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Letters D U N E showing on a black background, it is the logo of the film Dune released in 2021. ;

Anchoring the sci-fi Dune into a familiar geography helps audiences to connect with the film

Dr Philip Kirby

Lecturer in Social Justice, School of Education Communication & Society, King's College London

04 April 2022

The 2022 Oscar for best original score has been awarded to Hans Zimmer for Dune. But how does the soundtrack capture the film’s plot? What information does it communicate?

An adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel, Dune is a science fiction story of rival houses competing across space for power and prestige. The film’s protagonist, Paul, is the scion of House Atreides, arch rivals of House Harkonnen. The film begins with House Atreides’ appointment by the off-screen emperor as de facto ruler of the planet Arrakis. On Arrakis, a stark desert planet, is mined ‘spice’ – a valuable commodity that allows interstellar travel. The story follows House Atreides’ betrayal by House Harkonnen and a battle between the two in which House Atreides is decimated. The film finishes with Paul joining forces with Arrakis’ indigenous population, the Fremen, while developing supernatural abilities – partly inherited from his mother, partly honed by his contact with the mystical Fremen.

One of the areas I research at the School of Education, Communication & Society is how film music communicates – or seeks to communicate – certain information to audiences. The aural component of film has attracted far less attention than its visual component, but film score can be just as rich with meaning as film imagery.

In Dune, Zimmer and his team employ several tactics to explore aspects of the movie’s plot. The score overall is a combination of electronic sounds, world music textures, and non-lexical vocables (singing without words), designed to capture the film’s epic and other-worldly plot, while at the same time making references to Earth-bound contexts that help to situate the listener.

Percussions and strings make for an intense start

In the opening track, ‘Dream of Arrakis’, we hear several of Zimmer’s ‘epic’ tactics, including a dramatic and repetitive male chant, a disjointed percussive section that puts the audience on guard, and an electronic heartbeat that increases in tempo, building tension. The track resists clear melody, privileging, as Nicholas Reyland has said elsewhere of Zimmer’s work, “affective short hands over longer-form expositions of narrative”.

When the emperor’s herald arrives to instruct House Atreides to proceed to Arrakis (‘Herald of the Change’), an enigmatic, Arabesque motif (short musical idea) is performed by a duduk – an Armenian woodwind instrument that has become a signifier in recent Hollywood for an ambiguously defined Middle East – highlighting the long journey to the distant planet to come. An ominous motif in the strings highlights the danger of the request the emperor has made.

Predominant female voices

Elsewhere in the score, female voices are prominent, echoing the themes of the book. Zimmer himself notes that “one of the major themes of the book was the power of women”, including the role of the Bene Gesserit, a female-led quasi-religious order that influences events for the greater good of the universe. In ‘Bene Gesserit’, female sung non-lexical vocables are used to create a whispering effect, reminiscent of a muttered incantation, such as the Bene Gesserit use to control their enemies.

In ‘Gom Jabbar’, the audience hears the first iteration of the wail that accompanies Paul’s premonitions of Chani, a girl of the Fremen. In style, this highlights again the score’s allusions to an exotic elsewhere, and recurs throughout the film (e.g. ‘The Fall’), including a final iteration in the film’s denouement (‘My Road Leads into the Desert’) that suggests the importance of the Fremen to the sequel (due 2023). The singer, Loire Cotler, drew inspiration from myriad musical traditions, “everything from Jewish niggun (wordless song) to South Indian vocal percussion, Celtic lament to Tuvan overtone singing.”

The score for Dune is a rich source for reflecting on how film music communicates social and geographical information to audiences (for an excellent in-depth review, see Jonathan Broxton’s account). Despite the film’s setting, a fictional universe of space travel and interstellar war, the score roots the plot in a series of conventions – some might even say stereotypes – that assist the listener in interpreting what they are seeing on-screen. 

Perhaps most obviously, Zimmer’s score evokes an exotic, Middle Eastern desert landscape that was one of the key inspirations for Herbert’s book, supplementing this with electronic tonalities that evoke the science fiction component of the narrative.– Dr Philip Kirby

But this is only one interpretation of the score, what can you hear in the soundtrack?

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Philip Kirby

Philip Kirby

Lecturer in Social Justice

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