[Smt-talk] Inception chord progression

Charles J. Smith cjsmith at buffalo.edu
Tue Aug 10 15:17:43 PDT 2010

Great example! Thanks for the transcription.

The passage sounds quite Lisztian to my ears--quite a lot like some of  
the BACH harmonizations in the Prelude & Fugue on BACH (any of the  
various organ and piano versions). For example, in the 1870 organ  
version, starting in the 12th measure, Bb is harmonized by a Gb major  
triad, A by a D major 6/3 chord, C by a diminished seventh over the  
continuing bass F#, and B by a B dominant 7th, eventually over another  
F#. One of the tricks of this passage, from the perspective that I've  
taken in a number of places by now, is that all of these chords  
contain a common F# and all are easily heard as various kinds of  
dominants of G, which is indeed the resolution that follows, after a  
pedal recitative centered around F#.

The Zimmer might be analyzed similarly. If you focus on the common Bb  
(A#), all of these chords can easily be heard as dominants of the Cb  
(B) major chord that ends the cycle. There are other chromatic  
functional relationships embedded herein as well, but this one directs  
everything to the Cb at the end. Then, since B major is a normal and  
viable dominant of G minor (hexatonic poles, in fact), the move back  
to the beginning is equally persuasive. Quite a nice bit of musical  
accompaniment for a film about tangible familiar objects melting  
before your eyes...

Charles Smith

> I've seen Inception twice and there's a chord progression I just  
> can't get out of my head - the entire score is by far the best I've  
> heard from Hans Zimmer & co. (and the slowed-down Edith Piaf is  
> excellent). The progression's clearest instance is the scene in  
> Paris where the streets and buildings start folding over themselves.
> G min  Gb Maj/Bb   Eb Maj	  B Maj
> The soundtrack on YouTube - folding streets
> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U1PvjIiM5qk&feature=related   (3:44 -  
> in this example the last chord is B Maj7)
> - or -
> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n_QEBeTa37M&feature=related  (2:25,  
> uptempo)
> Here it is with the voice-leading - I really like the alternating  
> half-steps in the top voice, which divide the progression in two;  
> the progression also wraps around itself, so it can repeat ad  
> infinitum.
> <Inception-progression.gif>
> The four chords very nearly fit into the "Western" hexatonic system  
> from Rick Cohn's 1996 article in Music Analysis, except for the Gb  
> major chord (which belongs to the Southern system). The Gb major is  
> the kicker, it seems, partly because it's farther away from the Eb  
> major in terms of voice-leading. And the Db in this chord is the  
> only non-hexatonic note.
> Does anyone know of any other instances of this particular  
> progression, or ones like it? Are there other ways to look at it  
> besides hexatonic (cubic lattices, etc.)? It feels "modern" to me,  
> like I wouldn't hear this in Wolf or Strauss - but I wouldn't hear  
> it in Shostakovich, Phil Glass or John Adams either. Very intriguing!
> Steve
> _________________________________
> Stephen Taylor
> Associate Professor of Composition-Theory
> University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
> http://www.stephenandrewtaylor.net
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Charles J. Smith
Associate Professor of Music Theory & Chair of the Department
On sabbatical leave, Spring-Summer 2010
Department of Music, 220 Baird Hall
University at Buffalo
Buffalo, NY 14260
716-645-0639 [direct line]
716-645-3824 [fax]
cjsmith at buffalo.edu

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