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Oppenheimer | Why Ludwig Göransson's Score is Great

Updated: Aug 31, 2023

All analysis in the following blog is based solely on the information given in the film and not on any research of real life events in order to explore the close ties a great musical score has with its narrative.

Most reviews of Ludwig Göransson’s score to “Oppenheimer” rave about the use of solo violin and the recording techniques devised to make impossible tempo changes playable. Some discuss its epic hybrid sound (synth and orchestra), the complete lack of traditional percussion (drums and standard orchestral percussion instruments were not used, but other sound effects like stomps, dosimeter static, and synths were used percussively), or the overall equality shown to the music, dialogue, and sound effects. None, so far, have addressed the question of why the thematic material works so well with the character of Oppenheimer and the narrative the film follows. To discover why Ludwig Göransson’s score is great, we must ask, “What is the meaning behind the music of Oppenheimer?"

Every film composer is faced with the same daunting question when beginning a project: “How on earth am I going to do this?” Every modern film project seems to begin with endless possibilities, few guardrails, and often no sense of direction for how the music should go. What style or genre should the music be? Should it contradict or mirror the visual style? What instrumentation is appropriate? What or who needs themes? Should the themes be lyrical, classical, minimalistic, timbral? How do those choices influence the audience’s perception of the film, from its timelessness and enjoyability, to its meaning and impact?

For Göransson, the answer to these questions started with the emotional weight of the Manhattan Project and the creation of a tool (or “gadget”, as Oppenheimer calls it) that would forever change the world, if not destroy it. Every choice—from the timbre (the “color” of a sound; what distinguishes a violin from a trombone, or even a high note from a low one played by an oboe, for example) of the sounds used, to when and why certain sounds are used—finds its genesis in the weight of the film’s ultimate moral question; a question of choosing the lesser of two evils at the risk of destroying humankind. A question placed on one broken man’s shoulders.


So, how does the creation of the music stem from this dilemma?


There are four aspects of the score highlighted below that reveal just how much work was put into the creation of Oppenheimer’s score:

Instrumentation,

Timbre,

Melody,

Rhythm


 

Instrumentation & Timbre


The first place we find meaning in the music of Oppenheimer is Christopher Nolan’s suggestion to use solo violin: An instrument that has historically been associated with the intellectually sophisticated compositions of Haydn and Mozart, as well as the manic screeching and glissandi of thriller films like Bernard Herrmann’s score to Psycho or Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. Not only is the violin capable of such emotional range—as many articles have already explored—its soloistic use, in contrast with its appearance in its orchestral section, mirror the trajectory of the film’s scale.

We are first introduced to Robert J. Oppenheimer (Played by Cillian Murphy) as a visionary individual who is both intrigued and terrified by scientific theory. His eager pursuit of both personal and scientific interests generate from within his character, manifests in the real world with other individuals, and subsequently drive him to question his decisions and ultimately cause him deep remorse. This is the cyclical sequence of his behavior throughout the film.

Oppenheimer's eager pursuit of both personal and scientific interests generate from within his character, manifests in the real world with other individuals, and subsequently drive him to question his decisions and ultimately cause him deep remorse. This is the cyclical sequence of his behavior throughout the film.

To summarize these sequences: his devotion to theoretical physics lead him to direct the Manhattan project that, while winning the war, produces the atomic bomb that caused mass fatalities and had the potential to literally destroy the world; this led to the “eternal punishment” referred to by the quote at the beginning of the film. Likewise, his interest in the ideas of the Communist party led him to romantic affairs, affected his marriage, caused the allegiances of him and his intelligentsia to be questioned, led to the death of Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), and eventually wrenched him from the pedestal of public praise. All of this is represented aurally in several moments throughout the entire musical score.

Solo violin is used heavily, mirroring the intimate and individualistic parts of Oppenheimer’s mind; however, the violin is almost always incrementally joined by a gradually increasing group of instruments, primarily a larger violin section. Listen, for example, to this excerpt from the cue “Quantum Mechanics” (Listen 0:00-01:03):

There are several interesting things about this cue. The first is its similarity to “Can You Hear The Music?”, a cue which plays over Oppenheimer’s visions of swirling atoms and particles. Note how the swirling string patterns and 21 abrupt tempo changes (how fast or slow a song is played is determined by Beats per Minute—BPM—which defines the song’s tempo. Rapid changes in this speed are very difficult for a large ensemble to perform, especially extreme changes in recorded music that is often aided by a metronome) in “Can You Hear The Music?” mirror changing speeds of the revolving atoms. Oppenheimer’s theme, which we will analyze later, is presented by a horn and brassy synth combination, while underlying synth plucks and pulses begin taking over the acoustic sound— musically embodying Oppenheimer’s ideas and theories that become real science that eventually grow so quickly that they elude his control.

“Quantum Mechanics” is heard as Oppenheimer begins teaching these theoretical concepts to his class, which starts with one single student. Then, the class size expands to four more students, and then even more join, until the classroom is full.

What do you notice about the string section (When the violins, violas, celli, and basses are grouped together in an orchestral setting, they are collectively referred to as the “string section") in the first minute of this cue (each “song” or piece of music in a film is referred to as a “cue”)? You might notice the sound gets "thicker". That's because it starts with solo violin, then at 0:26, four violins are added. At 0:34 we hear eight violins, and later, a harmony line in another violin section is added. Notice also the prominence of the harp and “shimmering” textures in this cue, softening the tone to appropriately match the educational scene.

Another noteworthy aspect in “Quantum Mechanics” is the brassy synth melody, which solely contains two notes (F# and E, a major 2nd interval apart). Notice how the first note carries tension that is resolved by the second note, which feels like the melody is complete (despite being only two notes). The significance of the exclusive use of these two notes—rather than the entire melody—will become more apparent in the later discussion of the theme, but note for now that Oppenheimer has not pushed the film’s events so far that he begins second-guessing himself or regretting his decisions. Only the first two confident and resolute notes are present.

Similar inflations and reductions of the string ensemble size can additionally be heard throughout the film, including the cues “Fission”, “American Prometheus”, “Theorists”, and “Kitty Comes to Testify” (Also note that about an hour of music is missing from the soundtrack release, which is a typical practice).

The use of violin is not the only significant instrumentation choice used however. In fact, Göransson often uses different timbres or instruments as a thematic link to characters more than an actual melody (The modern trend in film music is to create “sound worlds” for a film: a color palette that is uniquely identifiable and exclusively associated with a particular film. Characters or events within these films may have a “theme” that is created by a unique sound or combination of sounds instead of a lyrical melody, like Darth Vader’s march or the Indiana Jones theme.)—a technique he likely picked up during his time at Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control Productions. For example, Kitty (Oppenheimer’s wife, played by Emily Blunt) is associated with a piano chord progression (a sequence of chords—multiple notes played together—that may repeat). The piano exists in the score only to direct the audience to Kitty and her relationship to Oppenheimer, whether or not she is on screen.

Similarly, harp is used frequently in association with Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), in conjunction with his theme, which is first heard in “A Lowly Shoe Salesman”. Listen to the below excerpt from “Fusion”, where the harp melody may be more clear (0:08-0:20):

The final note on instrumentation is ironically the choice of no instruments and minimal instruments heard after the Trinity test and Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. The test bomb in New Mexico had exploded to complete silence—save for the sound of Oppenheimer’s breath and the callback quote “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”. The silence leading up to the announcement of the Japan bombings is similar. In the party sooner after, as Oppenheimer is praised as the “father of the atomic bomb”, the music sneaks in to tell us that there is no triumph felt by Oppenheimer in this moment. His thoughts dwell not on success, but on the devastation his “gadget” has caused. He realizes the project he was once in command of has reached beyond his control, and the emptiness he feels is conveyed by the sparse instrumentation and motivic fragments in “What We Have Done”, which bears a striking resemblance to the opening of Mozart’s famous “Lacrimosa” from his Requiem in D minor, K.626:


 

Melody & Rhythm


The most popular instance of the melody (according to Instagram trends and Spotify plays) is heard in the cue “Can You Hear The Music?”, which begins with the reoccurring string run motif (a short fragment of music that is repeated throughout a film or other work; often confused for a melody, which is longer in form) known for its seemingly impossible tempo changes.


Above this evolving texture is the aforementioned brassy melody, initiated by the same two notes (F# to E) mentioned earlier, which land on a downbeat (the first and strongest beat of a measure; in a pop song, you might hear a kick drum on this beat). The confidence and strength of this moment is aided by the addition of bass, a metric modulation (a shift in emphases in the rhythm that makes the music feel as though its sequence of strong and weak beats is changing), and a tempo change. The following repetition of this two-note motif at 0:48 is rhythmically less strong, landing on beat four (the last beat in a standard 4/4 measure, making it a weak beat as opposed to beat one, where you might expect the melody to finish) instead, as if Oppenheimer has started to lose his confidence and his next step is uncertain (Should they build the device, given the risks uncovered by their calculations?). The next two notes at 0:57 (B and E), return to a place of high rhythmic strength (the second note lands on the strong downbeat again), but even higher harmonic strength given the relationship of those two particular notes, which can have one of the strongest tension-release relationships of all notes in a scale. However, the tone of the next two chords (D Major leading back to E minor) a moment later are reflective of the consequences Oppenheimer faces after his choices are pushed too far.

The next movement between those same two notes (B and E) is less rhythmically established, and tension builds as the melody, harmony, and tempo all climb to a climax. Notice how these rhythmic and harmonic fluctuations cause the melody to directly follow the sequence of Oppenheimer’s behavior described earlier. Most, if not all, occurrences of the melody are constructed in this same way.

 

Instrumentation, Timbre, Melody, and Rhythm


Finally, let’s see how all of these aspects—instrumentation, timbre, melody, and rhythm—come together in beautiful musical storytelling by comparing the cues “Can You Hear The Music?” and “Destroyer of Worlds”.

“Can You Hear The Music?”, as discussed previously, begins with the rising and falling violin motif used for Oppenheimer’s visionary dreams that led to his success. The organic, acoustic world is soon met with the electronic—foreshadowing the construction of the bomb by his team of scientists (and what Göransson refers to as “impending doom”). These string runs are then doubled (the exact same line is played by two or more instruments) by synths and digitally sped up as the new sound world takes over, symbolizing the project leaving Oppenheimer’s hands.

Before listening to “Destroyer of Worlds”, remember that Lewis Strauss was envious of Oppenheimer and orchestrated the AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) hearings to ultimately bring down his rival. Remember also that his theme is often presented by harp.


This cue opens with a harp playing a deconstructed, fragmented version of the atomic swirls presented by the violin section in “Can You Hear The Music?”. The two cues are in different keys (what set of notes are used; For example, the key of C Major starts on the note “C” and uses all seven white notes on a piano before repeating), but you may be able to hear some similarities between this harp part and the violin part at the beginning of “Can You Hear The Music”. If you were to put these two parts in the same key, you would find that they both use the exact same sequence of notes, with only a slightly adjusted rhythm.

As you may have guessed, this brilliant decision to have the harp play these fragments musically reflects how Strauss has taken what Oppenheimer dreamt and built, tearing it apart through the AEC hearings. Then, Oppenheimer’s solo violin enters with nearly the original melody, although this time it is played with a more romantic tone and backed by an open, almost vocal synth. When the horns and brassy synth take over the melody a moment later, the swirling dream motif is gone; only the synth pulses remain (String runs do enter later in the background, but with different notes), just as the fruits of Oppenheimer’s work continued after his reputation was ruined.

 

Al Fine

While news articles and interviews focus on the broader details of what was used in a film score like Göransson’s, it is perhaps more important to investigate why certain choices were made. Not only does the deep connection with the narrative provide a springboard for imagination and creativity for the composer, it subconsciously draws the audience into the experience of the film and excites the analytical critic. Additionally, the analysis of one film score may lead to the understanding of another. A similar analyses of instrumentation, timbre, melody, rhythm, and any other aspect of music can be applied to any film score to learn why it works so well (or why it does not). Great composers put an exceptional amount of thought at care to craft original pieces of music for a film, and this extra thought often goes unnoticed by the general public. My hope is that this exploration opens a new avenue of understanding, interest, and inspiration for you, the reader, next time you watch a film or listen to its music—there just might be more than meets the ear.

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