Put That In Your Pensieve…5 Thoughts on the Music in the Harry Potter Films

By Amanda DK

Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Considering that my religious views on Facebook are “Harry Potter and Power Yoga,” I’m downright embarrassed that I waited until the Tuesday after it premiered to see The Deathly Hallows Part 2.  Overall I left the theatre happy, with an uncontrollable urge to attack someone with a wand and a desire to re-read the seventh book for the third time.

Forgive me for stating the obvious here, but bringing the Potter Universe to life could not have been an easy task.  I think I speak for many, if not all, fans of the books when I say that the world that J.K. Rowling creates is almost more precious to us than the characters themselves.  It is a character.  Every element demonstrates such attention to detail, from the personalities of the paintings at Hogwarts, to the departments in the Ministry of Magic, committing them all to the screen must have been daunting to every single member of the production team.  But what about the music?  What does this fantastical world sound like?  What sort of genres or artists would be surrounding the characters; what would they listen to?

Music has come to the forefront in many different ways throughout the series, some good and some…a bit misguided.  Here’s a look back…

1) “Hedwig’s Theme”

In 1975, John Williams introduced the unforgettable two-note motif for Jaws into pop culture.  26 years later, and after multiple iconic themes for films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Wars, Superman, Indiana Jones, and Jurassic Park to name a few, the legendary composer wrote “Hedwig’s Theme” for The Sorcerer’s Stone.  The tune can be heard in all eight Harry Potter films, and it’s impossible to hear it and not be immediately transported to Hogwarts.

“Hedwig’s Theme”

2) Williams, Hooper, Doyle and Desplat

In addition to composing “Hedwig’s Theme,” Williams scored all of the first three movies – but none of the last four.  Patrick Doyle (Thor, Nanny McPhee, Gosford Park) stepped in to do The Goblet of Fire, followed by Nick Hooper (The Girl in the Cafe) for The Order of The Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince.  Finally, Alexandre Desplat (The King’s Speech, The Queen, Fantastic Mr. Fox) finished off the films, scoring both parts of The Deathly Hallows.  Going back and listening to “Hedwig’s Theme” after watching the final films, you can really hear the difference between their scores.  Williams used his epic, magical touch to mold the soundscape of Rowling’s enchanted universe.  Doyle and Hooper retain Williams’ wonder, but introduce the darkness that permeates the later books, guiding films four to six through their move out of the “kids” category, and into adulthood.  Finally Desplat, known for more intellectual, dramatic fare, elevates the last two films to maturity.  It’s a perfect arc for a saga that spanned a decade.

Alexandre Desplat “Lily’s Theme”

The moment this track opened The Deathly Hallows Part 2, I knew immediately the final film was going have a completely different feel.

3) “Double Trouble”

Rarely did actual songs find their way into the Harry Potter films, and it’s easy to see why.  What do you place against such a specific and unique world that doesn’t take a viewer out of the story?  Well, like Rowling did in the books…you make your own rules.  I don’t ever recall a “Hogwarts School Choir” appearing on the page, but in The Prisoner of Azkaban, director Alfonso Cuarón has a group of students singing “Double Trouble,” a tune composed by John Williams using a few phrases from Macbeth as the lyrics.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
Double, double toil and trouble
Something wicked this way comes

In Macbeth, the words are (appropriately enough) chanted by a group of three prophetical witches.  The full song can be found on the Harry Potter Wiki.  It’s quirky and ominous and oh so fitting for the film.

“Double Trouble”

4) Source Music FAIL

When Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds “O Children,” appeared in The Deathly Hallows Part 1, Daniel Radcliffe was quoted as saying, “That is the coolest Harry Potter has ever been.”  My response to that: “TRICK QUESTION.  HARRY POTTER IS NOT SUPPOSED TO BE COOL.”  This is exactly why source music has been so absent from the Potter films – it immediately takes the viewer out of the picture.  One of Rowling’s greatest achievements in writing the novels is that they feel timeless.  Even though it can be deduced that the books take place in the 1990s (James and Lily died on October 31, 1981 which puts Harry’s birth on July 31, 1980) both the books and films do a good job of leaving out any telltale indicators of a particular era.  The decision to have a Nick Cave song playing on the radio creates a connection with the real world that is almost uncomfortable.  Besides, “O Children” was first released on Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, which came out in 2004.  If we’re being technical (and extremely nerdy) with the chronology here, the song wouldn’t be on the airwaves for at least five years.

Oh, and it’s also an extremely uncomfortable and totally unnecessary scene.

Not that the song is bad, it’s just used poorly.  Take a listen for yourself.

Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds “O Children”

5)  The Weird Sisters

Perhaps the main reason why I love the Harry Potter books, is that the universe Rowling creates manages to be both magical and real.  Yes, your favorite characters are witches and wizards, but they’re also mothers, fathers, politicians, students, etc.  Harry has to face both horcruxes and homework (and hormones).  While the books had pages and pages to develop the details, the films had far less time, so I enjoyed every moment they were able to remind us that Harry, Ron and Hermoine are still teenagers.  One such moment was during the Yule Ball in The Goblet of Fire.  After the traditional first dance, the students all rock out to The Weird Sisters – a popular wizarding band mentioned in the books.  Even so, they could have been any punk rock event band, as other than looking slightly eccentric, there was nothing magical about them.  And that’s what made the moment great.

In both the film and the books the band is all male.  In the film, the frontman of the band is actually played by popular Britpop musician, Jarvis Cocker.  He is backed by Jonny Greenwood, Phil Selway (both of Radiohead), Steve Mackey (Pulp), Jason Buckle (Relaxed Muscle) and Steve Claydon (Add N to (X)).  As The Weird Sisters, Cocker wrote three songs for The Goblet of Fire soundtrack, “This Is The Night,” “Do The Hippogriff” and “Magic Works.”  One only hopes those kids realized how cool that was.  If only they could have reunited for The Deathly Hallows Part 1 and possibly saved us all from the awkward.

Head over to Amazon to buy the Harry Potter film soundtracks…you won’t be disappointed.

2 Thoughts on “Put That In Your Pensieve…5 Thoughts on the Music in the Harry Potter Films

  1. Anna T. on August 3, 2011 at 3:47 pm said:

    Amazing article, Amanda! So insightful and very eloquently put together.

    That being said, while I agree with just about everything you wrote, I have to disagree with you on the Nick Cave observations! Echoing your point, I do think that the timelessness of the series (both book and film) do great service to the series as a whole. And I totally respect and can understand the argument that putting in a contemporary song can take you out of the moment, but (as a viewer) I felt the scene in its entirety was charming, and unbelievably sweet. As someone familiar with his music, I had a whisper of a voice in the back of my mind muttering “is that… could that be… Nick Cave??” That being said, that recognition wasn’t distracting for me personally. And for the most part, the audiences of Harry Potter films might not necessarily recognize the song, and could appreciate that it’s a beautiful, melancholy piece that could belong to several decades of music, and isn’t specifically the type of song that screams, “CONTEMPORARY!”

    Additionally, I’m in the camp that is pro-Harry and Hermione dance scene. I felt that it was indicative of their closeness, while subtly reminding us of the platonic nature of their relationship. He was, in his very uncool and dorky way, trying to make her feel better. It’s un-self-conscious, innocent, and has this sadness about it… like two people desperately clinging to normalcy in a truly unique and terrifying situation. I have found, in talking to my fellow Potterheads, that there are two types of fans: Those who love this scene, and those who hate it and think it’s awkward (I think it’s a little awkward too, but isn’t that kind of the point? These are awkward kids). There’s really no grey area where this scene is concerned.

    Ok, and now I’m coming across as a total nerd by getting into what this scene/song-selection have meant to me emotionally, but I know you of all people can appreciate my Potter passion. You also must know that I respect your obsession and recognize it as one that may even out-strip my own! :)

    This is the best thing I’ve read all day, HANDS DOWN.

    • Andrew T on August 4, 2011 at 4:27 pm said:

      While I appreciate your argument, Anna T., I feel that I must speak up for the opposing camp.

      I really don’t have any issue with the song choice. It’s a very emotional song from a very talented artist that conveys a longing for a return to simpler times. And frankly, I don’t even mind that it’s contemporary. The anachronistic element never crossed my mind. The song could have been a Beatles song, and it still would have bumped me. A huge part of the reason that I love Harry Potter is because of the vast, detailed universe that JK Rowling created. They don’t debate our politicians, they have the Ministry of Magic. They don’t idolize our sporting stars, they have Viktor Krum. They don’t analyze our authors, they have Gilderoy Lockhart. It just feels like muggle and magic cultures rarely, if ever, mix.

      So it stands to reason that the perfect song to define Harry and Hermione’s moment would be something from their universe. Something from the wizarding world’s most brooding indie rock heartthrob. The best way to do this would probably be to commission an original track tailored to the moment. Hell, it could even be by Nick Cave. It feels wrong to me to pick something from our world to color a moment from their’s.

      That being said, I’m also just against the moment in general. To me, when Hermione is distraught because Ron, the friend on the verge of becoming something more after a seven year slow burn, has abandoned her, the last thing that would comfort her would be a pseudo-romantic slow dance with her other best friend, the one who newspapers and whispering gossips have often conjectured to be the true object of her affection. I don’t doubt that Harry would comfort her. I just think he would know her enough to find a better way.

      But this is a music blog, I fear I’ve strayed to far. My point is this: GREAT ARTICLE!

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