Twelve-Tone Funk and Pelham One Two Three

One of my favourite musical discoveries of the last few months is the score to the 1970s film The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. I’ve not actually seen the film, but the title music alone is enough to earn it a high rank on my to-watch list (needless to say, the same is not true of the 2009 remake….)

The score for the film was largely written for jazz and funk influenced Big Band orchestra, but using a tone row – part of an avant-garde compositional method developed by Arnold Schoenberg in the 1920s. When I first heard this piece I wasn’t quite sure what I’d heard so sat down to write out the main brass melody and confirmed that it was based on a tone row.


The 12-tone technique requires choosing a list of all the 12 different notes that exist in the western musical scale, and writing them in that specific order to create your tone row. Then when you come to write your music, you can only use the notes from the tone row in that order – so you can have any rhythms, phrasing, articulations, choice of instruments, but you can’t re-play a C# if it was played a few notes back, you’ll have to let all the other notes be played until its turn comes again ((of course not everyone follows these rules dogmaticcally, it’s just that the explanation I gave here is the easiest way to explain it. Schoenberg himself was pretty terrible at writing music that sticks to these principles, and he was somewhat turned upon by his successors as his methods were expanded into the serialism which came to dominated a certain kind of contemporary western classical music for a few decades)) (for an example of 12tone music: click)

David Shire’s score to the Taking of Pelham One Two Three is by no means a 12tone piece however. The tone row is very effectively constructed in blocks of 3notes, and created entirely with intervals of semitones and minor 3rds (and their inversions). But the music he wrote with it is firmly rooted in conventional tonality we’d recognise from funk and jazz, with the repeating bass riff that kicks in right from the beginning of the video above.


For the music geek in me, I just thought it was pretty cool how this score was constructed. I’m sure from David Shire’s point of view using this technique to write a funk score for an action film was a way of organising the chaos, and making some really interesting music that pushed further than using conventional jazz/blues scales without becoming completely anarchic.


About jackwestmore

Jack Westmore writes music for film, television and media, and is currently based in Cardiff in the UK.
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