Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
thesis_access.pdf (25.13 MB)

Harmony, associativity, and metaphor in the film scores of Alexandre Desplat

Download (25.13 MB)
posted on 2021-11-23, 09:07 authored by Clark, Ewan Alexander

The objective of this doctoral study is to develop and demonstrate a theoretical framework to guide both the analysis and composition of twenty-first-century film music. The compositional portfolio submitted as part of this thesis includes scores for nine short films and for a feature-length docudrama. The thesis is based on analysis of twenty feature film scores by Alexandre Desplat (b. 1961), with particular attention to two: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2009) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). Studying one composer’s output enables the observation of a compositional voice articulated across multiple film genres. Desplat’s work has proven a relevant and worthy subject, because the films he has scored exemplify a wide variety of styles and approaches, including skilful integration of past styles and current trends.  The theoretical framework I use to discuss both Desplat’s film music and my own, draws together selected concepts from semiotics, metaphor theory, narratology, and harmonic analysis, especially transformational theory. I use the framework to explore how musical objects – such as modes, chords, and their transformations through time – might act as symbols, icons, or metaphors for one or more elements of the narrative – such as a setting, character, characters’ emotions, events, or the attitude of the cinematic narrator. It is argued that this combination of ideas provides a suitable framework – useful in both composition and analysis – for understanding how music might expressively contribute to filmic narratives.  It is argued that Neo-Riemannian triadic transformations – in Desplat’s work and mine, at least – are often most usefully considered in relation to the scales and modes that they articulate, transform, and/or subvert. This is a point of difference from other recent transformational analysis of film music. Although my analyses focus primarily on pitchbased features, I also consider how these elements accrue meaning in their interactions with other musical features, such as tempo and orchestration.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Music Theory

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970119 Expanding Knowledge through Studies of the Creative Arts and Writing

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

New Zealand School of Music


Psathas, John; Cosper, David; Norris, Michael