Dissertation Index

Author: Obluda, Daniel C

Title: Topics in Hollywood Scores: Using Topic Theory to Expand on Recent Neo-Riemannian Analyses of Film Music

Institution: University of Colorado Boulder

Begun: August 2015

Completed: May 2021


Over the last decade, a handful of music theorists have used neo-Riemannian theory to systematically identify and examine many of the unusual chord progressions that have become idiomatic markers of Hollywood’s harmonic language. Building on conventions established in nineteenth-century opera, film composers codified a lexicon of harmonic gestures that, through repeated use in films from all eras and genres of cinema, accrued distinct extra-musical associations. By studying the narrative contexts in which a particular triadic transformation occurs in dozens of films, neo-Riemannian theorists have been able to distill its semiotic meanings, and Frank Lehman (2018) goes so far as to suggest that certain chord progressions constitute what he calls “harmonic style types.” While triadic transformations can imply extra-musical ideas, they merely constitute one piece of the semiotic puzzle that audience members actively decode and interpret while watching a film. Recognizing a need for additional theoretical structure to supplement their harmonic analyses, a few neo-Riemannian scholars have alluded to topic theory as a means of solidifying the semiotic associations borne by specific progressions. However, to date, none of them have attempted to fully integrate these two approaches, which hail from separate disciplines.

Thus, this dissertation will examine the advantages that neo-Riemannian theory and topic theory offer film music scholars, and present a new methodology that synthesizes these frameworks into a multifaceted approach that more closely aligns with a viewer’s interpretation of musical (and visual) signs. The myriad advantages enabled by the integration of these analytical methods will then be demonstrated with two case studies that clarify and delineate the multiple topoi associated with the N and F transformations. Examples collected from a corpus of over one hundred films produced between 1927 and 2020, demonstrate the viability of this system, and, more importantly, they enable one to observe the historical lineage of topoi heard in Hollywood scores, as well as the transformation of these conventional gestures and semiotic associations over the last century.

Keywords: Neo-Riemannian Theory, Topic Theory, N Transformation, Near Fifth, F Transformation, Far Fifth


Chapter 1 Introduction: Neo-Riemannian Theory and Topic Theory at the Movies
Chapter 2 Neo-Riemannian Theory and its Benefits to Film Music Analysis
Chapter 3 Topic Theory and its Applications to Film Music
Chapter 4 Towards a Methodology
Chapter 5 Conveying Sentiment: Topical Associations of the N Transformation
Chapter 6 From Pastoralism to Protagonism: Associations of the F Transformation


Dan Obluda
(303) 947-4973

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