From Harry Potter to 'Fantastic Beasts': The music of J.K. Rowling's Wizarding World

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find ThemWarner Bros.

November 18, 2016

Fifteen years ago, Harry Potter graced movie screens for the first time. With a score by legendary composer John Williams, the music swayed between the narrative's childish sensibilities and the daunting realities of adult life. As typical for Williams, he laid the groundwork for key themes, such as Hedwig's Theme — which became the overall theme for the franchise — and developed a musical language unique to the universe.

Opening with a solo celesta, Williams combines it with synthesized instrumentation to transport the already ethereal sound to an unreal dimension of magic and surrealism. Most often associated with Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker, the celesta brings a dreamlike component to Harry Potter — evoking a place we all want to go, while recognizing the dangers that may be waiting in the wings.

Combine this with a composition essentially in the key of E minor, but with chord progressions that are not typical for a minor key and you have the DNA of a universe ready to evolve. Williams has always been great with this sort of orchestration; one that establishes a musical context that can grow into adulthood while still recognizing the first in the franchise as a children's film.

With the first two films, Williams stuck to many of his core principles. Though the second is a bit darker, with orchestrations that bring in more of the lower end, there is not much delineation between the scores. The films treated the source material more as screenplay than anything else, so the dimensions of the story were pretty typical for children's cinema.

This all changed with the third film. Alfonso Cuarón stepped in to direct Prisoner of Azkaban, and created the first truly cinematic take on the franchise. He made narrative leaps, and orchestrated a movie that was respectful of the source material, but very much a film with a visual and sonic language as yet unexplored in the franchise.

One can hear the creative inspiration of Cuarón, as Williams crafted one of his greatest scores to support it. There are ticking clocks and a dramatic flair of timpani as well as choral pieces reaching to Shakespeare's Macbeth for a rendition of "Double, double toil and trouble" that introduces the new school year in a manner that combines whimsy and the dark complexity of an evolving franchise. It's an inspired work that goes beyond the confines of the Harry Potter universe. It's here where new audiences found their way into the series: a transition film, where the children begin to grow up and the musical sensibilities tease the complications of identity and control over time.

With the fourth film, composer Patrick Doyle stepped in and brought his flair for the dramatic. Much of the score highlights lower-register percussion and brass, speaking to the growing violence as revolt and propaganda become more visible onscreen.

As with the film, everything is bigger. The stakes are higher, and the film makes a claim for tentpole summer extravaganza cinema. Calling for bigger and louder musical sensibilities, the film also manages to feel a bit slight; the combined narrative and score seem to replace the nuanced complexity of the third with an overt style that doesn't quite get there.

For the fifth and sixth installments, David Yates brought along his long-time collaborator Nicholas Hooper. The fifth film was more of a political action thriller, which drew some keen connections to Yates's previous work and gave a way in for Hooper. "Yes," he told the L.A. Times, "Phoenix was quite a new thing for me...I had scored action in films before, but to do it on that scale was really something." As he balanced his experience with the complexity of such a big-budget film he built out significant new themes and ideas to carry the narrative through.

"I started by listening to a lot of the John Williams score," said Hooper, "particularly from the third movie, Prisoner of Azkaban, which I loved and I suppose is closest to what I was trying to do. I used some of his themes, particularly his Hedwig Theme. After that, we all decided that it was best if I moved into my own way of composing rather than trying to emulate John Williams, which is impossible."

When it came time to pursue Half-Blood Prince, Hooper realized it needed to be simpler. Originating from a piece of choir-and-drums orchestration for a scene that was was eventually cut, the score has a somber tone with a richness unparalleled in the franchise. He deploys the drums heavily (though low in the mix, so more like a heartbeat), and as with Phoenix uses the strings to a greater extent than Williams or Doyle. This creates tension in the music: a sense of energy and destabilization as Voldemort makes his way towards taking control. This makes Half-Blood Prince the most modern-sounding of all the films and distinguishes that film and Phoenix from the rest of the franchise.

Alexandre Desplat was brought in to finish the series — initially for the first part of Deathly Hallows only, and then the second once it was confirmed John Williams could not return due to scheduling. What Desplat brings to the table is a classicism and delicacy unlike anyone else. He has long been known as a composer's composer, easily standing in the concert hall as well as the movie theater — a trait that unites him with Williams. His task with the final installments was something quite different from the rest. This is really a road movie turned end-of-the-world action thriller and his work exudes an empathy for the revolutionaries' forward motion.

As with every iteration, new themes were composed. Especially important in these final stages is Lily's theme, which grounds Harry in his parents' sacrifice. Desplat continued as well, deconstructing Hedwig's Theme in way that unites its childish idealism with the broken pieces along the way. "[W]e wanted it to feel like it was all getting a bit distressed. We wanted to sort of [mess] it up a bit," is how director David Yates described the use of the theme in an interview with Harry Potter Fan Zone. "Anything that felt like we were being nostalgic or in a way reflective of the past. That's when we used it."

It's difficult to say what the final film would have become if John Williams would have returned, but the musical seeds he planted left plenty of room for the franchise to grow from childish ideals into revolution.

And now we have Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, with a score by a composer who never wrote any music for Harry Potter: James Newton Howard. Coming off of franchises like The Hunger Games and Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, it would be easy to assume what his approach to the sound would be. However, Howard has proven himself quite flexible and in fact has composed a score most closely resembling what he did with Peter Jackson's take on King Kong in 2005.

He makes his way back to an American nostalgia for the roaring twenties. There's a significant amount of jazz and compositional turns more epic than we have heard before. There's also a certain lightness afoot, balanced by big brass and electronically-processed percussive arrangements that uniquely define Howard's sound.

Amidst everything, though, there is still a lineage, as Hedwig's Theme is not lost: it's woven in to the score, and is heard at the movie's very beginning. This is very much a continuation of the musical ideas of the past, with an awareness that the new film is a prequel to the Harry Potter saga. It's a time of becoming, a time before the true danger makes itself known, as many fear what they do not understand.

Garrett Tiedemann is a writer, filmmaker, and composer who owns the multimedia lab CyNar Pictures and its record label American Residue Records.