Film Music 101: Borrowing

Borrowing is a tricky subject to discuss in the world of film music. Almost all composers do it, but hardly anyone will talk about it (officially that is). And that’s a shame because borrowing is one of the most interesting things to look at in a film score (or group of scores).

Borrowing is what happens when a composer takes a theme from another score (usually one of their previous works, but not always) and places it in the score they’re presently working on. There are many reasons why this might need to happen. A composer might be working on several scores in a single year (i.e. James Horner in 1995) and instead of creating a wholly original score for each film, it might be more convenient to borrow and re-use several themes, particularly if the music fits in the new film.

As a general rule of thumb, if a composer scores at least two films in the same year, it’s likely you can listen to both soundtracks and find at least several identical cues. For a good example, check out Deja Vu and Deja Vu II where I do a comparison between cues in Star Trek II (1982) and Aliens (1986) (both composed by James Horner).

Jerry Goldsmith talks about Alien

Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Alien (both from 1979) both provide a good example as well. In this case, the similarity is slight, but unmistakable. First, watch Alien and listen to the music in the opening of the film (after the opening title), when the camera is panning around the empty ship. Then, go to Star Trek: The Motion Picture and fast forward to the scene where Spock steals a spacesuit. It’s the exact same music!

John Williams is equally guilty in my opinion. While not identical, compare Princess Leia’s theme from Star Wars (1977) to Marian’s theme in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981); they are suspiciously similar.

220px-Raiders

Elmer Bernstein (of The Ten Commandments (1956) and The Magnificent Seven (1960) fame) borrowed a fragment of his Magnificent Seven theme and placed it in the opening for The Great Escape (1963) (it can be heard during the opening credits).

But why doesn’t anyone talk about this if everyone does it? Well…while borrowing is a fact of musical life (classical composers have been doing it for centuries), many (outside the industry) view the practice as tantamount to “cheating.” The feeling is that it’s not right to re-use parts of a film score because it “cheapens” the new product. Of particular irritation are the moments when composers borrow themes that they did not originally create. For this reason (I believe), composers choose not to talk about this process very often (though that’s not to say they never talk about it, I just don’t think they discuss it enough).

First of all, I need to point out that this is NOT plagiarism. Once a theme has been written, it belongs to the studio and NOT the artist. So if a composer needs to borrow a certain theme that another composer created, they are free to use it. Case in point: John William’s theme for Superman: The Movie (1978) being reused in Superman Returns (2006) (the first attempt at rebooting the franchise). Also, in a similar vein, John William’s main theme for Jurassic Park (1993) makes a prominent reappearance in Jurassic World (2015).

I personally love borrowing, because for me, it’s fun to listen to the different soundtracks and follow different themes as they reappear in different films. That’s all for now, enjoy the weekend! -Bex

For more Film Music 101, see here

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*all images are the property of their respective film studios, they are only being used for illustration

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