Musical Themes in the Dark Knight Trilogy, Part 4 of 6: The Dark Knight

000018 - Joker 3

Although the score for The Dark Knight was a collaboration between Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, the composers divided up the music for the two main villains of the film, Zimmer writing the music for the Joker, Howard that of Harvey Dent / Two-Face. Accordingly, the style of these two characters’ music is entirely different. Below is my film music analysis of these themes.

The Joker – Accompaniment

Like Batman, the Joker has an accompaniment figure that plays behind several scenes, notably the bank robbery at the film’s opening. The figure often sounds the dissonant interval of a major second in the violins, but more consistent is its rhythm, which is an irregular series of 3s and 2s within a bar of 4/4 time:

000018---Joker-(Accomp)

Sometimes the figure is slightly varied by elongating the third group to 4 pulses:

000018---Joker-(Accomp)-2

In either of its forms, the irregularity and dissonance in the figure suggest the kind of unsettling feeling the Joker’s schemes evoke in us. For this reason, this accompaniment appears precisely when one of his psychotic schemes is underway. Hear each variation in this clip at 1:14 and 2:15:

The Joker – Theme

In writing the main music for the Joker, Zimmer recorded, distorted, and combined many unusual sounds. The resulting “theme” is really more of a tone colour that fuses metallic buzzing and scratching sounds with a distant, airy sustained note. Eventually, out of the sustained note a second note emerges that gradually slides upward, giving the theme an appropriately eerie and haunting flavour:

000018---Joker-(Theme)

The sustained note we hear in this theme is the note D, which is also the first note of Batman’s two-note theme. Furthermore, the upward-sliding note of the Joker’s theme is analogous to the rise up to F in Batman’s theme, and a similar crescendo is also present. The two themes therefore suggest a duality in that Batman and the Joker are in fact two sides of the same coin – both characters are “freaks” that flout society’s laws for their own ends, one for the sake of good, one for evil. Harvey Dent carries this idea of duality further since, once he becomes Two-Face, he is literally split between good and evil, as is his lucky coin, which is now tarnished on one of its two formerly identical faces.

The Joker’s theme is more than a simple musical reminder that the Joker is onscreen or being discussed. It signifies that the Joker is in control of the situation being depicted. And when you think about it, he is nearly always in control when we see him or are about to see him. For example:

  • The bank robbery at the opening
  • His speech to the mob bosses
  • His “Why so serious?” speech to the mob boss Gambol
  • When the armoured car is escorting Harvey away and is forced by the Joker to take the tunnels
  • When he tells Batman where Rachel and Harvey are being held

In each of these situations, we hear the buzzy timbre of the Joker’s theme, reminding us who is in charge here. Here’s a sample of the theme for the cue, “Why so serious?”:

Harvey Dent / Two-Face – Theme

Howard was given the task of writing the music for Harvey Dent / Two-Face. It differs greatly from the Joker’s music in that it contains a melodic six-note theme for the character, usually scored for piano and/or strings:

000018---Dent-(Theme)

Once Dent has transformed into Two-Face, his theme retains the same melody but is scored for the more menacing low brass. Like Batman’s theme, Dent’s theme outlines the interval of a third, but here the third falls rather than rises, and does so twice, perhaps suggesting that, unlike Batman, Dent will not be successful in his endeavours. A stepwise falling third also begins the prominent melody from the love theme I mentioned in my second post on these films. This similarity between the Dent and love themes no doubt signifies Dent’s romantic relationship with Rachel since the love theme signified Rachel and Bruce’s relationship in Batman Begins. Incidentally, you can hear the opening of the love theme in Howard’s suite for Harvey Dent below (see given timings).

Notice also that the theme is in a minor rather than a major key, a surprising detail given that Dent is such an optimistic and morally upright character at the start of the film. Perhaps Howard is insinuating that Dent’s ideals are flawed from the outset and doomed to fail.

Hear the theme in the clip below at these timings:

  • 1:23 – low strings
  • 2:12 – mid strings + horn
  • 2:43 – mid brass
  • 3:20 – mid piano
  • 4:12 – low strings
  • 5:14 – opening of love theme (from Batman Begins)

Series Navigation<< Musical Themes in the Dark Knight Trilogy, Part 3 of 6: The Dark Knight

7 thoughts on “Musical Themes in the Dark Knight Trilogy, Part 4 of 6: The Dark Knight”

  1. This is great!

    One thing I would add to the analysis of the Joker’s theme is that the rising gliss is reminiscent of a police siren, possibly hoping to conflate the Joker with criminality.

  2. Great analysis!
    I am writing a big assignment on the dark knight music and i was wondering where you Got the note (sheet) from, did you write Them yourself or did you get Them from a book (if so, what book)

  3. The rising gliss of the Joker’s theme reminds me of the sound of an approaching aircraft similar to the use of a sound effect of an plane getting nearer until passing overhead at the climax of Pink Floyd’s “In The Flesh?” from the opening of The Wall.
    I watched The Dark Knight last night and was noodling on my guitar as I watched. I ended up playing along to the entire film score. I was very surprised by the simplicity and how dressing two notes up in an orchestra can be like someone putting on eye glasses to appear more intelligent.
    Batman’s theme (heard under Gordon’s speech at the end of the movie and credit roll) uses the same chords as “Since I’ve Been Loving You” by Led Zeppelin and “Elephant Man” by Mastodon.
    I do recall my original viewing of The Dark Knight in it’s theatrical run and being very impressed by the score – and the hair rising on the back of my neck the first time I “felt” the Joker’s rising gliss.

  4. Hey,

    Had you notice that Dent’s theme is actually in Batman Begins a couple times? Listen to Myotis.

    Do you have an explanation for that?

  5. Top 10: American Film Score Composers

    1. John Williams (1932-Present)
    2. Danny Elfman (1953-Present)
    3. James Horner (1953-2015)
    4. Jerry Goldsmith (1929-2004)
    5. Alan Silvestri (1950-Present)
    6. James Newton Howard (1951-Present)
    7. Elmer Bernstein (1922-2004)
    8. Michael Kamen (1948-2003)
    9. Ennio Morricone (1929-2020)
    10. Hans Zimmer (1957-Present)

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