Three uses of chromaticism in the music of Max Steiner

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Jordan Stokes


Recent work by transformational theorists such as Frank Lehman and Scott Murphy has dramatically improved our ability to describe and analyze harmony in modern film music (i.e., since roughly the 1980s). In this essay, I build on these advances by showing that, when combined with simple tonal analysis, neo-Riemannian theory can also yield important insights into the music of Classical Hollywood Cinema, and in particular into the music of Max Steiner, who more than any other composer exemplified the sound and practice of that era. I describe three different ways that Steiner used chromatic harmony:  as a pervasive texture in some unusual cues; as a way of linking and organizing contrasting sections of tonal music; and as a way of reacting to onscreen events (as part of his broader fondness for Mickey-Mousing).

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