audience that this ‘unequal’ love between Lo and Jen, which is emphasized by the conflicts aroused from Jen’s personal arrogance, as well as her deep longing for liberty, against with a generation of strict moral standard, is destined to be a tragedy, even in the very beginning as they firstly met.


     One of a remarkable example that uses music playing against actions can be found in the scene about Li fighting Jen in the bamboo bush. In this scene, the swordman master Li is eager to convert Jen’s wild temperament by his skillful martial art. He is likely to accept Jen as his disciple of Wudong. So Li fight with Jen in order to give her a moral lesson. As they are “flying-running” on the top of the bamboo trees, the theme song murmured by cello enters alternately with a group of discursive glissando wind gestures. Such evocative wind gesture seems to be made from the reed-like artificial timbres, recurring irregularly in a strict repeated pattern, and searching for a rest but it fails. Unlike the fighting between Shu Lin and Jen in the previous scene, the music, at this moment, cannot match the fighting actions perfectly. The glissando reed-like gesture, together with the slow tempo of the moving ostinato strings, functions to enhance the ‘flying-fighting’ of Li and Jen on the tree top moving under the support of the slow motion shot. The overall effect is that the violent fighting between them has been transformed into an elegant ballet with two figures dancing to and fro on the bamboo trees, however, dispersing drop by drop of melancholy. The brutal excitement, thus, is softened because of the music, which is so sparse, tender with a little restless and agitated. Under the aegis of the supporting music, everything in this particular scene, no matter it is the visual images or the aural perception, is romanticised, so unattainable, so distant, and so uncertain that deeply interlocks audiences’ hearts. Furthermore, the occasional murmuring thematic cello of ‘Love Before Time’ seems to tell audience that whether it is the teaching lessons given by Li to Jen, or the unwilling regrets of Jen in her unsatisfied life, the future of Jen is destined to be dark and gloom without bright sunshine. When Jen jumps into the river, the volume of music increases, again, intensifying the feelings and the restless agitated emotions of Jen. Her wildness and arrogance have not yet been surmounted. She continues to step to the road of no return.

    From the above analysis, it is clear that music written for film is not merely an accompaniment to the film, just for the purpose of bringing a nice melody for audience. On the contrary, music sounded behind each moving images requires composers’ unlimited imaginations and ingenuity, adding immeasurable artistic value to the film. This value inextricably links to music’s own expressive power. New meaning of each scene is generated because of this expressive power. Therefore, film alone cannot exists as a form of art without music. As a form of elite art, just like the traditional classical art music, film music can be regarded as an individual genre worthy of further scholarship in the advance academic horizon.


David Leung (theorydavid)

2013-03-10 (revisied)

Music Is and Always Must Be A Vital Part of Film Art


The more I teach the film music analysis in AMus course, the more I find student’s poor English in their answers of the paper question. Undoubtedly, the standard of English of the present Hong Kong students is increasingly worse than the previous generations. Perhaps, this is why I use one of the questions in the past paper as the issue to write the following essay. This writing is not a model answer but an essay, reflecting my viewpoints on the use of leit motives in two scenes of the Lord of the Ring II. As such, it is good for students to treat this essay as a reference, rather than a model answer for the examination.


Firstly, I would like to introduce part of a student’s writing for the Novemeber 2011 AMus Examination question. Readers can grasp a rough idea of the English standard of the present university student.

Student’s writing:

One of a remarkable example of  Music against action” can be found in the scene about “Treat to Hornburg”. The scene is about the Rohan army could not keep the enemy outside Helm’s deep, and retreating to the keep, enemies were everywhere,  Haldir was ambushed while protecting his last retreating troops. The scene slowed down when Haldir took the first hit. Then the camera changed to his Point of view in slow motion while he fell and looking at his dead fellow, suggesting his own death. There was no music in the battle, building up an agitating feel for audience due to they won’t know what to expect. The enlogy of medieval solo female singing came in when Haldir receive the lethal hit, mourning the lamentation of Haldir. The enlogy was sing in recitative style, including melisma, along with the slow tempo to support the slow motion shot, expressing the endless sorrow which deeply interlock audience’s heart. Music against action is widely used in expressing death, for example, in the Hong Kong movie “Internal affair 1in the scene of Anothny Wong felling from the roof of the building to a car, Tony Leung was shocked and the enlogy sang by solo female in medieval style representing his inner emotion. The used melody and style is alluding to funeral music, telling audience the death of Anthony Wong is a huge impact to Tony Leung as his true identity will never be recover.

My essay:


“Music is and always must be a vital part of film art.”

                          Discuss this statement. (AMusTCL Nov. 2011)


Music is an inseparable part of film art. If there is only dialogue in the film, audiences may understand the story, but may not be able to experience the drama of the plots, or to grasp the true meaning behind. In addition, music can create a proper atmosphere, which cannot be expressed by the characters’ dialogues alone, in accordance with the scene. As such, music is a useful tool to equip audience to prepare for, as it were, anticipating and experiencing the enchantments created from the particular scene, and even to share part in this fantastic imagined world. This is how a successful film penetrates into the deepest side of the audiences’ hearts, stirring up their emotions. If music is absent from the moving images, the film art is said to be incomplete.

For example, in the scene of the Riders of Rohan” of The Lord of the Ring II, the leit motive of ‘fellowship bond’, which is a recurring melodic unit functioning to represent the union fellowship formed by Aragon, Lagolas, and Gimili, is used to act not only as an essential coherent element to the series of similar battle related scenes (fighting in battlefields), but also as a sparkling catalyst aiming to stirring up the audiences’ emotional response to the fellowship union’s courageous, yet heroic spirits shown in the times of danger. In this scene, our three heroes attempt to rescue the two hobbits, Merry and Pippin, from the custody of the fierce Uruk-hal, a brutal mob of half-beast, half-man. They chase the enemy behind, climbing up the steep mountains and hills, running across the ample plains and rivers.  Facing hundreds and thousands of wild beast barbarians without fearing to put their lives in jeopardy, our three heroes show incredible valor and boldness that above any ordinary man can possess.  At this very moment, audiences never fail to be caught up in the series of escalating crisis under the sonic support of the leit motive, which establishes the overall mood of the bravery, yet daring, of our heroes’ fearlessness of death, filling up every theatrical spaces. 

To the more or less, the magic power of the ‘fellowship bond” motive is originated from its complex mixture of multifarious timbres. It is created by the usual battlefield timbres of horns and trumpets (horn call), sometimes going along with the wordless choir (vowels only) singing in an unusual style under the ageis of agitated strings in the background.This strange timbre, with a little exotic, is heard as if coming from a pious religious music such as the Mass or Passion. The effect is that the music sounds somewhat like a narrator occasionally dramatizing the heroic story to the audiences. The diffusive ‘distant’ sonority not only creates to audiences a sense of ‘being alienated’, but also seem to force them to wander off from the reality to the imagined world of the scenario, fighting together with the three heroes, sharing their tears, their laughter, their exultation, their anxiety, and even their desperation. Whenever our heroes face the similar predicaments, this overwhelming leit motive (fellowship bond) never fails to linger unnoticeably. Try to imagine, if the film is absent from the support of music, not only every dramatic battle may become mundane, but also every related scenarios may lose the coherence. Conceivably, audience will hardly follow up the story-line and feel indifferent to the dramas.

     Another exemplar of using leit motive to replace the dialogues of the characters, bringing a full meaning of the scene to audience, is in the final scene of Ring II. The motive is a pastoral style folk tune played with shepherd pan-flute, half improvisatory, half cantabile, floating above the tender strings, which is firstly heard in the Lord of the Ring I – The Fellowship of the Ring. In the beginning scene, while Frodo (hobbit) is sitting on the greenish meadow and reading book pleasantly, this haunting “Frodo Fellowship” motive appears and disperses an aura of serenity, so placid, so peaceful. However, the peacefulness of Frodo, all human of Middle Earth in particular, is not lasting long, since all creatures in the Middle Earth are doomed to face the coming greatest tribulation. Frodo, though unwillingly, is forced to bear the seemingly impossible mission—destroying the evil ring by throwing it into the Mount of Mordor. He starts his journey with his full companions, fights side by side with them, and even watches one of them dead. In the final scene of Ring I, Frodo intends to leave Sam and takes the boat to set off the mission alone, for the purpose of avoiding the further blood shedding of his faithful friends. However, without giving up his companion, Sam, even though he cannot swim, struggles to follow Frodo. Before sinking down to the river bed, Frodo rescues Sam to the boat. Replete with all hearty thanks, even tears, Frodo gazes at Sam wordlessly. All dialogues become excessive at this very touching , yet placid moment. The serene “Frodo Fellowship” pan-flute folk tune recurs, expressing the profound affection of both Frodo and Sam, recalling audience of their unshakable friendship. Without music, audience may understand the story but will hardly be moved.

Similar use of this “Frodo Fellowship” motive can be found in The Lord of the Ring II when the scene is describing Frodo’s deep affection of his intimate fellow companions, Sam in particular, and the remembrance of his lovely homeland. As we have pointed out in the previous discussion, the re-appearance of the “Frodo fellowship” leit motive in the final scene is remarkable among all other occasions. Here, Frodo is eager to give up his mission because he feels that he is too small, too weak, too fragile to accomplish the formidable mission, especially at the time he almost loses his life after the Night-rider’s attack. Sam, the faithful servant as well as the true friend, genuinely encourages Frodo to face boldly all daunting challenges and menaces that lie ahead, and to carry on this seemingly unfeasible, but meaningful mission. Sam uses the continual existence of the great heroes in all great tales as the illustration to reason with Frodo. He emphasizes that those heroes, in the history, might have chance to turn back but they did not. The reason is that they are holding on something worthy of fighting for. When Frodo asks Sam what this is, Sam gazes tenderly at Frodo without giving a single word. Again, the recurring leit motive functions amazingly as it did in Ring I. To audiences, the answer is clear, albeit without  any verbal expression. The comforting, yet peaceful, pan-flute folk tune (Frodo Fellowship motive) seems to undertone that the ‘thing’ worth fighting for is the precious brotherly affection among Frodo and his fellowship companions, and of course, the deep love of his homeland – Shire. In this very moment, music speaks of all things.

From the above discussion, it is clear that music is a vital part of film art. Numerous examples can demonstrate this. Music is the spirit whereas the film story is the body. Music is capable of expressing all meanings, replacing the function of dialogues in the most important moment. Furthermore, the recurring leit motive enhancesthe coherence of the story line, connecting each similar scene, and preparing an atmosphere for the audience ready to immerse into the movie world. This is how the effective film music works, evoking audiences’ emotionsand touch the deepest side of their hearts. As such, music never fails to add immeasurable artistic value to the film, always completing film as a form of art to the fullest.



David Leung (theorydavid)
2013-03-08 (Published)

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