I want to talk about the ways music becomes the villain in some movies. In my last post I talked about music that monsters, witches, and demons dance to. But you know the kind of “villain” music I mean.
After all, what is the 1960 movie Psycho without the screeching violins of the shower scene? How could Darth Vader make an entrance without John Williams’ Imperial March? (Although Williams didn’t introduce that character theme until The Empire Strikes Back). Simply the sound of it makes the hair rise on the nape of your neck.
Nobody Takes My Dog
While a lot of music has been written about a whole range of evil beings, it isn’t until the 20th century, and the magic of movies, that music becomes the villain in a deeper way. Particular pieces of music came to symbolize specific witches, monsters, or very bad people throughout popular culture.
The first instance that comes to my mind is a theme from the 1939 classic film, The Wizard of Oz. In the movie’s early scenes, the wealthy and influential Miss Almira Gulch rides her bicycle to Dorothy Gale’s farm. She wants to take Dorothy’s dog, Toto, away to destroy him. The wind kicks up as she tears the dog from Dorothy’s arms.
Even as a young child, I was horrified by Miss Gulch. Dogs are my constant, stalwart companions and nobody—NOBODY—should ever try to take my dog away from me.
I cannot think about Miss Gulch without hearing her theme music in my mind. Herbert Stothart composed a theme that whirled like the pedals of Miss Gulch’s bicycle, and like the tornado that would carry Dorothy and Toto away. The music was as relentless as Miss Gulch’s determination to kill Dorothy’s dog. And its menace was unmistakable when it returned later in the movie with the flying monkeys. That music denoted evil, pure and simple.
But the ultimate example of music playing the role of the villain came in the summer of 1975, when movie-goers encountered another movie theme that turned out to be even more terrifying than Miss Gulch on her bicycle.
Director Stephen Spielberg thought John Williams was joking when the composer called him up, excited to play the theme music he had written for Spielberg’s new movie.
Two notes? What kind of theme can you make from two notes played on a tuba?
A killer theme, as it turned out. Or at least a theme for a killer. Spielberg was shooting Jaws, his first major motion picture, and the mechanical shark he counted on to play the villain wasn’t working. At all. With Bruce, the mechanical shark, sidelined, Spielberg turned to the idea that the scariest villain is the one you don’t see. Together the director and the composer made those two notes the most terrifying movie villain ever.
Music Becomes the Villain
Played slowly and softly, Williams’ two notes told moviegoers the shark was there—somewhere—even though we couldn’t see it and the characters on the Orca had no idea they were in danger. Played faster, louder, those two notes said the shark was on the move, just out of sight. The notes sped up, reaching a relentless attack speed, and audience members were terrified. The shark could be anywhere. It could strike at any second. And you were the target.
You couldn’t see it, you couldn’t out-swim it, you couldn’t possibly get to safety in time . . . And, yeah, you definitely needed a bigger boat.
In the summer of 1975, moviegoers were scared witless by those two notes, and the summer blockbuster movie was born. Is it too much of a pun to say Jaws opened wide? Prior to Jaws, studios usually opened their big films in four or five major cities first, before gradually broadening their release. Jaws opened in 465 theaters across the United States and Canada in one weekend and made back its production costs in just ten days. Williams’ score won an Oscar and the shark landed at number 18 on the American Film Institute’s list of 50 Best Villains.
That’s what can happen with two notes, played on a tuba, when music becomes the villain.
About Author G. S. Norwood
As we note in her Weird Sisters Publishing biography, author “G. S. Norwood was more or less doomed to a life as an arts professional.” Part of that sweet “doom” was being steeped in classical music from birth (and introduced early to the classical pieces mentioned in this Music Becomes the Villain post).
Throughout her life she frequently has worked or lived in musical, or music-adjacent, spaces. A radio station. The Van Cliburn Foundation. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Right up through her current position with The Dallas Winds, much of her professional career has been spent writing for and about musical organizations, and helping to run them.
Her late husband Warren C. Norwood learned to play a whole range of musical instruments after she bought him his first mountain dulcimer in 1987. She herself has played clarinet and lap harp, and is an avid concert-goer with a particular love for guitar music. Themes of music and musicians also play a major part in her published fiction to date: Both of the Deep Ellum Stories revolve around music. So does her novel-in-production Wrong Way Riley, which we hope to release in 2024.
VIDEO AND IMAGE CREDITS
Many thanks to Cycleblaze.com for the still photo from The Wizard of Oz, Ranker.com for the still photo from The Empire Strikes Back, and the Jaws Fandom.com wiki, for the behind-the-scenes production photo captures Bruce the Mechanical Shark, jaws agape, motoring through the water on one of the rare occasions when he actually worked. They all came together in the header image. We also thank YouTube, for the video clips of the Imperial March, Miss Gulch’s theme, and the “shark theme” from the Jaws soundtrack.