As Janet Halfyard points out in her book on the score for Tim Burton’s Batman, the music of Danny Elfman is known for being two different things: “dark” and “quirky”. Probably the best examples of these are Elfman’s main title themes for Batman (“dark”) and The Simpsons (“quirky”). See my analysis of these themes below.
On the surface, these two themes are entirely different. Batman suggests the nocturnal vigilante-type hero, while The Simpsons captures the zaniness of the cartoon’s characters.
But as unlikely as it may seem, these themes are so similar in many ways that one could in fact call them “sister themes”. Let’s start with the fact that both are main title themes written in 1989 by the same composer and even share the same tonic note – C.
Even the shape of each theme’s melody is incredibly similar. In this diagram, the numbers with hats show which note in the scale is sounding:
Both themes start on the tonic, move through an upward step, then fall from the sixth note of the scale to the fifth. Of course each theme belongs to a different kind of scale, so the character of the sound is different even if the structure is basically the same. The Simpsons is in the Lydian mode, which is like a major scale with the fourth step raised, giving it a sound that is still happy like the major, but also a bit strange. Batman is in the minor mode, which is partly why it sounds so much weightier.
But what is most surprising about these two main titles is that the way in which they are developed is nearly identical. I have analyzed the structure alongside the audio of each theme. (To make comparison easier, I have put in bold events that occur in both themes.) Hear each theme and watch the structure as the music plays.
Here’s The Simpsons main title:
And here’s the Batman main title:
Obviously the Batman theme is longer because it accompanies a feature film and has more time to play out than The Simpsons theme for TV. But even so, once we get a sense of how the music is developed through the main title, it’s not hard to hear the underlying similarities. Especially prominent is the way they begin. Both start with a slower version of the theme (or an outline of it) and the riff gets the theme going into a fast tempo.
But notice some of the other similarities as well. I divide each theme into five sections separated by a blank line. Section 2 is composed in precisely the same way in each, that is: Theme – Flourishes – Theme.
Then at the start of section 3, there is a more lyrical (or singable) version of the theme with some kind of add-on leading to another statement.
The second part of section 4 in each is contrasting in that it is not another full statement of the theme, but something else. In The Simpsons, this is where we see Maggie “driving” the car to a cute little tune for glockenspiel and pizzicato strings. In Batman, there are fragments of the theme repeated and overlapping with one another.
And finally, the last section in each starts with another lyrical form of the theme then prepares for a big final statement of the theme with some kind of riff. Then both close with emphatic final chords.
Given the large number of similarities between these two themes (and especially given that they were composed in the same year), it would not be far-fetched to say that, consciously or not, Danny Elfman wrote the themes for Batman and The Simpsons by putting the same idea through two different compositional machines, one dark, the other quirky.
2 thoughts on “Batman and The Simpsons: Sister Themes”
interesting analysis. I don’t know if the themes were written in the same year though.. Batman being released early summer of 89 and simpsons theme 1990. COuld have been the same year or close to it. Never realized the over all structure was so similar.
On a note, also, check out the theme from THE FLASH tv show by Elfman. ALso written in 1990.
Hi Adam. According to this LA Times article (http://articles.latimes.com/1999/apr/18/magazine/tm-28420/3), Matt Groening approached Elfman to write The Simpsons theme in 1989, so I have to think the ideas for the theme were percolating in that year even though the first episode to include the theme was episode 2 of season 1, which wasn’t aired until 1990 due to production delays.
Thank you for pointing out The Flash theme. I was not aware of this one, but after hearing it, I can certainly hear similarities to Batman and The Simpsons. There seems to have been a kind of general shape Elfman had in mind for several themes at this time in his career. A good topic for another post!