Film composer Hans Zimmer is famous for scoring some of our favorite movies—but he has to tell himself “some outlandish stories” to do so. Hans, a self-trained musician and composer, had his first big break when he created the film score for Rain Man, which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score. He went on to create the original motion picture soundtrack for The Lion King and 150 other films, including The Dark Knight. He’s without a doubt one of the best known composers of our time, but one theme stands out: the Batman main theme.
When Hans got started writing the Dark Knight theme song, he realized that there was—as he describes it—an “endless heroic theme” about Batman. He is, after all, a superhero protecting Gotham City from evil at night. But Batman is also Bruce Wayne. And Batman’s origin story comes from a tragic event in Bruce Wayne’s childhood, when his parents are murdered during a mugging gone wrong. In Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, which includes Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce’s family leaves the opera after he becomes scared, leading to the murders. He carries the burden of feelings like he was responsible for his parents’ death for the rest of his life.
It’s well understood in all versions of the Batman origin story that this moment—the moment little Bruce watches his parents die—is the defining moment that will later transform Bruce Wayne into Batman, the crimefighter. But the story Hans weaves includes Bruce blaming himself for his beloved parents’ death, creating a sort of arrested development. Bruce is forever stuck in that terrible moment—and the main title must reflect that.
This perfectly exemplifies Hans approach to creating a motion picture score. He believes that the composer’s job is to create an original, yet familiar theme that pushes the story forward. The theme should tell the parallel story that the director set out to tell, not just exist on its own as a concept. That is the composer’s only restriction, but you should feel completely free when setting out to create the theme. To do this right, you’ll want to choose a key that gives you the room to express a full range of emotions. With a clear idea of where your story can go, introduce a motif at the start that you can build upon throughout the composition.
When you’re creating the theme for a character, you can get to know the character in two ways: read the script and interpret their thoughts, feelings, and actions, and ask the director to tell you their stories. It’s all about understanding their past, their hopes and dreams, and any crucial moments that made them the way they are. Understanding their journey, and how they react to the obstacles on their journey, will help inform their musical themes.
Relate to your characters and find common ground so that you can construct their theme from your own imagination and emotional truth. Starting from scratch may seem daunting, but if you begin with your own experiences, you have something from which to build. If you need help with this step, think about a close friend and create a character theme for him/her. Take inspiration from Hans and try to create a backstory for your friend. Relate to him/her, come up with a trait that you share, and create a theme that builds from that trait.
When creating a character theme, try to expose what the audience cannot see. Ask the questions: ”What drives the character?” and “What is the character hiding from us?” Relate to your characters, make it personal, and find the part of the character that resonates with you.
For Batman, Hans knew that he had to figure out a way to get the audience to suspend their disbelief that a man would dress up in a Batman costume. In order to do so, he had to legitimately buy into the story as well; he had to believe the character. That’s what led him to dive deep into the psyche of Bruce Wayne/Batman.
Hans’s motif for The Dark Knight reflects that deep dive. He developed this after speaking with Christopher Nolan, the film’s director, and from his own interpretation of the Batman story that focuses on the feeling of “arrested development” he had about Batman’s character. The Batman score motif is just two notes, repeated. It leaves the listener with an unfinished, unsettled feeling—and that’s entirely on purpose. (Now compare that to the whimsical “na na na...Batman!” tv themes from the after-school cartoons of yore.)
In Hans’s understanding of the Batman origin story, Batman is never able to become truly heroic because he’s stuck forever in that moment of death and guilt. He’s forever a child, never able to have a true, grown-up relationship. The Dark Knight soundtrack, therefore, must reflect that stuck feeling throughout the score—a feeling that comes back tenfold during the Batman theme reprise . It’s a short phrase that contains the entire character of Batman/Bruce Wayne. Hans describes it as a “little nagging motif that goes all the way through,” making it clear to the viewer—and listener—that this is Batman.
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