Bohemian Rhapsody: My Favorite Movie of 2018

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I’m just gonna jump right out and say it- Queen is my favorite band of all time. I have yet to encounter a musical group with more perfect vocal harmony, energy, and versatility. No one song sounded the same with Queen, and each piece felt like an evolution of the band’s ideas. The centerpiece of all of this was Freddie Mercury, the iconic frontman with a voice so powerful it could shatter a glass building. Naturally, when I heard that a biopic was being developed based on the band and with a strong focus on Mercury himself, I was beyond excited. What I didn’t anticipate was 2018 being a somewhat slow and disappointing year for movies, at least in my opinion. Luckily, sitting down to watch Bohemian Rhapsody was the cinematic highlight of the year, as not only does the film do justice to the legacy of Freddie Mercury, but it also brings the brilliance of Queen back into the forefront and into the public conversation. It is without a doubt one of my favorite musical biopics of all time, and may even be my favorite if not for the genius of the 1985 Mozart biopic Amadeus.

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Directed by Bryan Singer, the film began with some production troubles. Actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen was originally slated to play Mercury however differences arose between what the surviving members of Queen wanted and what Cohen wanted and as a result, Cohen left the project. I’m not sure how Cohen would have done in the role, however actor Rami Malek does such a phenomenal job as Freddie Mercury that he may as well be a lock for the Best Actor award at the Oscars. Malek simply becomes Mercury in every way, from speech to facial expressions to mannerisms. Malek’s performance is not only the best performance by an actor this year but one of the best in the last decade. The film leads up to the 1985 Live Aid performance, and when comparing actual footage of the performance to the scenes in the film, it’s clear how dedicated the filmmakers were in nailing every aspect of Freddie and the band’s movements, and how well Malek mimics Freddie’s style. Surrounding Malek, however, is a strong supporting cast consisting of the other three members of Queen: guitarist Brian May played by Gwilym Lee, drummer Roger Taylor played by Ben Hardy, and bassist John Deacon played by Joe Mazzello. Mix in a few other good performances by Tom Hollander as the band’s lawyer and Lucy Boynton as Mary Austin, Freddie’s longtime friend, and former wife, and you end up with a not so star-studded cast giving absolutely star-worthy performances. Credit also has to be given for the make-up and costume departments for replicating Freddie’s iconic outfits and recreating the looks of all of the band members. Each actor in the movie looks like a mirror image of their real-life counterparts (Gwilym Lee is nearly indistinguishable from a young Brian May). The core band members themselves have infectious chemistry. There are great moments not only where the band interacts with Freddie, but also where the other band members are interacting with each other.

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Where Bohemian Rhapsody truly shines is in its focus on the most important aspect of Queen and Freddie Mercury, the music. Throughout the film are several scenes showing how some of Queen’s most famous songs came about and who was responsible for composing them. Whether it’s Brian May’s foot stomps for “We Will Rock You”, or John Deacon’s bassline for “Another One Bites the Dust” or the musical ponderings by Freddie that led to the song that inspired the title of the film, there was a lot of insight into the musical process of the band, how they kept innovating, how they worked as a unit, what inspired their music, and of course, how they went about creating the music. Most musical biopics play slight snippets of music but focus more on the personal lives of the musicians whereas, in Bohemian Rhapsody, entire songs of Queen are performed and to great effect. If there were ever a film about a band where the songs should feature heavily, Queen would be the band.

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Films based on true stories often exaggerate and embellish for dramatic effect, and that is still the case with Queen. Without going into what inaccuracies exist within the film, I will say that with whatever liberties were taken, the end result of added drama pays off with the exception of a few key events in the second act. Most of the drama surrounds Freddie’s personal life, and though many have criticized the way Freddie’s life was tackled, I think there was just enough of it that was explored without derailing the film and taking away the importance of the band. There were even some additions like Freddie’s family that helped to tie the film together including a powerful yet subtle moral lesson from Freddie’s father. The exploration of Freddie’s background also helped to give perspective on the struggles and poor influences that Freddie had while also not interfering with the mystique of Mercury. In fact, the entire journey of Freddie’s character in the film only enhances the larger than life persona of Freddie Mercury.

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By the end of this movie, there is a clear message to the audience about the powerful nature of Queen’s music, and the kinship of the four members of Queen that kept them together. This is all related through a beautiful climax that solidifies the legend of Queen and the legendary status of its members. Technically, Bohemian Rhapsody can be thought of as a two-hour advertisement for the band itself, but the subject matter of the film is more than worthy of a little more recognition. Based on the box office results of the film, it’s clear that there are more than a few people who have some love for Queen and their cornucopia of iconic and brilliant songs. So all in all, despite some muddled plot and lack of focus in certain parts of the film, Bohemian Rhapsody succeeds in paying homage to the legacy of Queen thanks in part to the brilliance of Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury, a talented supporting cast, and a dedication to concentrating on the music itself rather than other elements of a more tantalizing and provocative nature that is often explored in other biopics for shock value or intrigue.

The Dark Souls Effect

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Dark Souls is a 2011 role-playing video game developed by FromSoftware and published by Bandai Namco. The game continues the design and gameplay of its spiritual predecessor, Demon’s Souls. It is specifically known for its difficulty, vague instructions, and complex storytelling that must be pieced together through the environment and through objects and descriptions within the game. Due to the design, style, and especially the intense difficulty, there has been a recent trend in gaming where a game is referred to as “Souls-like” or “The Dark Souls of…”. For example, Cuphead is “The Dark Souls of two-dimensional side-scroller platforming games” or Thumper is “The Dark Souls of rhythm games”. It’s obvious that these comparisons are rather exaggerated, and Dark Souls, as well as the other Souls games developed by FromSoftware, are unique. The only “Dark Souls of” anything is Dark Souls itself, however, due to the breakout popularity of the Souls franchise, game developers and journalists have resorted to drawing comparisons between their properties and the Souls games. It’s not a foreign concept, as movies pitched to studios have often been described as “it’s Die Hard meets Lord of the Rings” or “Star Wars meets Titanic”. Drawing comparison to a more popular property makes it easier for companies to convey what they want people to think of their properties. In the case of Dark Souls though, the comparisons have been blown out of proportion to the point where anything even remotely difficult will be compared to Dark Souls. This is all related to something I like to call, “The Dark Souls Effect”. I’m going to be discussing what exactly “The Dark Souls Effect” is, its upsides and drawbacks, and how it will impact the future of gaming.

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The Souls games consist of Demon’s Souls (2009), Dark Souls (2011), Dark Souls II (2014), Bloodborne (2015), and Dark Souls III (2016).

I first picked up the original Dark Souls in 2014, and after struggling through only the first fourth of the game, I quit in a fit of rage. The game was simply too hard for me. Each enemy felt like a major threat, and the bosses were massively intimidating. I had also convinced myself that the game was simply unstylish and had clunky mechanics that made the difficulty artificial (I still think the game is a little clunky even now). I didn’t touch another Souls game until 2016 when Dark Souls 3 was released. Though I was still hesitant, under peer pressure and some considerable hype, I caved and bought the game. After some learning, I quickly fell in love with Dark Souls 3, and it is now in my top 5 greatest games of all time. Hungry for more Souls, I went back and played the original Dark Souls, this time playing through the whole thing and beating it faster than I did Dark Souls 3. I then played Dark Souls 2, and then Dark Souls 1 and 3 again multiple times. In the past two years, I’ve invested at least 300 hours in the Souls games, and I recently bought a PlayStation 4 primarily so that I could play the PlayStation exclusive Bloodborne, which is also a Souls game but with a different setting and story. I think it’s safe to say that I’m pretty experienced when it comes to the Souls games. What sets them apart from other games isn’t just the difficulty, but rather the minimalistic approach to guiding the player, and the vastness of the detailed worlds in which the games take place. When you first play the original Dark Souls, the world is interconnected and massive, crawling with enemies and teaming with areas to explore and items to discover. The world is also bleak, harsh, and dangerous. As the player, you don’t feel powerful, you feel insignificant. Everything in this world is bigger than you and can crush you in an instant. Because of this, it feels immensely rewarding when you overcome such overwhelming odds. It feels as if you triumphed over something that you weren’t meant to, like David against Goliath. There’s also the exploration aspect of discovering hidden areas and new helpful items. The fact that the player has to piece together the story and also figure out themselves what they have to do in the game makes it more active rather than passive. There’s also no pause button so you really have to be engaged and focus in. Then there’s the boss battles, exciting action set pieces against a single foe with a large health pool and high damage output where dodging and understanding their move set is key. These boss battles invoke something that transcends passivity in gaming. I can describe in detail the way I feel in many boss encounters in the Souls game: elevated heart rate, sweaty palms, and eyes glued to the screen. Then there’s beating the boss, a feeling of complete joy and triumph swells inside me as I either take a deep sigh of relief, jump for joy, and in some cases, cry tears (Yes I literally cried tears of joy when I beat the hardest boss in the Souls series). These moments created within me an obsession with these games, where the only thing I wanted to play was another Souls game, or something similar. When I ran out of Souls games to play, I played them again, and when I was done with that, I searched for other games that had the same kind of difficulty. Dark Souls and anything similar became like a drug for me, I just had to have my fix.  It’s likely that other gamers felt this way too, and so the industry responded by pushing out “Souls-like” games. This push for higher difficulty, more RPG elements, and intricate level design in games is what I call “The Dark Souls Effect”.

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Dark Souls thrusts players into a massive, interconnected world with dangerous foes.

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Intense boss battles take place throughout the game.

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The benefit of “The Dark Souls Effect” is that it’s a counterbalance to games like Call of Duty and movie-based “handholding” games where every aspect of the game is told to you through visual cues and arrow signs. The lack of in-game microtransactions, longer story, and greater emphasis on fluid gameplay also benefits the gaming industry. Games like Nioh and the new God of War have been successful in creating a variant of the Souls style of combat. Not every game is successful in copying the Souls formula, however, and games like Lords of the Fallen or The Surge came off more as imitations rather than their own experiences. Many developers in the industry have misunderstood the true greatness of Dark Souls, and have instead tacked on difficulty to their games. The thing is that Demon’s Souls, the Dark Souls games, and Bloodborne are unique in their overall package, through design and gameplay just as much as difficulty. It’s perfectly fine for other games to take inspiration from the series and try and improve their level design, gameplay, and world-building, but games coming off as lazy Dark Souls clones like Lords of the Fallen are happening more and more. It’s the same issue with Battle Royale modes from Fortnite and PUBG being copied. Call of Duty Black Ops 4 doesn’t need a Battle Royale mode but it’s doing it instead of a campaign mode to exploit the popularity of the Battle Royale mode.

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Games like The Surge, Lords of the Fallen, Nioh, and God of War have borrowed some elements from the Souls games, though God of War doesn’t simply copy them and has its own franchise to draw inspiration from.

Now, E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo for major game developers is right around the corner. Amongst the lineup, FromSoftware is teasing a new game called “Shadows Die Twice” which some have speculated to be a sequel to Bloodborne. The Souls formula hasn’t shown any signs of slowing, and we will likely get more games similar to Dark Souls. This is all fine and good, if there will be more Souls-like games, odds are some of them will be good and some won’t. I myself am conflicted on the continuation of the Souls series. Many have argued, and it is believed to be so, that Dark Souls creator Hidetaka Miyazaki never meant for a sequel to Dark Souls itself, and instead wanted to continue making passion projects with the same style of gameplay and level design like Bloodborne was, but the studio pushed forward with a Dark Souls sequel after the popularity of the original game. To that end, I hope the Souls formula continues but with new creative stories and periods. Demon Souls was clearly a medieval dungeon/castle crawler whereas Dark Souls was an open world, full-scale dark fantasy, and Bloodborne was Victorian Gothic. Though I’d be more than happy to play a Bloodborne 2, I would be just as thrilled or even more thrilled to play something fresh and new that adapts the Souls formula in new and innovative ways.

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The Souls games are some of the best games ever made. They have shown that video games can be challenging, thought-provoking, adaptive, mature, and still be extremely fun. There’s a true sense of engagement and accomplishment when playing through these games, and the impact they’ve made on the video game industry should hopefully continue with a greater focus on fair and rewarding difficulty. Challenge is one of the most important features of a video game. Much like a story needs the characters to overcome obstacles, the gamer needs obstacles to overcome in the game. Dark Souls boldly challenged players to take control of their characters and learn and discover how to play through a dark and formidable world. Though none of the games are perfect, they are all masterpieces in their own right for furthering the formula. The importance of “The Dark Souls Effect”, is that regardless of its quality, it highlights the need for detail and passion in creating challenging and fluid gameplay, complex world building and level design, and greater player interactivity and control. “The Dark Souls Effect” stirs up attention for a debate in gaming that is necessary and vital to the industry as a means of combating the rising corporatization of games. It presents the promising prospect of the gaming community asking for more games like Dark Souls that will improve gaming as an art form.

Westworld Season 1 Review

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For those of you haven’t seen Westworld, there are two things that you should know. The first thing is that the first half of this review is spoiler-free, and the second thing is that I would definitely recommend checking out the show. What Westworld does best is comprehensive storytelling. The first season runs at a perfect length and executes its story beats with precision. Unlike other science fiction shows like Lost where the end of each season leaves you with more questions instead of answers, Westworld concludes with just the right amount of new questions. The few unanswered plot threads don’t detract from the overall experience.

The only downside to Westworld’s brilliant first season is how they plan on upping the ante for the second season. The first season, in being so comprehensive, felt like a ten-hour movie with a solid introduction, middle and conclusion. The way the show ended, it didn’t seem to need a sequel. Regardless, without going too much into where the series is headed, I’d like to discuss the show as it stands.

 

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The show is based on a 1973 film by Michael Chrichton

Based off of a 1973 film written and directed by Michael Crichton (Author of Jurassic Park), Westworld aired on HBO in the fall of 2016. I hate to have to give away the premise because I watched the show without knowing a single thing about it, but the story features a Western-style theme park where rich patrons called “guests” can interact with life-like androids called “hosts”. As I said, I didn’t know anything about the show, so when I realized the characters we were following around were androids, it blew my mind. Essentially, the guests come to Westworld to engage in whatever fantasies they like with the hosts, mainly sex and murder. The android hosts repeat each day with specific routines that can be influenced or changed by interacting with the guests. Anytime a host is killed, they are patched back up and rebooted to continue the next day as if nothing had ever happened. It’s a torturous cycle, and it is brought up several times that if the hosts were ever to remember these experiences it would surely wrack their “brains”. The guests go about committing what would be deemed violent atrocities in the real world, however the fact that the hosts aren’t real makes the guests justify their actions.

 

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Video games like Call of Duty have been stigmatized as gateways to real-world violence

This concept of fantasy vs reality is paralleled much in today’s world to video games. Violent video games in modern society have often been stigmatized and believed to be a causation of real-world violence. The counterargument is that a game is a game, and the players are able to understand the distinction between fantasy and reality. When someone presses a button to kill someone else in a video game, it is not the same as physically pulling the trigger or making the fatal blow. Even in games like Grand Theft Auto where you can kill or harm anyone you like, the act of playing the game is far from actually going out and committing the crimes themselves. The argument that games train shooters is also preposterous. Shooting virtual guns from a PS4 or Xbox controller doesn’t prepare someone for actually holding and discharging a firearm. That being said, perhaps there is a line where fantasy and reality get too intertwined, and where the actions in the fantasy world reflect one’s character in reality. I believe that Westworld shows what happens when that line is crossed. The world itself, unlike a video game, is not virtual. The actions that are carried out by the guests are being done with their own two hands. The concept that Westworld explores here is becoming increasingly relevant, as virtual reality in games becomes more and more immersive. What’s to say that as VR gets more and more realistic, our actions in the game world become indistinguishable from what reality looks like? Are we still morally righteous individuals if we enter a virtual game world and slaughter people?

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One of the creators of the show, Jonathon Nolan, was heavily inspired by video games such as Red Dead Redemption, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and my personal favorite game of all time, BioShock. In fact, the elements of choice vs obedience and revolutionary new systems in exotic locations are clearly influenced by BioShock. Despite the facts surrounding Westworld’s immersive experience, many would still not consider Westworld to be crossing the line. A lot of you may think, if the hosts aren’t real, what does it matter? That is where Westworld’s true philosophical themes lie. Are the hosts real? Do they think? Feel? Experience pain? And if what the hosts experience is a series of programmed responses to external stimuli with some improvisational response built off of previously programmed responses, what makes them any different from us? I believe that this leads us to the fundamental question that Westworld explores: What is reality? Is our existence a result of calculated physiological structuring from a natural or divine source? Our brain consists of neurons firing, telling us what to do in which situation. What’s to say that what we experience isn’t the same as what the hosts in Westworld experience?

 

*************SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!!!!!!!*************************

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The show begins with Bernard Lowe, played by Jeffrey Wright, asking the host Dolores, played by Evan Rachel Wood, a question: “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?”. Dolores and the other hosts always say no, but the fact that hosts have to be programmed not to question their existence says something. The showrunners like to engage in misdirection, such as having the host Teddy, played by James Marsden, shown on camera when the off-screen monologue begins talking about the “newcomers”. It’s only later when Teddy’s bullets don’t harm the mysterious Man in Black, that we realize what Westworld is and who the “newcomers” really are. However, as much as the show loves to misdirect, it loves leaving clues even more. Lingering camera angles on the expressionless host’s faces seem to hint that the hosts have a greater awareness than the guests may think. Another way of being self-referential is in the music. Composed by Raman Djawadi of Game of Thrones fame, the music in Westworld combines traditional Western-themed tracks with anachronistic rock anthems like “Paint it Black” or “Black Hole Sun”. The player piano is constantly used as a source of diegetic music, and as a symbolic prop. The mechanical player piano reinforces the programmed vs improvisational themes in the narrative. Now, the two big twists in the show are the dual timelines and the fact that Bernard Lowe is actually a host recreation of one of the hosts’ original creators, Arnold. While the twists became apparent to me at a certain point in the show, the overall execution of these moments was so elegantly crafted that the obviousness didn’t detract from the experience. Especially if you look back, the clues were right in your face the whole time. Arnold and Bernard clearly dress differently, and the park is less ironed out and detailed in the older timeline.

 

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Anthony Hopkins as Robert Ford, one of the creators of the hosts.

The show is not without its faults, specifically in regards to suspension of disbelief. How do the guns work? How come they can hurt hosts but can’t hurt guests? Where do the guests go at night? How do the guests tell each other apart from the hosts? When Ben Barnes’s character stabs a host with a fork, what was to stop him from doing that to a guest? It doesn’t seem like they all know who they are before and are told to watch out for each other. Lots of things realistically about the park don’t make sense but the story is so interesting you aren’t super concerned about it. The dialogue is well written, and tends to tease and reference the idea of loops with lines like “There’s a path for everyone”, “Are you saying I’m repetitive”, and “Are you real? If you can’t tell, does it matter?”. Rewatching the show has been wonderful since I can now see the hints and references to future events, as well as see the story from a new perspective. I now know which timeline we are watching, and can observe the differences between the two timelines and how the park evolved.

 

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Evan Rachel Wood as the host Dolores

Westworld poses a brilliant philosophical question; when do the lines between reality and fantasy blur? Arnold wanted to create consciousness and replicate the human mind while the other creator, Robert Ford, played by Anthony Hopkins, believed the hosts were something purer than humans. Ford wanted to subject the hosts to the experiences of the park because he believed they had the capacity to take it because they were not, in fact, imperfect humans but instead perfect androids. Yet, in the end, Ford realizes his mistake and agrees with Arnold that the hosts were conscious. Eventually, he sets the hosts free of their programming that allows them to harm the hosts. It’s a perfect ending to a mostly perfectly crafted season of television. Yet, the series provides just enough opportunity for speculation and philosophical ponderings Ford definitely anticipated his death by Dolores, so was it his own code telling her to kill him or did he convince her as a sentient being without having to program her code? What separates humans and robots in free will? As Ford said, even we may not have free will as we still follow a serious of loops in our lives. One thing is certain, machine learning exists. Repetitions can slightly alter each time and become something new. As we gear up for Season 2, I think it’s crucial to assess the show’s first season as its own entity. As it stands, the first season of Westworld is pretty damn good, and once Game of Thrones finally ends, it should prove as a serviceable replacement for what to look forward to from HBO.

 

 

Arpeggios and TV Themes: Repetition in Music

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I could make up a clever anecdote about how something interesting sparked my thought process and motivated me to write about this but that just wouldn’t be the truth. I was walking around my college campus earlier when a random thought just popped up in my head: TV show themes copy each other. The Flash TV show theme sounds a lot like The Walking Dead theme, and also a lot like a track I’ve heard from Game of Thrones, and Stranger Things. As a vocal critic/commentator of derivation in pop culture, I spent the extra time I had today listening to and analyzing the structure of the TV melodies that all sounded eerily similar to each other. I’m sure there are movie soundtracks that follow the same pattern I’m about to show you, but since this is such a recurring thing in TV, I thought it would be more interesting to focus on. To make it easier to analyze, I’m transposing all of the arpeggios into the key of C.

The music I found was from The Flash, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, and Westworld. Now, when I say similar, I don’t mean identical (actually two of these are identical). They simply have the same rhythmic and melodic patterns.

To start with, here is The Flash theme:

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The Flash TV theme

Now here is the Walking Dead theme:

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The Walking Dead TV Theme

Sound pretty similar? If you look at the notation, you can see the similar sixteenth note structure. The Flash plays an arpeggiated version of a C natural minor scale, also known as Aeolian mode. Here it is below:

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An Aeolian takes the seven notes of a major scale and flats the 3rd, 6th, and 7th, so it ends up looking like 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7.

The Flash theme plays the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 6th of the scale then back down. So it plays the C, Eb, G, and Ab.

The Walking Dead theme is in a harmonic minor scale, it’s the same thing as a natural minor except it turns the seventh note of the scale back to a natural instead of a flat. So it becomes: 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, 7.

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The Walking Dead theme plays the 1st, 5th, then goes up an octave to play the 2nd and 3rd of the scale. So it plays the C, G, D, Eb, then back down.

Aside from the fact that the rhythm is exactly the same with the three sets of sixteenth notes, both of these themes start and end on the same note and feature a half step movement from 5th to 6th in the flash and from 2nd to b3rd in The Walking Dead.

Next, I want to take a look at “Here Me Roar” from Game of Thrones.

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The Flash TV theme

Now for references, here is the sheet music for The Flash theme:

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The Flash TV themeYup, they are exactly the same, note for note, beat for beat. Obviously they vary as each piece plays on but the core idea and the central theme of each piece is identical.

Another TV theme that’s still kind of similar but not as much as the other three above is the Westworld theme. The theme itself is composed by Raman Djawadi, the same composer for Game of Thrones so all of the similarities between the two themes could be a study on its own. Going back to the main ideas though, the Westworld theme also features a few elements that resemble the other TV themes.

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It includes nearly the same successive sixteenth note rhythm, however if you notice the lack of a double line on the last note means the arpeggio ends with an eighth note rather than a sixteenth note. Aside from the rhythm, the theme plays an arpeggio of the harmonic minor scale much like The Walking Dead. In the case of Westworld, it plays the 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 8th of the scale. So, it’s not entirely like the other themes, but it is a lot like the next theme below.

 

The Stranger Things theme is the least similar out of all the themes I’ve mentioned because of one simple fact, it’s in major.

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The Stranger Things theme plays the 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 8th exactly like the Westworld theme only instead of being in harmonic minor it is a C major scale. The flat 3rd is the only note that changes to make the arpeggio major. Just look at the notation and notice the missing b symbol.

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My Post (1)

I guess what I’m trying to say is not that these TV show themes copy each other blatantly, but rather that music in itself is a medium based in repetition. Art is created from inspiration and imitation. Repetition is the key to understanding what makes something truly beautiful. The arpeggios that are used in these themes exemplify the effectiveness of music, and how memorable and powerful pieces can be created by simply rearranging a few notes in a scale. In the rapidly developing medium of television and film, music that matches the intensity of what you see on screen is essential. So, sometimes the music will be similar and have the same notes and chords, but its nothing that hasn’t been happening since the birth of music. The arpeggio motiff in telivision has become a memorable repetition that joins the likes of the minor 2nd and 2-5-1 as elements of music that can be used to bring significance to a piece. These TV themes do sound the same and thats ok, however, I still see it as an interesting thing to point out. It reminds me that music is a complex and ancient art form where patterns of beauty can be found much like a golden ratio or a tesselation.