Dune is hotly tipped this awards season, and rightly so. Denis Villeneuve’s big-screen adaptation captures the scale and feel of Frank Herbert’s epic space fantasy novels. That feel is in no small part down to the film’s score, created by Hans Zimmer.
If you felt a deep sense of dread listening to the film's soundtrack, it might be because it’s among Zimmer’s darkest, scariest sci-fi soundtracks, according to our music tagging AI.
Zimmer is no stranger to a sci-fi epic. His evocative scores for Inception, Interstellar and Blade Runner 2049 are as integral to their respective movies as any character. In recent years, the composer has also dominated the closely-related superhero genre with eight such titles under his belt spanning Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy to Wonder Woman 1984.
If Zimmer’s name is on the credits for a sci-fi or superhero movie, you can typically expect the score to be bombastic, bassy and Braaam-filled. However, for Dune, the goal was different. Director Denis Villeneuve told Variety that he and Zimmer became “obsessed with the idea of trying to create music from another world, from another time.”
Zimmer focused on creating otherworldly sounds made by unrecognisable instruments played in unfamiliar ways.
As we analyse the Dune original soundtrack album, we learn that his score is his most significant departure from the ‘Zimmer sound’ to date, but that our AI can still recognise the hallmarks of his work.
Game of drones
More than any other Zimmer sci-fi soundtrack, Dune stands out for its large number of tracks categorised as drones by the AI, not as music. In Musiio parlance, a drone is a non-rhythmic audio file primarily consisting of a sustained sound centred around a single predominant frequency. That’s what we get for half of the soundtrack.
These evolving drones perfectly reflect the constantly shifting emptiness of the desert planet Arrakis – the film’s setting.
So why doesn’t the AI recognise all these tracks as music? The answer lies in our training data. We trained our AI primarily with songs rather than cinematic scores. Still, the AI would ordinarily be able to recognise orchestral parts and categorise the audio correctly.
What’s fascinating about this score is that Zimmer has successfully created sounds that are unrecognisable to human ears – and AI ones, too.
For those tracks tagged as music, we can get a more detailed analysis from the tagging AI. First, we can see that Dune has more scary (orange) and dark (black) moods compared to the average of Zimmer’s other sci-fi and superhero soundtracks
The German composer’s sci-fi soundtracks tend to have more sad and neutral moods; meanwhile, his superhero scores usually feature far more dramatic and majestic moods.
That’s not to say that it is the darkest or scariest; Dark Phoenix has a higher percentage of scary tags, and Chappie has more dark tags than Dune. However, it’s the first time both tags have together dominated one of Zimmer’s sci-fi scores.
Dune is also notable among his sci-fi scores because it borrows the majestic mood usually reserved for the composer’s superhero films. Dune’s themes of prophecy, salvation and new beginnings fit neatly with the majestic mood, evidenced in a track like “My Road Leads into the Desert”.
Hallmarks of Hans
In an interview with Variety, Zimmer said, “We were dealing with a culture that was extraterrestrial. I felt that the only thing that should be pure – and even that shouldn’t be quite pure – was the voice. I was trying to do the inner voices of the characters, without using words.”
Although there are voices layered throughout the score, the AI tagged all tracks as instrumental. As we’ve previously mentioned, this might be because of the bias in the training data towards songs. It could also be a product of the voices being distant, reverb-soaked cries sung in an invented alien language.
Elsewhere in his Variety interview, Zimmer insists that there is no orchestra anywhere in the score. To create an alien underscore, he eschewed traditional orchestral instruments in favour of instruments such as bespoke modular synths, bagpipes and duduk (the Armenian oboe).
However, classical genre tags still appear for a couple of pieces on the soundtrack. Fittingly, one of these tracks prominently features the duduk, choral voices, a low stringed instrument that sounds uncannily like a bowed double bass. (We could even swear there’s a brass section that enters at 3:05 in this cue.)
Dune is unquestionably one of Zimmer’s most unusual scores, but it bears many of the hallmarks of his other work.
The genre classifier reveals that the Dune score has virtually the same percentage of electronic and ambient tags as Zimmer’s other sci-fi and superhero soundtracks.
When analysed by AI and laid out in this way, the genre blends are clear. With two genres dominating all of his work, it’s easy to grasp why Hans Zimmer soundtracks are instantly recognisable, even if the music is designed to sound otherworldly and unique.