Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Transformers Theme: What Makes it Great?

One of the greatest kids' TV shows of all-time, Transformers fueled the imaginations of a generation. Warring sentient alien robots, capable of transforming themselves into vehicles, bring their fight to earth. But, aside from that 1980's oh-so-cool premise, what was it that caught the attention of its viewers? I would argue it was the opening theme song (credited to Johnny Douglas).

Lasting a short 35 seconds, the opening title sequence is full of action, musically speaking. A guitar solo, accompanied by drum and bass as well as an pulsing orchestral line, introduces those unforgettable lyrics, accented by horns and flutes:

[1] Transformers,
More than meets the eye.
Autobots wage their battle
To destroy the evil forces of -
The Decepticons.
[2] (the) Transformers,
Robots in disguise.
[3] Transformers,
More than meets the eye.
[4] Transformers.

Wow, what a daunting text to set. Even in such a short stanza there are a few words which a composer would be tearing his/her hair out over (How does one sing 'Decepticon'?). In a clever scheme, Douglas repeats the motif of the first statement (marked above by a [1]) three more times ([2]-[4]), but balances its rather hollow harmonic structure with a sequence full of syncopation. It's not something you would expect to hear in a cartoon theme song - it's a bit too sophisticated.


The funny thing is that it sounds awfully baroque if you were to take the syncopation away. Harmonically speaking, the sequence is a Quintfall, or a sequence of a descending fifth (I've been told by a jazz player that it might be referred to as a 'circle of fifths sequence'). Each segment entails the drop of a fifth in the bass line followed by a rise of a fourth. You can see from the image in the video below that the harmony is descending.

Furthermore, if one of the horns weren't doubling a simplified vocal line, there'd have been the chance to make the 7-6 (that is a 7 chord above the written bass to a 6 chord above the written bass) sequence into a 7-7. Listen to what that would sound like in the video below (there's a typo in the figuration on the video below, it should read 7-7-7, etc. not 7-9-7, etc.).

Finally, here's the sequence in a more baroque idiom (the typo is still there, sorry about that).

Essentially, the centerpiece of the theme to Transformers has its roots in baroque music. 

Who would have thought it? 

1. For the purposes of this article I transcribed the sequence in a piano reduction in cut time. It is very possible that the original theme was conceived in 4/4 time but I haven't seen the score.

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