As film evolves through format and structure, with filmmakers always looking for that fresh new angle to present to audiences, some things get left behind. Enter the main title sequence, for so long the traditional beginning of the film but now often relegated to the end, along with its music. But are we missing something from that?
Music and sound are an integral part of a title sequence. Not only for the composer, as this is one of the few moments in the film they are able to directly address the audience with their music, but also for the viewer, to assimilate them into the world of the film, preparing them for that environment and providing cues — conscious or unconscious — to how this world works. This can be approached through genre conventions but is more likely to be based on mood.
For example, take Bernard Herrmann’s opening music for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. As we’re launched into a world of dank smoke, the snare ramps up to a short explosion of brass, repeating itself as the title is revealed. However, the resolutions are different, being a manifestation of Travis Bickle’s volatile nature and temperament. The brass lets us know he’s calmed down, for the moment, but the ambiguity in the climax of both phrases tells of the unpredictability of his character, something to keep the audience on their toes.
The subsequent lonely and wandering brass emphasizes Travis’ isolation, but the real window into his mind comes when Scorsese focuses on his face. Herrmann brings in a saxophone and it gives the score a hazy and dreamy feel, scoring the blurred and hallucinatory shots of Manhattan coming from Travis’ point of view. There’s a romanticism here, one that comes directly from the psychology of Travis, of how he views himself. In his movie, he’s the hero. But then Herrmann clues the audience in, reprising the tense snare phrasing and slicing through the barrier between realities, or at least how he seems to interpret it.
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is possibly the ultimate example of using music to tell a story in an opening title sequence, ostensibly telling the story of the classic film. It’s an incredibly simple concept, tracking the rise of the sun above the moon and earth, but Kubrick uses it as a thematic guide, with a grand gesture coming from his choice of music, the opening portion of Richard Strauss‘ 1896 tone poem “Also sprach Zarathustra,” itself based on a philosophical work by Friedrich Nietzsche. Incidentally, Kubrick had originally engaged composer Alex North, who had previously worked with the director on Spartacus. Supposedly, North only discovered at the premiere that Kubrick had removed his score.
The imagery of the sun rising above the earth and moon is itself a simple metaphor for the film’s narrative; the evolution of man. As the film is divided into three distinct sequences — as noted by the title cards “The Dawn of Man”, “Jupiter Mission”, and “Beyond The Infinite” — thus we have the three celestial bodies, with the climactic rise of the sun representing the final form of the main character, Dave Bowman, as the Star-Child. Visually, the sequence also recalls a shot repeated in different time periods, of the sun partially blocked out by the monolith, shot from below.
To match, Strauss’ music is also set out into three sections to illustrate its narrative of a sermon by Zarathustra the wise in Nietzsche’s text, which itself is about the evolution of man. These repeating sections are built from the same opening three notes, each of which ascend before ending in a unique resolution. The first section ends in a sharp and dramatic downward turn, the second with a more optimistic refrain, before the third explodes in triumph, leading to a huge celebratory fanfare that represents the final stage of Bowman’s evolution that is also where the film’s title appears.
In fact, the sequence is expertly synced to the music, with the first phrasing ending as the earth and sun appear to us for the first time. When the title finally appears as the sun moves beyond the shadow of the earth, it’s at the most rousing and triumphant part of the fanfare, signaling the evolution celebration and summarising Kubrick’s intent around the concept of the film itself.
This music also bookends the film, appearing when the Bowman Star-Child appears opposite the earth, emphasizing the grand and important nature of the event. It’s also worth noting that as the music plays out, one of the last instruments you hear is the organ, an instrument very much associated with places of religious worship in the West, which helps set the piece as a holy text of sorts, albeit in a different context than contemporary existing religions.
Like HAL 9000 (before he goes nuts), Kubrick’s title sequence is a perfect entity. Aesthetically, it’s a beautiful work, majestic in its visuals and with one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but when taken thematically with the narrative and imagery of the film as a whole, it evolves into a wonderful and concise summary of 2001: A Space Odyssey, preparing the audience for the incredible journey ahead that tells us that the human adventure is just beginning.