It’s difficult to think of any music that’s been so popularly over-analyzed as Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack to Inception. There are clear reasons why: Zimmer’s soundtrack music seems to do a good job of participating in the movie’s dramatic elements. I’d like to take a look at a few of those forms of participation—dilation and homecoming.
We all know by now the delightful mechanic of Inception (and if you don’t know it and don’t want it spoiled, this is your final warning). When you dream, you experience time more slowly than it is progressing while you are asleep in the real world. But certain elements of the dreamer’s outside world will seep through into the dream (this is true of dreams, in my experience—alarm clocks, honking trucks, shouting toddlers, a cat scratching your face). Consequently, a noise heard in the dream goes through some kind of time dilation. As its frequencies get distended, the pitch gets lower and the rhythm gets slower.
And this is where Edith Piaf comes in. Throughout the film, one character plays the song “Non, je ne Regrette Rien” into the sleepers’ dreams, to signal to them that the dream is ending. They hear the noise and know they have limited time left. But, crucially, when they hear it, rather than hearing Piaf’s original track, they hear a slower and lower version of it. This is what one YouTuber noticed (well, I think probably quite a few people noticed it; he just went viral). Zimmer confirmed this was the case and he acted a little bemused people didn’t get it earlier. He called it a “signpost”, as if the audience, not just the characters, will hear the dilated, ominous sound and understand (consciously or not) that the dream is ending. We’ll discuss this more later.
But I am here to discuss how Zimmer goes further still. Here is the relevant part of Edith Piaf’s song. The orchestration is pretty arresting, since the trombones swell to a dynamic fervor that grates against a modern sensibility:
Now, whenever Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, for those of you who like me can never remember character’s names in movies you’ve seen fourteen times) plays this song to someone who’s asleep, they hear it but they hear it in the dream, which means time is slowed down.
(And it’s just so very Hans Zimmer to leave you hanging with that upbeat that’s fortissimo, just like his soundtrack to The Crown.) Now, all of this may be obvious. But let me insult your intelligence and summarize where we are so far: two things seem to happen to music as it travels from waking reality to dream (or dream to dream). First, its rhythm gets slower, i.e. diminution. Second, its pitch goes down, i.e. transposition. (It’s a little convenient that the diminution and transposition are always to speeds and intervals that are tonally just perfect, whereas actual audio slowdown is always pretty messy. (Like, where does that middle trombone note go?) But this is Hollywood!) This can be visualized thus:
So, what does Hans Zimmer do that goes beyond even this? So far, we have talked about diegetic music. That is, music within the story itself, music that can be heard by the characters as they experience it. Musical scores to films, however, are usually non–diegetic, especially the big orchestral ones. Non-diegetic is music that cannot be heard by the characters. When the fellowship of the Ring mounts some heroic peak in Peter Jackson’s film, the characters are not hearing Howard Shore’s soaring strings, nor do we assume they are. That music is just for us. (Some clever films try to exist in an ambiguous middle realm, like the phenomenal movie Baby Driver.) In Inception, the Edith Piaf song is usually functioning diegetically, that is, it is inside the story. What is creative about what Zimmer does is that the diegetic elements of the film have leaked into the structure of the non-diegetic film music. Edith Piaf’s song is actually everywhere in the score: frequently during dream sequences you’ll hear the trombones doing this annoying braying rhythm (the technical term is “bramm BRAMM”, sadly I am not joking), but in situations where the characters clearly aren’t intended to be hearing it. For instance, in Zimmer’s track “Dream Within a Dream.”
Now, isn’t that funny? The bramms are now non-diegetic. It’s not unusual for a diegetic sound (i.e. characters can hear it) to slip into the non-diegetic music (i.e. character’s can’t hear it), such as when Anne of Avonlea is suddenly accompanied by a full imaginary orchestra when all she’s literally hearing is some Cape Breton sap pathetically scratching his fiddle. But what is unusual is to have a diegetic element, like the Piaf trombones, become a motivic element of the entire non-diegetic score, even when it is not directly relevant. In other words, the Piaf trombones have become structural to the music. They appear like some incessant prophetic reminder: you are in a dream. The dream dilates time. Every sound, every experience, every moment of your above-life (or above-dream) is being stretched out. (This whole time business really seems to bother Christopher Nolan. It shows up in a lot of his movies. Get over it, man! You’re gonna get old some day.) Even if the characters are not always aware of this haunting aural reminder, we are—because we can hear these dratted trombones in the non-diegetic score.
But Hans Zimmer goes still further. This time dilation has invaded every aspect of his orchestration. For instance, listen to those violins in the above clip. Play it again for a minute. Do you hear how they’re oscillating between two different notes? They’re doing it at this plodding 8th-note level. But here, earlier in the same song, is that same chord progression in a higher key. And look at what the violins are doing.
There is a clear aural and visual relationship here: the higher passage had its motivic materials presented faster and the lower one presented slower. It’s our chart again. At the higher level of the dream musically, it’s 16th-note violin oscillation. At the lower level, it’s slowed down to the 8th-note level. Pretty cool.*
Of course, dreams and time dilation aren’t the only themes of Inception. Homecoming, or nostos as Homer might say, is the whole point of the story. Cob has to get back to his kids. And I think we can hear the traces of homecoming make their way through Zimmer’s score, this time at the level of harmony.
Take a gander at this chart (and if it doesn’t mean anything to you, then just keep scrolling to get to the conclusion below, I will never know). It’s an analysis of the chords we just heard, which I will dwell on ever so briefly. Roman numerals, despite what many people seem to think, are nothing more than a clumsy description of how theorists think common practice chords function. That is, why does one chord lead to another? Why do some chords not lead to others? If you can label their function, you can capture some of their logic. Here is my analysis of the chords from “Dream Within a Dream.” (That’s the music from above that was tense-sounding, feel free to listen again.)
In essence, the Roman numeral system assumes a tonal framework, which is fair for Inception, since it uses good old triads and gives us some apple-pie tonic-dominant progressions. But these chords are certainly hard to fit into a G minor context, as my analysis avers. (Gm, you see, is “i”.) E-flat is easy enough, since it can be constructed with a G minor scale, but G-flat chords and C-flat chords? These are far afield. Our ears enjoy hearing chords that “fit” with our sense of key, and these do not. So why does Zimmer write them this way—and why do we (well, some of us) like them?
As the notation indicates, there is some “borrowing” going on in these chords, indicated by the slash. The numerator “borrows” from the denominator. In order to move from G minor to G-flat major, G minor has to borrow a chord from its close relative, E-flat. E-flat doesn’t actually have any native relationship with G-flat either, but it turns out that E-flat’s own cousin, E-flat minor, does. Thus, in order to explain the motion from the first to the second chord, one goes G minor –> E-flat major –> E-flat minor –> G-flat. Dizzying. This same logic gets us the C-flat major chord, as well.
According to this analysis, then, Zimmer is making you hear in two different keys, and which one you hear depends on which chord you happen to be hearing. During the odd-numbered chords (G minor and E-flat), you seem to be operating in a G minor world. But during the even-numbered chords (G-flat and C-flat), you are hearing some chords belonging to E-flat minor, whose presence is felt but never made explicit. These relationships are largely governed by the famous chromatic mediant, used by Medievals and Wagner and Star Wars for all sorts of magical effects. The overall sense is one of harmonic alienation and upheaval. It’s not far-fetched to describe this chord progression as symbolically portraying Cob’s distance from home. After all, I initially described the chords as “far afield”—it is the normal metaphor theorists would use, because there is some truth to it.
But now let’s look at the chord progression of arrival-at-home. These are those chords you listened to for 10-hours straight after the movie came out, from “Time.”
These chords are the opposite of above. All these Roman numerals are happy, straight-forward, even a little boring. But that’s okay: after the upheaval and alienation of before, nothing can more profoundly give us a sense of peace. It’s worth noting that I assumed this piece was in G major, but it could be analyzed in any number of different keys fairly plausibly (A dorian, D mixolydian). Every chord is so related and fits so consonantly with the other, it could happily be considered any of those. It’s a remarkably bland bit of harmony, but—for that very reason—beautiful music for a homecoming.
So, the implications of what I’m arguing for should start to be clear. Zimmer is portraying at-home-ness through these near-by harmonic relations, through diatonicism. And he is portraying distant-from-home-ness by using those far-flung harmonic relations, by using chromaticism. It is a modified sort of leitmotif, but one that formally organizes the music and refers to something abstract. The real clincher, the one that makes Zimmer’s soundtrack work so well, is the false home that he portrays. It’s in those moments of the film where Cob is caught between staying in his dreams of home and the promise of real home in his waking life. It is this chord progression, which is a combination of the previous two:
As you listen to this, you’ll notice your emotions seem to get tugged both directions at once. The first two chords have that serenity (diatonicism) of “Time” but the next two darken the color (chromaticism). This can be explained by my Roman numerals again. In every major key, certain chord degrees (I, IV and V) can be expected to be major and certain minor (ii, iii, vi). Now, here’s what cool. Without ever explicitly having a G major chord, Hans Zimmer can imply “G major” by using the Am (ii) and Em (vi), because we’re used to hearing those accompany G major. But when he gives us that G minor chord, we realize we’ve been duped! What fools we were to think it was major. We are now sad. We’re back to our old friend mode mixture from “Dream Within a Dream” above: G major is reaching into G minor in order to access some chromatic sonorities. We even get good old chromatic mediants in the second half of the phrase. And the whole time, you’ll notice the chord progression perfectly mirrors the “Time” progression, but filtered through some demented glass.
One of my favorite moments is when Zimmer combines our two elements: the false homecoming chords and the bramm BRAMMs of the trombones. (Oh, and also, if you can listen closely, the oscillating violins are there too! See, it all connects.)
This is a pretty nifty moment. There is that aching pull from the chord progression, presenting false home, embodied in whatever-her-name-is-whom-Marion-Cotillard-plays. But then there’s that rude braying from the trombones, embodied in Ariadne reminding Cob that he is still dreaming. It is a bit like Mercury upbraiding Aeneas, “Building her gorgeous city, doting on your wife… Wasting time in Libya—what hope misleads you so?” Carthage is not his real home.
So where does this leave us? We started with alienating harmonies, we moved through a kind of “false” sense of home, and then at the end, the last track “Time” (the one with the falling (?) top) we finally get our true (??) home. All this is convincing only if Zimmer gives us the original “home” progression near the beginning, so we have a sense of where we’re headed, which he does. He gives us the barest outline of the eventual homecoming progression in the film’s first moments, along with some bramm BRAMMs for good measure, which nicely sums up this post.
I promised a word about authorial intention. I have argued that Zimmer portrayed time dilation in his score (even in those oscillating strings) and that he’s portrayed homecoming and false homecomings in his chromaticism. Am I arguing, therefore, that Zimmer meant to do all this? That this was running through his mind while he composed? That he expected us to pick up on it? Well, if the answer to the last one is “yes”, then either it was a very subliminal sense in which we picked up on it, or else it was a disastrous attempt, because most people probably did not pick up on these themes. I do happen to think that it’s quite possible soundtracks operate in some subliminal ways, but I am not willing to bet on it. I think it’s probably fairer to say this: the screenplay and the music are both richly allusive and imbue each other with meaning.
Music and screenplay work together as a single text; the better the movie, the better they work together. (Sure, maybe Inception is not a Great Film, but it’s a pretty good flick.) Whether all the things I wrote about went through Zimmer’s head is ultimately unknowable and irrelevant. But I can say “Zimmer portrays these things in his music” not because he thought so, nor because you sensed it, but because the music is just so good at portraying it.
P.S. I am sure there are other films where diegetic elements (especially foley, I’m guessing?) become structural elements of the film’s music. But I can’t think of any off the top of my head. If you can, let me know!
* Yes, I’m aware the oscillation isn’t quite the same rate, since it switches off every two notes in the one and every five notes in the other. But if you try the other alternative, which would be switching off every two notes on 16th notes, it would be rapidly tedious-sounding when played so fast. It was a good choice for Zimmer, since it preserves the sound of a relationship between the two passages without being literal to the point of aural tedium.
I used The Aeneid translated by Robert Fagles.
For other thoughts on ambiguity, equivocality, and authorial intention in music, see Kofi Agawu’s “Ambiguity in Tonal Music: A Preliminary Study”.