Time Dilation and Homecoming in Hans Zimmer’s Inception Score

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: piaf trombones

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a DJ and Edith Piaf is his sample and that is why he breaks it down in that Matrix scene


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.

nn-ts nn-ts nn-ts DJ KING ARTHUR

(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 nondiegetic, 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.”

notice the bramms, if you would, as well as oscillating violins, which will come in later, like Chekhov’s gun

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, the gun went off. happy, anton?

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.” 


maudlin nonsense, you all came here just to listen to this clip didn’t you

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:

music theory is just mystification so that you’ll take me more seriously when I make ridiculous claims


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.)

him who has ears let him hear Nolan/Zimmer illuminati unite


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”.


Moonchild and other thoughts on sampling

When it comes to sampling and remixing, there is more to talk about than just copyright infringement, according to Eduardo Navas. There are profound cultural issues to be reckoned with: “as a form of discourse Remix affects culture in ways that go beyond the basic understanding of recombining material to create something different,” (3). Take “Rapper’s Delight”, for instance, by Sugarhill Gang. The Gang samples “Good Times” by Chic, loops it, and raps atop. Navas argues that this type of sampling is “regressive” because we are using the pleasure of the repeated loop to insulate ourselves from, I guess, the brutality of existence. “The power of sampling is always based on a diversion, one that can be presented, as a state of repressed desire that is completely mediated, showing no solution except to point to itself,” (28). The sample and its repetition is an escape from reality.

Tommy-rot, I say! I am sympathetic to Navas’ desire to move away from mere discussion of copyright when it comes to sampling. And it’s not Navas’ fault that he has pushed my buttons, but it is a pretty old saw by now: cultural critics start applying Freud, Barthes, and Deleuze to musical repetition and we find out that it’s all bad, bad. Escapist (as in Navas’ application of Barthes), craven consumerism (Robert Fink talking about American minimalism), revisiting trauma (Wim Mertens). Can’t we let repetition off the hook a little bit? Maybe, just maybe, we’ve dramatically over-theorized.

Instead, let’s assume sampling has something to tell us and that it’s not that we’re repressing. Take, for instance, “Doors Closing” by Moonchild, available on iTunes, Spotify, Apple Music and so forth, in their 2017 album Voyager. (Thanks to my wife for finding this music. The album is perfect for a stay-in date night or for a dusky summer evening. Or both!) This particular track samples the sound of a public transit vehicle closing its doors.

Jingle Jangle

This electronic jingle-jangle, accompanied by the conversational yet conclusive “doors closing”, is a good fit for the lyrics of the song. On the one hand, the keyboard and bass play underneath the jingle-jangle (yes, I will continue to use this word) and cleverly harmonize it and embed it into the texture of the song on loop. On the other hand, the “doors closing” morphs into a set of lyrics: “You think my love is an open door? \ No, no, you can’t come and go as you please.”

I suppose it would be easy to chalk this up to a clever play on words. The 1:24-long deep cut is hardly a candidate to overthrow much of the existing scholarly criticism on musical repetition and mixing and so forth. But I think there is a lot going on in here that deserves some attention.

First, let’s take a minute to laud these three great musicians, Amber Navran, Max Bryk, and Andris Mattson. What they did here is pretty smart. And you’ll have to forgive me if I wax a little nerdy here. Scroll down more hastily if this ceases to be interesting. This is the jingle-jangle, notated musically:


It’s got a nice sound; I can see why these guys were attracted to it. It’s an A-flat chord next to an F9 chord, and so you get a pleasant, Debussy-style enharmonicism. Now, how an alternative R&B group would approach these chords is another question. They make the overall song happen in F, so that deals with the F9 chord and gives the sound a bluesy feel. But this A-flat chord is a tricky one. They treat it in two ways.

One interpretation of the Jingle-Jangle

This first way is to envelop the A-flat triad, enharmonically, into a F#13(11+) sonority, the favorite sonority of jazz since Art Tatum. This works really well, since F#-dominant is a tritone-substituted V7 into F. Great!

But what worked for a substitute chord should work for its original, right?

Another interpretation of the Jingle-Jangle

This is the second way. It’s a little darker in its sonority—C9(13-/9+)—but the payoff is great. What’s even better is that we now have two different “interpretations” of this jingle-jangle, two different ways of understanding its harmonic content. More importantly, it has become musical. See, there’s a reason I keep calling it a jingle-jangle—is it really music at all, when it’s just a little sound that tells people to stand clear of the doors? But Moonchild has bestowed upon it the dignity of Being Music. Now, bets are, if you commute on some random LA subway and you have heard this song, you’re going to feel strangely moved by this jingle-jangle.

So sampling is a way of dignifying things that are too mundane to be perceived aesthetically. But there is even more to this, I think.

The sample itself (jingle-jangle + “doors closing”) is a fascinating semiotic unit. The sample, heard in its original context on the subway, signifies that the doors are about to close. How does it do that? The unit operates externally as an index, to borrow Charles Peirce’s term, that is, “our interpretation comes in virtue of some brute, existential fact, causal connections” between the sign and signified. (This and the following come from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) The doors will close when we hear the sound; we can expect them not to close if we don’t hear the sound just as much as we expect them to if we do. But within the unit, there is another signified-signifier relationship, between the jingle-jangle and “doors closing”, the music and the words. This is what Peirce might call a symbol, that is, “if we generate an interpretant in virtue of some observed general or conventional connection between sign and object, then the sign is a symbol.” There is no causal or necessary connection between the jingle-jangle and the man speaking. They merely go together to reinforce the aggregate semiotic content: the music serves, maybe, to grab our attention and, if we’re used to it, to remind us of what’s about to happen, whereas the words make it unambiguous to first-time users of the subway.

Moonchild in “Doors Closing” bifurcates this semiotic unit right down the middle. They take advantage of the fact that the relationship between the symbolic sign and signified is more or less arbitrary. On the one hand, they take the words and use their ambiguity to equivocate and make a clever song about love and commitment. On the other, they take the jingle-jangle and make it into some jazzy music. But there are even further layers of metaphor here. Because “Doors closing” is not just a metaphor for “Commit to this relationship or get out” but it is a metaphor for: “I am like a house (or a subway or whatever); I have a life, a schedule, other priorities besides you. You can’t just access me whenever you’d like.” In other words, “Doors closing” is a metaphor for a metaphor.

This ties back into our musical analysis above. Not only have Amber Navran’s lyrics taken advantage of the ambiguity of “Doors closing” to multiply possible meanings, but the keyboardists have taken advantage of the ambiguity of the jingle-jangle to enumerate different possible musical meanings. Both of these aspects of the original sample are getting disassembled and reassembled in similar creative ways.

Hand-drawn diagram for the visually-minded

At the end all of this, we have sampling and looping that has operated constructively. It is a bit like reading a metaphysical poet: from the mental gymnastics of the poetry, our ears and eyes are trained to face the world itself as a poetic object, where mundane things (a compass, a flea, yes, even a subway jingle-jangle) can be heard aesthetically, with the aid of a little irony and playfulness. Armed with weapons such as these, no human should be afraid of pessimistic psychoanalysts, or so I say.

Things I mentioned:

Eduardo Navas, Remix Theory: The Aesthetics of Sampling

Robert Fink, Repeating Ourselves: American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice

Wim Mertens, American Minimal Music