Friday, June 30, 2017

Balancing the Sound and Score: Sonic Storytelling in Wonder Woman

By Caitlan Truelove

Wonder Woman is not your standard superhero film in many ways, the most important being the balance of sound and score. Previous research indicates that superhero films contain 1) a score buried underneath explosions and 2) an essentially forgettable score. James Buhler and David Neumeyer note that “however effective and appropriate these scores are in themselves, the trend that they represent has occasionally been criticized for resulting in a slick but somewhat anonymous style.”[1] Wonder Woman, though filled with the action-packed battle scenes and spectacular sound effects that we have come to expect from male-centered adventure films, contains a score written by composer Rupert Gregson-Williams that is equally balanced with these sound effects. He succeeded in composing a soundtrack that is distinguishable and memorable, providing more basis that Wonder Woman is a different kind of superhero movie.

Wonder Woman
’s score evokes the work of Hans Zimmer, which is not surprising, as Gregson-Williams worked under Zimmer. Indeed, the two-note motif associated with Diana’s electric cello theme is highly reminiscent of the Kraken theme heard in Zimmer’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. However, unlike Zimmer’s treatment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy (2005–2012), which critics accused of “recycling too many musical ideas from the established tropes of Zimmer’s previous scores,” Gregson-Williams created a soundtrack with distinct musical ideas, while still including Zimmer’s and Junkie XL’s original Wonder Woman theme from Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016).[2]

Not all films need be as leitmotif-driven as Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings or John Williams’s Star Wars, but cohesiveness of audible musical ideas can serve a valuable function in unifying a film’s broader narrative arc. Wonder Woman contains two important associative-thematic cues (as Grace Edgar describes them) heard during sound effect-heavy scenes: “Amazons of Themyscira” and Diana’s Wonder Woman theme. (See Grace Edgar and Jessica Getman’s posts for transcriptions of these themes.) Janet Halfyard writes that in superhero films, the hero’s theme is typically “present and directly connected to action, but no single version of the theme is used so extensively that it becomes the sole identifier of the hero.”[3] She indicates that Williams’s Superman and Danny Elfman’s Batman themes employed this technique, and Gregson-Williams likewise uses this strategy to paint a sonic portrait of Wonder Woman. However, Wonder Woman’s score is mixed more evenly with sound effects than recent superhero film soundtracks, indicating that Diana’s story is being told in the music as much as it is on-screen.

NPR reports that Gregson-Williams worked extensively on the cue for “No Man’s Land,” which accompanies one of the most important scenes in the film. For the first time, the audience sees the updated, female-gaze perspective on Diana’s battle gear, which director Patty Jenkins emphasized is “total wish-fulfillment” and “should be appealing to women.” During this scene, the Germans fire ammunition and throw grenades at Diana, who deflects them with her gauntlets and shield. This could have been a sound effects-driven scene, with the music mixed low enough so as to be “inaudible.” Instead, the battle sounds and the music, a development of the “Amazons of Themyscira” theme heard previously during Diana’s sparring lessons, are evenly balanced, with neither one overpowering the other. Diana, unlike many of her male superhero counterparts, fights for love and not power or recognition, fulfilling her duties as an Amazon warrior, and the equal balancing of thematic and diegetic sound helps to convey these crucial character traits. In fact, Jenkins had Gregson-Williams edit the cue for this scene several times before she was satisfied. The final result is a powerful scene, which had many viewers reduced to tears.

I thought I heard an electric guitar in Wonder Woman’s theme, first presented after the “No Man’s Land” sequence when she storms into a warehouse full of German soldiers to fight them single-handedly. However, this is actually performed by concert and soundtrack soloist Tina Guo on the electric cello. Although there has been no research on the use of solo electric orchestral string instruments in film, the electric guitar has been used widely in Western concert works and soundtracks. Ben Jameson notes that the electric guitar conjures up a variety of images, particularly counterculture movements and rebellions.[4] However, Steve Waksman points out that the electric guitar can also reinforce the “marginalization of women and ethnic minorities” because of its association with white men.[5] The first two Iron Man scores contained electric guitar, and Jon Burlingame associates this with “the brashness of Tony Stark.”[6] In the third Pirates film, Hans Zimmer included a solo electric guitar when the main six characters meet to parley, giving it an American Western/showdown vibe. The use of the electric cello for Wonder Woman’s theme emphasizes Diana’s – dare I say it – badassery, since the instrument has not been commonly used in traditional film scores, and therefore does not carry the associations of the electric guitar. Additionally, viewers (like myself) think they hear an electric guitar, associated with the masculine, but it turns out to be a cello (associated with the female voice) electrified. The instrumentation is outside the norms, as Diana does not conform to traditional gender roles and stereotypes. This all supports Jenkins’s goal of portraying a “badass” Wonder Woman.

Diana’s theme and sound effects are yet again balanced in this scene as they were in “No Man’s Land,” and work together to showcase Diana’s warrior skills as she slides deftly along the floor and leaps out a window. Her theme is also presented during her fight with General Ludendorff, who she thinks is Ares but isn’t. The “Amazons of Themyscira” cue becomes more strongly associated with Diana during the climactic sequence between her and Sir Patrick Morgen, who is actually Ares. In both cases, her themes are as prominent heard as the sound effects. These presentations indicate that the music is just as important as what is occurring visually on screen and are meant to be experienced as a whole.

Gregson-Williams presents discernible musical themes without patterning his score on a Wagnerian model, and the soundtrack evenly balances music with sound effects during battle scenes, an unusual mixing decision since the development of Dolby surround sound in the 1980s. Critics and viewers have applauded the film’s representation of women both on- and off-screen. Gregson-Williams’s soundtrack also reflects Diana’s Amazonian warrior values and provides a model for future superhero scores. More memorable thematic cues that are balanced with sound effects in action-packed scenes should be applied to break the trope of forgettable superhero soundtracks.

Caitlan Truelove recently graduated from Syracuse University with a Master of Music in Violin Performance and a Certificate in University Teaching. Her research interests include gender and music, performance practice, and film music. More information can be found here.

[1] Frank Lehman, “Manufacturing the Epic Score: Hans Zimmer and the Sounds of Significance,” in Music in Epic Film: Listening to Spectacle, ed. Stephen Meyer (New York: Routledge, 2017), 33.
[2] Janet Halfyard, “Cue the Big Theme? The Sound of the Superhero,” in The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics, ed. John Richardson, Claudia Gorbman, and Carol Vernallis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 185.
[3] Ibid, 190.
[4] Ben Jameson, “’Rock Spectrale’: The Cultural Identity of the Electric Guitar in Tristan Murail’s ‘Vampyr!’,” Tempo 69, no. 274 (2015): 22.
[5] Steve Waksman, Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 5.
[6] Jon Burlingame, “Changing the Superhero Soundscape,” Variety, last modified April 16, 2013,

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