The music of 'Harry Potter': A glockenspiel and E minor make for an iconic theme song

First composed by John Williams, “Hedwig’s Theme” is the music associated with Harry Potter. Just like the 'Harry Potter' franchise itself, “Hedwig’s Theme” will probably be one of those immortal pieces off a movie magic in the twenty-first century.

Warner Bros. Pictures/Newscom
Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort face off on a promotional poster for the final film in the 'Harry Potter' film franchise, 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.'

Thursday night, or, technically, Friday morning, I felt like my childhood was over. Melodramatically, of course. No, I didn’t turn 18 or go through some Salinger-esque loss of innocence. I saw the last Harry Potter movie.

I may not be a die-hard, spell-casting Potter fan, but I did feel a large era of my life come to a close when that movie ended. I used to play Harry Potter on the playground in kindergarten. The Chamber of Secrets was my first midnight premiere of a movie. The Prisoner of Azkaban was the first book I read in a day. Due to these deeply planted roots, these following words could easily spin out of control into a phonetic scrapbook that 99% of the world most likely doesn’t want to hear.

So I’ve decided to focus on something that is probably a major reason we all love those movies, and it goes like this:

This may as well be the universal sound for “wizard” since 2001. First composed by John Williams, “Hedwig’s Theme” is the music associated with Harry Potter. Though the eight movies have had different composers, this theme has been used in every movie. Just like the Harry Potter franchise itself, “Hedwig’s Theme” will probably be one of the most immortal pieces off a movie soundtrack in the 21st century.

In the last movie’s trailer, the notes of the iconic music are chopped up like a skipping CD and are paired with blinks of ambiguous clips from the film. It’s been made into ringtones, arranged for practically every instrument and ensemble, and seems to represent more than just a book series. Harry Potter has been said to have “taught a generation how to read,” and has infected the lives of millions. “Hedwig’s Theme” is to Harry Potter what “I Have a Dream” is to MLK.

John Williams, the composer of “Hedwig’s”, is a legend in film music. Not only did he create the Academy Award-winning score to “Star Wars,” but he also scored music for the films “Jaws,” “Indiana Jones,” “E.T.,” “Jurassic Park,” and “Schindler’s List.” Though I am not a huge fan of Williams in terms of his symphonic music, his talent really blossoms in the scores of these legendary movies. They’re movies that need music like his.

So what makes the Hedwig motif so iconic? For one thing, it’s a basic melody that can be remembered and hummed, unlike an ostinato or long, drawn-out accompaniment. It is in a familiar key, E minor, and, like most catchy melodies, doesn’t pull a Schoenberg and stray off of that key too much. The melody clearly follows a steady pulse (I think it can be thought of as either a more playful waltz or, in a darker way, a slow 4/4), but it subtly winds around it, like a wire wrapped around a pole. But the motif goes beyond the tangible aspects.

To place an E minor theme on a glockenspiel juxtaposes two different moods—darkness and playfulness. It’s slow yet suspenseful, calm yet foreshadowing. It works equally well on that small glockenspiel or with a full-sized orchestra. To strike a balance like this is, in my opinion, the perfect way to embody something grand, for the theme can apply to the many different aspects of whatever that thing may be.

You may not be a fan of Harry Potter, but you have to admit that it has gained a place in this world where it has to please millions of people, in terms of the necessities of art. If the music to the film series didn’t measure up, the movies would not have the impact they do to parallel the books. Even if the music was commendable, if it didn’t have an iconic theme, there would be much less to latch on to. “Hedwig’s” is like a burr in your sock.

Then, does this mean all movies need an infectious theme? Most definitely not. The Harry Potter franchise is one whose success is largely due to the small details in the books and movies such as wizard candies, spells, and dozens of minor characters. This is almost a formula for creating a cult series. Harry Potter certainly has themes and characterization, but not as much as, say, “The King’s Speech” or “The Social Network,” films that were nominated for the Best Score Academy Award in 2010.

“The King’s Speech,” a film about King George VI and his stammer, needed music that added a time-appropriate mood and wasn’t too overly present. Alexandre Desplat gave that to the score. “The Social Network,” whose score I have written about before, was about loneliness and the conflicts between humans. It therefore needed an internal, lonely, buzzing soundtrack. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross accomplished that, and it won them the well-deserved Academy award.

Harry Potter is a franchise that infects the childhoods of teenagers like me because of the fact that it has so many memorable aspects. We can dress up in hundreds of different costumes, play Quittich, and cast spells on each other. We can become so familiar with the main characters we feel like family to them. This is why it needs a piece like “Hedwig’s Theme.” Without that magical, slightly dark glockenspiel that blossoms into a full orchestra, we would have one less, large thing to latch onto.

After the last shot of Daniel Radcliffe’s face faded off the screen, I just knew that I was surrounded by crying audience members. Yes, they will miss Harry, Ron, and Hermione. They will miss the rush of going to the next premiere. But they will definitely miss hearing that familiar “B E, G G flat E, B A, G flat” in a new setting for the first time. They just might not know it.

Elena blogs at Neo Antennae.


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