[Smt-talk] Inception chord progression

Frank Lehman flehman at fas.harvard.edu
Thu Aug 12 12:57:38 PDT 2010

Hi everyone. Had to chime in – I left *Inception *thinking about exactly the
harmonic progression we’re all talking about. I’ve been working on
chromaticism as signifier of various forms of distortion and “warpage” in
film music, and this is a beautiful example. It also hosts an instance of an
absolute progression I've been focusing on, SLIDE (i.e. g-min to Gb-Maj)
acting in a fairly unusual manner. Most typical film uses tend to exploit
SLIDE’s potential as an involution by just generating a smallish circuit
(i.e. C-min – B-maj back to C-min, basically chromatically embellishing C).
But occasionally you find a rather novel application like this.

I find it helpful to look for analogous progressions within the same
composer’s output to see if there’s an underlying harmonic routine that
forms part of their “style.” I was able to find one clear, if indirect
cousin to the *Inception* theme in Zimmer’s scores to *The Da Vinci Code*and
*Angels and Demons*  The *Da Vinci* progression, which is associated with a
sort of amorphous mystery, is:

b-min - Bb-maj6 - E-maj - f-dim - C#65 - b-min

It shows up in this cue, starting around the 1:00 mark:

He begins with the same harmonic gambit – a motion from root-position minor
tonic to the major triad, in first inversion, that shares its third (its
SLIDE-partner). After SLIDE the two diverge, with *Vinci *then landing on
the tritonally related E-major, melody charting a diminished third (Bb-G#) –
this sounds like nothing so much as *Neapolitan* behavior. Were this a
proper bII6-V, the key would be a-minor. It would be a nice example of
Kopp’s account of the SLIDE progression as stemming from the
functional substitution ii<=>bII. Alas, a-minor is nowhere to be heard, and
frankly, I still hear the progression in b-minor, with E serving as a
tritonally prepared (!) major subdominant (bII6/IV to IV!) of b-minor.
Zimmer then steers to f-diminished, itself sounding like an incomplete
version of the C#65 that follows.  C# is drawn straight back down to
b-minor, so (if we’re going to be dogmatically roman numeral oriented) the
penultimate progression is a V/V – I. Perhaps V/V acts as an ersatz
dominant, especially once the melody is tugged up to A# en route to B.

Another version of this motif behaves in a slightly less “weird” tonal
matter, but is still clearly derived from  the above progression (or maybe
it’s the other way around):

d-min - Bb-maj - E-maj - f-dim - C#65 - d-min

I’ve made the diagram below to show how the *Inception* progression relates
as a possibly transformed version as the one from *Da Vinci *progression.
For convenience, the latter is transposed to g-minor.

Inception/Da Vinci
: http://tinyurl.com/inceptvinci

Root and modal relationships are shown, with triadic sevenths and
the embellishmental f-dim reduced out for transformational clarity. The big
difference is clearly that *Inception* embeds a major third cycle (whether
this qualifies as a truly "hexatonic" procedure doesn't seem to be a
tremendous issue in this brief example) while *Vinci* hints at an incomplete
minor third one. The upper-voice is decidedly more active in *Da Vinci; *I’ve
put in parentheses those pitches that obscure the underlying G-prolonging
counterpoint shared by both. One interesting similarity is that both have a
sort of “polar” cadence, the first an instance of the *Tonnetz* pole, the
second, as Charles Smith has pointed out, being the *HEX* pole.

I’ve not yet found any literal repetitions of the *Inception* progression,
though I feel assured they’re out there. These kinds of 3-4 chord long
chromatic triadic modules are really common in film music, and perhaps for
no one so much as Zimmer. Nearly big-budget score by Zimmer from *Crimson
Tide* onwards features either a main or subsidiary minor-mode theme whose
first bass motion is from ^1-^b3; the examples here seem to be efforts to
support ^b3 with something more interesting than i6 or bIII.  *Inception* is
definitely one of his better efforts in recent years, and interviews make it
clear he put a lot of conceptual effort into writing it. Over-scored in
areas, but this is Hans Zimmer we’re talking about, not one known for
holding back!


Frank Lehman

Ph.D. Candidate, Harvard University
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