Most film scores are designed not to draw attention to themselves; they stay in the background like wallpaper, for decoration only. But exceptional movies feature unique and memorable characters or situations. Film composers like to match these elements with sounds that stick out - often from instruments you’ve never heard before. Connected to our film heritage is a virtual museum of obscure musical oddities.
Take the contrabassoon, the monstrously huge cousin of the bassoon. Ennio Morricone uses it at the very beginning of his score for last year’s Quentin Tarantino film The Hateful Eight. I couldn’t think of more menacing sound. But the race to discover obscure instruments has been going on since the 1960s and before.
The first use of the theremin was by Miklos Rosza in his score for The Lost Weekend, where the weird sci-fi sound represents the siren call of the bottle. You’ve probably never heard of a Cimbalom, but its strange Eastern-European flavor is the perfect sound of international intrigue in The IPCRESS File. The musical saw captures the irony and insanity of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
All of these early instrumental discoveries made their way into rock and pop. Though I’m still waiting to hear a rock tune featuring the contrabassoon.
Listening list for podcast:
Contrabassoon: Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight, “L'Ultima Diligenza di Red Rock”
Theremin: Miklos Rosza: The Lost Weekend “Sequence #2” 1945 (Just the first 40 seconds)
Zither, Anton Karas, The Third Man O.S.T "Anna walks away alone - End" 1949
The Zither, A fretted stringed instrument with about thirty strings, held in the lap.
Cimbalom: John Barry, The IPCRESS File, Main Title, 1965
Musical Saw: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, End credits;
Hardanger Fiddle: Carter Burwell, Fargo OST, 7: “Chewing On It” 1996
Features the hardanger fiddle, a Norwegian folk instrument. LIke a violin but with 4 or 5 extra sympathetic strings.
Wagner Tuba: Howard Shore, Lord of the Rings:
Ennio Morricone, For A Few Dollars More: