James Bond’s Distinctive Sound

“The James Bond Sound.”  I see this written all the time in blogs or articles in reference to the music.  Sometimes it’s interchanged with “The John Barry Sound.”  It’s like its own shorthand.  Acknowledging the fact that Monty Norman’s “The James Bond Theme” is one of the most instantly recognizable tunes on the planet, the sound that John Barry created to support that theme has gone on to define a franchise and, indeed, the entire subgenre of spy music.

But what does it mean?  How does it work?

As you probably know if you’ve followed me for a while, one of my project series here is a series of 007 Mission Briefings, which is to say that I’m systematically going through the entirety of the Bond canon (and some of its non-canonical cousins) in all its forms.  In addition to the films, BrokenTune and I are doing a buddy read of the original Ian Fleming novels.  And as you already know, I love music.  When writing up my 007 blogs, or when simply psyching myself up for the next book or film, nothing gets me in the zone quite like the film scores.  The next Fleming novel in line is From Russia With Love, which I started yesterday afternoon.  This morning, I found myself listening the James Bond Radio podcast and a breakdown of “The John Barry Sound” by Warren Ringham of Q the Music, immediately followed by another listen of Barry’s wonderful From Russia With Love score.  In my world, it’s only right.  Honestly, if you’re reading this, I’d recommend you do the same if you haven’t already.  It’s in thinking about what makes these things work that this particular blog entry is born in a flurry of insomnia and morning coffee, as I’m prone to do.  My eternal gratitude to Mr. Ringham for both the initial inspiration as well as his further thoughts on the subject all around, which led to some necessary editing, for which we all benefit.

As gung-ho as I am about music, my formal training is rudimentary at best, and that’s why Mr. Ringham’s thoughts on this matter have me so inspired, because I love getting the professional’s take on this sort of thing.  I know just enough to make me dangerous.  The rest is what I learn by ear, which is far more gratifying to me personally, but makes me sound like the blundering novice I am if I try to express myself.  The primary obstacle is simply a matter of vocabulary.  Part of why I’m doing this series is to force myself to expand on this front, personal writing for personal edification.  With this in mind, the majority of what follows is me riffing on his knowledge and experience, so please bear with me as I try to connect the dots in my own mind.

To listen to a John Barry score is remarkable thing.  He’s easily one of — if not the — leading orchestrator for film scores.  Some composers are great with leitmotif, some can tell you the whole story only in sound, some are great with atmospheric tone… they all have their superpowers.  Warren Ringham points out that Barry’s was orchestration, which I heartily agree.  It’s a rare thing when you can point at someone and say that their orchestration defined an entire genre of music.  The only other point in history where I can do that comes down to Beethoven and the Romantic era.  The 5th Symphony is a self-referential genre unto itself, the break between the Classical and the Romantic eras, with everything Beethoven put into place after that giving rise to the idea of music as a personal statement.   Give that a think; I triple dog dare you not to be impressed.  Spy music begins and ends with John Barry for the same reasons: he broke the rules and made it work, and like Beethoven, I feel Barry made a personal statement.  Everyone else who’s ever dipped a hand into it has either riffed on him or pulled from his jazz roots.  Jazz means experimental and otherwise crazy things that most classical film composers don’t do, then or now.  Admittedly, Barry’s not the only one who got his start in jazz.  John Williams, for example, also began there, as did Henry Mancini and many others of that era.  To be fair, the jazz sound all but killed the traditional orchestral sound that defined the Golden Age of Hollywood.  From the 1950s to the 1970s, the Hollywood sound is defined more or less by jazz (and later funk or disco), with orchestral background accompaniment being the order of the day if it’s used at all rather than being the showpiece it was in the Golden Age.  And smack in the middle of this new jazz era was James Bond and the John Barry Sound.  It all seems to circle back around.  It seems sometimes to be the perfect storm when I think about it, between the geopolitical tensions and the trends of pop culture.  This storm plays itself out in sound as much as it does on screen.

John Barry’s signature sound for Bond is unlike anything he’s done for any of his other scores.  I can listen to Dances With Wolves or Somewhere in Time and not hear what I’m hearing in a Bond score.  It’s a completely different kind of animal.  You can always hear Barry, but you will not hear Bond, much like you can always hear John Williams in a John Williams score, but Star Wars or Indiana Jones are their own defined ideas.  As with these ideas, if you turn on any piece of music that can be readily identified as spy music, you’ll hear that signature sound, carried over specifically because Bond defined the genre.

Having said that, let’s discuss what makes Bond who he is, for the character defines the Sound of the genre as much as he defines the genre as a whole.  As the world’s greatest superspy, he’s tough, charismatic, brutal, and often on high alert.  Barry plays to all of this.  This is where The James Bond Sound is defined.

So what makes The James Bond Sound?

Referencing Monty Norman’s “The James Bond Theme” as it first appeared in Dr. No, the first thing that needs to be called out is that Barry orchestrated this iconic wonder.  Norman wrote his version for a musical that never got off the ground, and the original sounds very different from what we know.  Of course it is.  Music evolves when it’s repurposed for a new means.  This means that Barry, despite all court rulings to the contrary, redefined that theme as much as Norman did originally.  It’s the orchestration that sells it, every bit as much as that electric guitar riff.  The key to The Sound, according to Ringham, is that final chord.  This feels right to me.  It’s like the Beatles’ opening chord to “A Hard Day’s Night” in that when you hear it, you know immediately what it is and from where it comes, and it spawned so much in its wake.  Unlock that, you unlock the entire spy genre.

Going back to basics here, there are two kinds of chords: major chords and minor chords.  Easy enough, yes?  Major chords sound bright and cheerful, while minor chords sound dark and melancholy.

Another basic tenet of music is the chromatic.  For example, you would rarely want to hear a b and a b-flat played next to each other, or especially at the same time.  It’s something most music students are taught early on when they begin to learn key signatures.  Today it’s not considered that big of a deal in modern music.  There are schools of thought that treat each note as a full step instead of the chromatics as half-steps, resulting in a scale of 12 notes rather than the traditional 7-note octave (the 8th note being a repeat of the 1st at a higher level).  Composers like Philip Glass champion this system.  Where did it come from?  I doubt anyone can really say for certain, but I’m pretty sure you can draw a line straight from Igor Stravinsky to Philip Glass and intersect all through the jazz era and John Barry’s Bond scores.

Taking these two ideas together then, let’s go back to that defining last note in the Bond theme.  Here’s how it works: you have your major chord, and you have your minor chord.  Play them both at the same time.  The result creates a tension.  It’s unsettling the same way playing a natural and a flat or a natural and a sharp together would be, except that it’s a more rounded and fuller experience due to the inherent nature of chord structures.  And because it lands on both chords at the same time, it allows any music that follows to build in virtually any direction cohesively, regardless of the tone.  Barry will typically use alternating notes to signify Bond tiptoeing around, and those notes are simplified chromatics that, when played together, are part of that end note structure.

The breakdown of that chord structure will also result in the 4 notes that make up the background to “The James Bond Theme.”  Those notes will often be found in pretty much every title track to a Bond score, which Barry will then weave throughout the whole of the film in various directions as a kind of signature.  Most Bond composers that have followed Barry have studied this and have used it to great effect, most notably David Arnold.  When a score to a Bond film doesn’t sound right, it’s probably because they didn’t follow The John Barry Sound.  When it does feel right, all it takes is that one chord.  In the original work-up of this entry, I used the opening chord to Adele’s “Skyfall” as a prime example, stating that it’s the Bond Theme end chord in a different key.  Again, all gratitude to Mr. Ringham for pointing me in the right direction behind the scenes.  As he explained to me, “Skyfall” uses as a straight minor 9 chord, which is a single note difference from the minor major 9 chord used in “The James Bond Theme.”

Before we move on any further, it’s most definitely worth taking a look at the videos he posted on Facebook that demonstrate his point.  You can find those HERE and HERE.

Isn’t it fascinating how one note can make a world of distinction?  I’d be curious to get Mr. Epworth’s take on it as well.  Suffice it to say, even in the missed detail, it sets the tone instantly, which is even more of a testament to the iconic nature of Barry’s original sound.  From there, what follows is some of the best theme music since Shirley Bassey, in my humble opinion.  The reason these themes work or don’t on each Bond film is because that basic chord structure is there.  When it’s not, it feels out of place, regardless of how much we may like the song.  Sheena Easton’s “For Your Eyes Only” is a good example of a song that didn’t follow that structure.  It’s a catchy tune, but it doesn’t really sound like a Bond tune when you come right down to it.  I spent a lot of years trying to put my finger on why that is.  Well, that’s the answer, spelled out for me by a pro.  Now that I have that little fact in my arsenal, I can apply that idea up and down the entire list of title themes, and it seems to fit the pattern.

But the title theme isn’t the entirety of the film score.  Arguably if the title theme doesn’t fit, then the score based around it won’t either.  Seems like common sense, but there’s more to it than that.  Most composers will rescue the score by accenting the obligatory hero moment with the Bond Theme.  Even to the untrained ear, it’s instant Bond because that’s his theme.  Everyone knows it.  Using it gives us the chord structure that defines the Sound, no matter how you play with it (looking at you, Marvin Hamlisch).  Some composers get criticized for specifically not weaving in the Bond theme nearly as much, and it’s a case of not getting paid for using someone else’s music, but it’s more than that.  A composer who knows what he’s doing can use that chord structure in so many ways define the Bond Sound without the overt use of the theme.  The Bond Theme, then, can be used sparingly for those hero moments that call for it while still making the film cohesive.

The Sound itself is iconic enough to define spy music, which means no other genre will touch it for fear of sounding like spy music.  It’s built on a foundation that defies traditional musical notation, so most classical genres won’t use it.  It’s odd enough that you can’t possibly overuse it in any other kind of music without killing the composition and making it unpalatable to most ears, much how too many spices will kill a broth.  It is, in short, it’s own thing.

Hopefully that makes sense, because that’s about as well as I can explain it.  If you have different ideas or would like to elaborate, I’d love to hear your thoughts.  In the meantime, it’s back to the Fleming’s Bond for me.  Even though these books predate the films and their scores, I always hear that music.  Almost makes me wonder what Fleming had going through his head when he wrote them, because we know it wasn’t Barry’s iconic music.

Again, many thanks to Warren Ringham of Q the Music and the James Bond Radio podcast.  Without their efforts and enthusiasm, I might have gone on missing the essential elements, and some of this would have continued to bother me to no end.