Compositional Forensics: Examining "Skyfall"

Compositional Forensics: Examining “Skyfall”

Michele Kaschub & Janice P. Smith

 “I like this piece and I want to make something like it. How can I do that?”

          Many times students have a favorite piece and wish they could make up something like it. However, they really don’t know where to begin or even what it is they like about the piece. The format we will present here will provide them with ideas for getting started as well as clarifying for them what it is that they find appealing. We use materials from our book, Minds on Music: Composition for Creative and Critical Thinking, to examine the theme song from the movie Skyfall as an example of a work many middle school and older students might find appealing. We coined the term “compositional forensics” to describe this approach.

There are three overarching questions that will need to be answered as we “de-compose” the piece. In Minds on Music we describe these as the compositional capacities.

(1) What feeling did the composer intend for you to experience? These are called “feelingful intentions.”

(2) What musical ideas did the composer use to bring these feelings to life? The way that composers partner sounds and feelings is called “expressivity.”

(3) What “artistic craftsmanship,” or compositional tools and techniques, were used to craft the music?

Let’s consider how these questions might help us understand how the essence of the James Bond brand is present in Adele’s hit “Skyfall.”

(1) To begin, have students figure out what path Paul Epworth and Adele Adkins may have used in composing “Skyfall.” Start by posing this scenario: You have been approached by the Bond movie franchise to create a theme song for the next Bond film. “What do you think of when you think about James Bond? Brainstorm some descriptors for the typical movie character.” This can be done individually, in small groups or as a whole class. Create a master list for the class to see on a board. (See the chart at the end of this lesson for a possible format.)

(2) Now it is time to connect to the music. Ask the students to listen to the “Skyfall” theme and notice how many items from the master list they hear in the music. Discuss briefly and eliminate any items the class agrees were not used in the music.

(3) Next, lead a discussion about five musical parameters we refer to by the acronym, MUSTS: motion/stasis, unity/variety, sound/silence, tension/release and stability/instability. These are compositional qualities that help create expressivity and will lead us to the second forensic question.

(4) Listen again, focusing on the second forensic question, “What sounds did composers use to capture the feeling of these descriptive words, feelings or ideas about Bond?” Ask students to simply jot down sounds that match just two or three of the descriptive words on their list. Return to the master list and note those sounds next to feeling words on the board. Group them as much as possible under the MUSTS (see chart below). It is useful to list descriptors down the side of the board and MUSTS across the top. Some of what students describe may well fall under ideas of artistic craftsmanship (see no. 5 below) and you can introduce that as well.

(5) Finally, to the degree possible given the level of your students, lead a discussion of the tools, elements, and methods the composers used to create the ideas identified in the MUSTS. This answers the third forensic question, “What specific compositional techniques and tools did the composers employ in creating ‘Skyfall?’”

This will likely include changes in tempo, dynamics, instrumentation, and use of repetition. You may want to focus on the form, chord progressions and other technical elements the composers employed. This is a fine time for teaching or reinforcing music vocabulary and terminology.

(6) Conclude the lesson by simply listening to the piece once more without a specific task. Students should find that they hear a great deal more in the piece than when the class began.

(7) Homework could include using compositional forensics on other pieces. This could also be a small group project for the next class.

By considering intention, expressivity and artistic craftsmanship employed by the professional composers of the “Skyfall” theme, students can identify a process that they can then use to create their own “Bond” theme or a theme for a character from a novel they have read or from a videogame or other source. Have students return to step one, choose one or more feelingful intentions, and begin their work.

Below is an example of what part of a section on a compositional forensics chart for “Skyfall” might look like. Other intentions are obviously present in the music and your students will likely be able to identify and list them.

“Compositional Forensics” chart

Intention Expressivity Artistic Craftsmanship
Surprising M

U

S – Sudden opposition of forte and piano

T

S

Full orchestra voicing of the opening chord presented [ sfz>p<mf ] and followed by quiet, solo piano before vocal entrance
Cool, calm and collected M – Static, evenness of rhythm, repetition

U

S

T

S – Predictable with a hint of anticipation

Even quarter note chords in upper instruments, bass line uses dotted quarter-eighth rhythm so that the eighth note on 2+ and 4+ feels eager to move ahead
Dangerous M

U

S

T1 – Rising and falling Bond theme

T2 – Builds throughout piece

S

T1 – Quote of “sol, leh, la, leh” with each pitch lasting for two beats in the accompaniment lineT2 – Use of high-pitched strings and woodwinds near end to maximize tension through both pitch and motion (constant eighth notes)

Michele Kaschub serves as Professor of Music and Coordinator of Music Teacher Education & Graduate Studies at the University of Southern Maine School of Music. Janice P. Smith is Associate Professor and Coordinator of Undergraduate Music Education at the Aaron Copland School of Music, Queens College. They are the co-authors of the book Minds on Music: Composition for Creative and Critical Thinking (Rowman and Littlefield, 2009) and co-editors of Composing our Future: Preparing Music Educators to Teach Composing (Oxford University Press, 2012).

© 2013 Michele Kaschub and Janice P. Smith