The Film Score Stands Alone; Wonderland in Elfman’s “Alice’s Theme”

10 May 2018

The Film Score Stands Alone; Wonderland in Elfman’s “Alice’s Theme”

A musical score often bookends a film, both inviting the audience’s attention as the opening credits fade and waving goodbye as the end credits roll. This is the case in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010): at the start of the film, pieces of a theme by Danny Elfman take form over the opening Disney logo and the theme develops fully as the first image — the moon among drifting clouds — fades into view. The music grows stronger as the film’s title looms across the sky and we see the clock face of Big Ben come into focus. Upon one’s first viewing, this musical theme, just as the context of the London sky, means nothing to the watcher, but by the end of the film, both are so solidly associated with the story world and its characters that they mean something completely different. With this context, the music no longer merely sets the scene with unfamiliar exposition, it becomes an entity of its own, closely related to the film while telling its own story, as well. This change occurs within the span of two hours.

If it is a particularly compelling film score, the film and its theme will stay with the watcher even as they descend the stairs of the theatre and walk through the parking lot to their car, or else turn off their television and walk away from the couch — the music along with the images it conjures up will stick in their minds. This is not to say a film score should be catchy or have an easily discernible melody — there are certainly films where much more vague or complex music is appropriate — but successful film scores will at the very least be memorable. A score is a success when a filmgoer is able to remember a film from its music, and remember a piece of music from its film, and each of these will be tied to the filmgoer’s emotional attachment to both. In the words of Jessica Green, “[t]hrough music’s development of specific leitmotifs, themes, and cues, the calculated use of film music in conjunction with the other channels of information helps to create the narrative and control the way that the audience interprets a film,” (Green 82). Music tells one how to feel and is therefore imperative in the emotional stake of a film.

We are introduced to Alice in Wonderland with Danny Elfman’s music, and leave the theatre enchanted by the melodies still playing in our heads. Danny Elfman is well known for his compositions for major films such as Beetlejuice (1988), The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), and before that as lead singer and songwriter for eccentric 80’s band Oingo Boingo. All of his more recent projects include rather dark, morbid undertones and an air of fantasy and he is known to work with director Tim Burton who is also consistently associated with dark and quirky films. I would like to look at Elfman’s score for Alice in Wonderland, particularly “Alice’s Theme,” which includes the most compelling musical moments from the film. With his harmonic structure, rhythmic structure, lyrics, and resolution of the piece, Elfman’s work tells the same story of the film in a different language. George Antheil articulates how a filmgoer interprets film music, sometimes subconsciously: “Your musical tastes become molded by these scores, heard without knowing it. You see love, and you hear it. Simultaneously. It makes sense. Music suddenly becomes a language for you, without your knowing it (1945, as quoted in Thomas 1973: 171)” (Kassabian 8). This musical language works in cooperation with Burton’s film, but can also do the same work by telling Alice’s story on its own without any visual aid. Just as Burton adapts the 1865 novel by Lewis Carroll and the previous animated film of 1951 into his own story, his own interpretation of the work, Elfman does the same using a different medium — one that is even more convincing when paired with a visual medium. Experiencing both film and score simultaneously is perhaps the most persuasive way a story can be told. Like two authors who write separate books on the same topic and then collaborate on how best to integrate them to create the most cohesive story, such is with the film composer and director.

“Alice’s Theme” opens with a racing, repetitive triplet motif in a minor key. This motif is played on violin and is soon joined by a chorus of soprano voices that add more complex chords to the mix. They sing a slow ascending line of three notes, the melodic line seeming to unfold and present a question to the audience. The question is an urgent one as the chromatic nature of the chord progression creates a tense opening. The tension is resolved rather unconventionally by going from the dominant not to the tonic of A minor, but to a minor and then major sixth above the tonic. This is especially interesting because underneath this three-note progression, the triplet motif continues to emphasize the tonic. The piece modulates to several different keys, but when played in A minor, the third note of the ascending theme is F#, which typically does not have much to do with the tonic of A minor. The three-note progression begins on E, which makes musical sense as the dominant of A. A similar technique is used in the “007 Theme” composed by John Barry in 1963 — this theme begins on the dominant and builds chromatically up three notes, but then descends down again to land back on the dominant. In both scores, this technique is effective in producing suspense, but Elfman’s adds something more. His choice to remain a major sixth above the tonic (or a major second above the dominant) keeps the melody from grounding itself and leaves the listener unsure of where to land. Right away, Elfman brings the listener into Carroll’s whimsical and sometimes frightening Wonderland with a few choice notes.

The piece consists mainly of A material and B material in a pattern of AABBA, with a bit of introduction and transition here and there. About a third into the piece, a B section begins which is most noticeable in the separate rhythm and melody that the chorus sings. From the opening until now, we had been in triplet land, the triplets in the strings skewing the listener’s perception of the time signature. This B section features only eighth and sixteenth notes, or note durations divisible by two. This change places the listener in a different setting, one that still makes sense since the time signature didn’t actually change, but that offers a new perspective just the same. The urgent tone remains present because of the relatively short note durations, as well as the occasional triplet return in the horns as a reminder of the world we left behind when we entered this new one. After just six measures, we return to the A section world and the strings continue on triplets again. This rhythm shift provides an example of how the music can tell a story completely unique from the film’s visual portrayal. This brief deviation provides contrast to the skewed world Elfman introduced us to and acts as an almost imperceptible reminder for the listener or filmgoer that worlds can be created based on perception and imagination alone.

Elfman’s lyrics add another dimension to the piece, especially because film score music is so often purely instrumental, and play a large part in the world-building of the score. In some stanzas, the rhyme scheme remains regular with patterns of AAAB or AABBCC, but other stanzas demonstrate more assonance than authentic rhyme. For example, the B section begins with the stanza:

How can you know this way not that?

You choose the door you choose the path

Perhaps you should be coming back

Another day, another day

The final words “that,” “path,” and “back” do not rhyme, they only have a similar vowel sound. This is another way in which Elfman could be playing with consistency, wanting to keep his listeners from predicting what will come next, while remaining auditorily satisfying. The word used most frequently throughout the work is “Alice,” which is sung with a secretive, hissing “s” sound. It is never drawn out, but always sung at the same quick pace, which emphasizes the consonants rather than the vowels. This hiss helps foster the urgency developed by the orchestration.

The opening lyrics introduce Alice’s character a bit but are vague enough to remain mysterious.

Oh, Alice, dear where have you been?

So near, so far so in between

What have you heard? What have you seen?

Alice, Alice, please, Alice

There are three questions asked in this first section that appear abstract or not immediately answerable. They wonder about Alice’s identity and might reflect the audience’s questions of her both at the beginning and end of the film. The lyrics consistently draw from the film and are often paired with a cryptic observation or question with lines like “So many doors, how did you choose / So much to gain so much to lose.” This reflects the plot of the story with an additional element so that the lyrics are not merely narration, but create more that is at stake. The last two lyrical lines of the piece are significant for several reasons. The delivery from a solo soprano rather than a rich chorus reflects the isolation of the protagonist, and helps dissipate the urgency so the soloist is able to tell the story more directly. The lyrics also present a question about Alice that will never be answered concretely: “Oh, how will you find your way?” The soloist resembles Alice, but the use of second person makes it clear that the singer is not meant to portray Alice, but an outsider’s perspective. This exemplifies another of the many subtle ways Elfman causes the listener to grapple with perspective and what it means in relation to the narrative.

The lyrics are not the only part of the resolution that pose an unanswerable question. The context for Elfman’s peculiar resolution is reliant on the tension that is built up regularly throughout the piece with that ascending chord progression that so often lands on the major sixth. The tension and resolution in this piece is somewhat unconventional but remains pleasing to the ear due to the heavy undertones of the tonic. The third note in the progression, F#, does resolve at certain moments in the piece by progressing up to G#, the leading tone to A minor. This additional chord provides the familiar pressure to pull the melody back up to the tonic, and is gratifyingly achieved. During the final few measures of the piece, the urgency draws back significantly when the triplets are eliminated, making way for a solo soprano to sing “Oh, how will you find your way?” twice by herself. This makes for quite a drastic change of pace from the rich, boisterous orchestration of the majority of the piece. The three-chord progression occurs as the vocalist sings her final line and is immediately followed by the G# chord, which wants most badly to be resolved back to the tonic. However, the piece ends here, on a strongly directional leading tone and dominant chord, which truly leaves the listener on edge. This resolution sounds more resolved than the F#, but not nearly as much as a grounding tonic would, which we are given so much of earlier in the piece. This decision makes the final chord especially unstable and mysterious, leaving the listener wanting more, and perhaps reflecting the unexplainable so prominent in the film.

With his film score, Elfman is able to place us into a new world, a world where we can never be sure of what to expect, but one with consistency all the same. He provides an excellent example of the creative way a film score can provide an adaptation of a work on its own that may assume added power when paired with visual and story elements. Listening to film scores in isolation can be so similar to reading a book or watching the film itself for this reason. While film and score together are probably the most compelling medium of storytelling, a film score’s separate adaptation of a story can be comparably powerful. “Alice’s Theme” certainly exemplifies a work of music that tells the story of Alice through harmony, rhythm, and lyrics, a method unique to music alone with no visual element necessary. Kassabian believes that film scores “function somehow subliminally or subconsciously, evoking meanings and moods rather than explaining ideas” (Kassabian 18). This theory works wonderfully in regard to Elfman’s score because Carroll’s narrative, that which Elfman attempts to portray, involves the odd and unexplainable and leaves the audience with unanswered questions. In his novel, Carroll advocates less for the concrete explanation of ideas, but rather an exploration of thought and feeling, which is reliant on music in a film. Elfman’s score invites the listener into the zany, dreamlike world into which Alice is dropped by providing clues as to what could be in store there, all open for interpretation and analyzation, but with an established tone of mystery. Though films can definitely be left open to interpretation as well, there is something more concrete about seeing images on a screen and a story unfold before one’s eyes whereas a film score can create the same story, but more importantly, to Kassabian, subliminally evoke meaning and mood. An audience is often more receptive to a story when it is not explicitly told to them, but presented in a way that allows them to fill in the blanks for themselves. Film and music together achieve this subtlety brilliantly, but film score alone provides an interpretation that is much more ambiguous, and thus engaging when one hopes to discover one’s own meaning for oneself.


Works Cited

Green, Jessica. “Understanding the Score: Film Music Communicating to and Influencing the Audience.” The Journal of Aesthetic Education, vol. 44, no. 4, 2010, pp. 81–94. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Kassabian, Anahid. Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Hollywood Film Music. Routledge, New York (2001).

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