"Most composers are looking for action-oriented, pulse-oriented…rhythm-oriented scores that propel the movie, and the whole thing is about propulsion. And, as an afterthought, there's love, and there's emotion, and there's other things, but the main thing is pure adrenaline. And a lot of movies are made like that now. If you look at all of the Marvel comic movies or the tentpole movies that are made, how many of them are made with the same formula." – James Horner 1
James Horner said that in 2010. He was talking about the lack of originality in many of today’s film scores. The “propulsion scores” he was referring to, with their strong rhythmic pulses, booming bass notes and bizarre sound effects, tended to lack appropriate emotion, effective themes, and other elements that make a score memorable. The Magnificent Seven has all the elements of a propulsion score. The powerful orchestrations, forceful rhythms, and colorful sounds leave a strong impression. But, unlike the scores that frustrated Horner in 2010, these techniques are not used at the expense of thematic narrative or poignant story-telling. Rather, The Magnificent Seven is an incredibly detailed work, with an abundance of themes, nuanced orchestration and emotional intensity. Together, James Horner and Simon Franglen have constructed a symphony of high adventure, with all the romance and fervor of a true western – a propulsion score of the very best kind.
This analysis will attempt to explore the music as heard in the film, although it will rely heavily on the album’s arrangement. Spoilers will be kept to a minimum, however it is inevitable that some information about the film and the music will be shared. Before reading this article, we would highly encourage you to first watch the film and listen to the album, and experience the joy of discovery for yourself without the blemish of pre-conceived interpretations.
Chronological film score:
1 – Rose Creek Oppression
6 – Devil in the Church
5 – Street Slaughter
7 – Chisholm Enrolled
8 – Magic Trick
4 – Volcano Springs
3 – Lighting the Fuse
9 – Robicheaux Reunion
10 – A Bear In People’s Clothes
11 – Red Harvest
12 – Takedown
2 – Seven Angels of Vengeance
14 – 7 Days, That’s All You Got
13 – Town Exodus – Knife Training
15 – So Far So Good
16 – Sheriff Demoted
17 – Pacing the Town
19 – Bell Hangers
18 – The Deserter
20 – Army Invades Town
22 – Horne Sacrifice
23 – The Darkest Hour
21 – Faraday’s Ride
24 – House of Judgment
25 – Seven Riders
Rose Creek Oppression
The cue begins with a blast from a Shakuhachi, a Japanese whistle used frequently in Horner’s other scores. To Horner fans, the familiar sound is both comforting and menacing. Trumpets introduce an important leitmotif: three simple notes, repeated incessantly, getting quieter each time. These triplets are played as even quarter notes in 4/4 time, which leaves room for an extra note in each measure. So the three notes repeat, and repeat, never quite fitting into the time signature. The result is unsettling, a syncopated motif that proves one of the most catchy. This is an adaptation of a motif from Battle Beyond the Stars, Horner’s first fully-orchestral film score. In that film, the triplets are meant to reflect the cold, echo-ey void of space. Here, they seem to represent the hot, vicious brutality and vastness of the wild west. As the triplets continue, another familiar melody begins. Two sopranos sing solemnly in a minor key, in parallel. The melody is recognizable from Legends of the Fall and Patriot Games. (For the first time, we hear the theme without the voice of Maggie Boyle.) In those films, it represents the quest for revenge. Here, it essentially highlights the townspeople’s longing to break free of oppression. This theme will become a main character of the score.
But there are hints of a third musical idea, a thread that will be woven throughout the score. Beneath the vocals, ethnic woodwinds and percussion, it can be heard on a lone banjo (a significant instrument), almost hiding beneath the melody. Played throughout, it is the last four notes of the cue. Keep these notes in back of your mind, because they will become incredibly important.
Devil in the Church
Enter Bartholomew Bogue, the film’s villain. The soft plucking of a banjo gives a sense of uncertainty and insecurity. Underneath it, Bogue’s theme is introduced. It is played by the violins, slowly, softly, occasionally rising in volume only to suddenly soften again. Simon Franglen has compared this melody to a snake, sneaking its way through the score 2. Just like Bogue, it is filled with hidden menace, happy to stay out of sight but ready to emerge with force when necessary.
The wild west triplets appear in a slower, melancholy form. Still in a minor key, they are heard moved up a third, showing the motif’s tender side. At 01:38, we hear faint hints of the revenge theme in the high strings, just before a soprano enters with a mournful melody. As the cue reaches its conclusion, the soprano is joined by an anguished male tenor.
Cut to the main title, and the cue concludes with violent percussion. Note that the last four notes here are the same as the last four of Rose Creek Oppression. This rhythm will be manifested in its fullest form later, but its placement over the title is significant. It is actually derived from Elmer Bernstein’s score for the original Magnificent Seven. In Bernstein’s score, it is a melody line over which the iconic main theme is played, but here it is just a rhythm. By stripping it of its melody, Horner and Franglen are able to pay tribute to the original, while making the motif more suitable for Antoine Fuqua’s darker, grittier film.
The cue begins with a melody that seems to be connected with Faraday, one of the most memorable of the Seven. It is heard again at 00:52. Throughout the cue, low strings borrow an idea from The 33, Into the Heart of the Mountain.
The cue begins with charming piano that adds subtle tension, not unlike It’s Sarah’s Move from Jumanji. Soon, the string pattern from The 33 reappears. Although its place at this point can be confusing, it is wonderful to hear Horner’s previous material used so liberally. Whether it was part of Horner’s original work or Franglen’s insertion doesn’t matter: it is a natural continuation of Horner’s method. Although not a core part of the score, it will lead to a satisfying pay-off later.
After some cocky-sounding guitar twangs comes the most overt use of any Bernstein material. The trombones blare out a single note incessantly, evenly, forming a foundation over which a melody is played – the same technique Bernstein used for his secondary theme. At 00:49, another main theme appears. This is the theme for the people of Rose Creek, who will courageously stand against the tyranny of Bogue.
Lighting the Fuse
Lighting the Fuse begins with a syncopated rhythm on threatening percussion. The Bernstein motif dances alongside the triplet motif. And then, of course, a trumpet sings four simple notes. How bittersweet to hear the danger motif again. It was Franglen’s decision to use the motif, not as any sort of tribute to Horner, but because it was exactly what the scene needed2. Only secondarily does it serves as a humble celebration of James Horner’s craft. And it is as menacing and thrilling as ever. (It actually appears in the film three different times. Although difficult to tell, it was probably not written for this scene, but tracked from another cue.)
This cue begins with fierce hand claps, and a melody that will appear again. It is hinted at by horn, beneath the hand claps. A crescendo of strings playing the Rose Creek theme sets the stage for its full appearance. Then two horns present the motif in lovely counterpoint, calling to mind Horner’s exquisite style of writing for the horn (although this phrase is faster than Horner’s horn counterpoint, generally).
A Bear In People’s Clothes
Instead of being dropped into the usual 4/4 time, the triplet motif seems to have its way here, not allowing us to identify any specific time signature. The revenge theme appears on subtle strings. At 01:21, we hear hints of the “saying goodbye” motif, a melody that Horner used frequently (especially significant in Bicentennial Man, The Karate Kid, A Beautiful Mind, and First in Flight). Although it is often connected with death, it is actually used to signify the parting of ways between characters, more specifically a moment in which a character must let go of – or say goodbye to – a loved one, forever. It’s a heartbreaking motif, and in this scene, it causes us to wonder about the character’s history.
In one of the most serene moments of the score, a gentle piano and soothing ethnic flute provide a reflective atmosphere.
As in Rose Creek Oppression, the revenge theme blends with the Bernstein rhythm and triplet motif, reminding us that nothing has actually changed yet – the oppression of Rose Creek continues. At 1:02, a seven-note snare drum sounds, recognizable from many of Horner’s scores – Legends of the Fall, Apollo 13, The Four Feathers…. It is a pattern that seems to represent patriotism in some form. It here blends seamlessly with the revenge theme, forcing us to wonder: are the characters acting out of commitment to Rose Creek, or are they merely seeking a fight?
Seven Angels of Vengeance
It opens with a catchy, energetic riff for strings and brass. The “wild west triplets” sneak into the mix at 00:25, clearer than before, more of a melody than an ambient sound. At 01:12, a lyrical melody joins the mix, giving a sense of nobility to the action. At 01:56, we get our first glimpse of the main theme. A relative of the flying theme (see It’s Logical – Episode 1), it is both epic and simple. It is less about the soaring grandeur of flight, but the hope which lifts the spirit and spurs the characters on to noble deeds. However, this is a very brief glimpse – it will be fully developed later.
7 Days, That’s All You Got
There’s no going back now. The wild west triplets are a chilling reminder of the horrors that war will bring, and the Rose Creek theme sounds hesitant, unsure of itself.
Town Exodus – Knife Training
Now, the Rose Creek theme is both melancholy and positive. The revenge theme reprises as the rebellion really cranks into motion.
So Far So Good
The main theme is presented again, still not complete, but more present than ever before. We hear again the patriotic snare drums, throughout the cue. Finally, we hear once more the theme from The 33, and the connection is finally made crystal-clear.
Bogue’s theme is menacing as always, and this time, a strange, possibly synthetic sound adds foreboding to the scene. Together with the Bernstein rhythm, the music portends the terrible battle to come.
Pacing the Town
The triplet motif accompanies the preparations. An unsteady pattern in the low strings reflects the town’s excitement and anxiety. As the Seven work alongside the people, we hear the main theme. This is only the third time it has appeared, but is now being clearly established as the identity for Rose Creek’s seven saviors, a new theme for the Magnificent Seven. At 02:12, the wild west triplets appear in strengthened form – danger is approaching. At 02:27, the Rose Creek theme shows its aggressive side, with strong brass and percussion.
After the Rose Creek theme, the triplet motif and Bernstein rhythm blend with a scratchy-sounding flute.
As we grow ever closer to the final showdown, the horns play a war-like melody, the same melody we heard in Volcano Springs. The patriotic snare drums are back, adding depth to the characters. This cue is serene, thoughtful, one of the last tender moments before the final battle.
Army Invades Town
Heavy brass and panicked strings accompany the army’s approach, with the entrance of snare drums at 00:26. Faraday’s theme is heard again, at 00:52. The Rose Creek theme comes at 02:04, in a subdued form.
As the fighting takes a turn for the worse, Bogue’s theme is heard, no longer as a snake hiding beneath the grass, but completely pronounced, terrifying in its intensity.
The Darkest Hour
The Darkest Hour was originally written as one long cue, 07:20 total. The choice to shorten it on the album was most likely made in favor of releasing other material, even though the full cue is an incredible composition and highlight of the score. It begins in 6/8 (or 3/4) time, and the triplets finally have their way, fitting more or less comfortably in each measure. Bogue’s theme is heard on brass, angry. At 01:09, the Seven’s theme is finally presented in its fullness. At 01:40, it is performed gloriously. A brass harmony line, filled with heart-wrenching suspensions, accompanies the strings’ melody. Pairs of booming “thumps” from the percussion remind of the heroics of Saving New York (from The Amazing Spider-Man).
This cue is one of the score’s highlights, bursting with energy and heartfelt magnificence throughout. It opens with the same material as Seven Angels of Vengeance, but with a harsher, deeper texture. The triplet motif prefaces the entrance of Faraday’s theme at 00:36. At 02:44, the main theme appears in all its glory, perfectly capturing the courage of the heroes. The cue concludes with Rose Creek’s theme.
House of Judgment
Bogue’s theme is heard again, banjo and all. The strings have a subdued nature, contrasted with forceful percussion. Then the strings become downright chilling, as the fate of Rose Creek is decided once and for all. Finally, a soprano voices the Magnificent Seven’s theme, slowly, fully, with the orchestra providing gentle harmonies. The voice is striking in its purity and strength.
After a dark shadow of the main theme, confident strings play the Bernstein rhythm, assuring us that the story is reaching its conclusion. The orchestra swells as other instruments join the blend, even a brief humming sound. Then, the Seven’s theme, in its final, victorious form. The Bernstein rhythm is here, too, united to a melody once again.
We hope this article has provided a greater appreciation of, and insight into, the brilliance of this new score. It is a must for any Horner fan, and even for anyone who appreciates quality film music. The album is an intense experience, but the music as written for the film is even more breathtaking and brilliant, with an incredible use of leitmotif, especially melodically and rhythmically.
The Magnificent Seven is a delightful gift from James Horner and Simon Franglen. It is both full of surprises, and is exactly what we’ve come to expect from a James Horner score. It has it all – catchy action cues, bold orchestrations, swelling themes, and brilliant musical narrative. It is a complex, nuanced score that can only be fully appreciated in the context of Horner's oeuvre, and the Bernstein score, but is also accessible and fun. As time passes on, this score will only become more cherished. It is a reminder that the music of James Horner will always be here for us to enjoy, forever stuck in our heads, and always in our hearts.
Photo credit: © Sony Pictures Releasing, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. and Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.