Film Score Monthly
Screen Archives Entertainment 250 Golden and Silver Age Classics on CD from 1996-2013! Exclusive distribution by SCREEN ARCHIVES ENTERTAINMENT.
Sky Fighter Wild Bunch, The King Kong: The Deluxe Edition (2CD) Body Heat Friends of Eddie Coyle/Three Days of the Condor, The It's Alive Ben-Hur Frantic Nightwatch/Killer by Night
Forgot Login?
Search Archives
Film Score Friday
Latest Edition
Previous Edition
Archive Edition
The Aisle Seat
Latest Edition
Previous Edition
Archive Edition
View Mode
Regular | Headlines
All times are PT (Pacific Time), U.S.A.
Site Map
Visits since
February 5, 2001:
© 2022 Film Score Monthly.
All Rights Reserved.
Return to Articles

Number 51

I’m sure most of us can recognize the various instruments of the orchestra by their images or their particular sounds. For some, these may most likely be the instruments used in an everyday, standard symphony orchestra set up: violin, viola, cello, contrabass, flute, piccolo, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, trumpet, horn, trombone, tuba and various percussion. But what of those instruments that are infrequently used and may not be so recognizable? This leads me to the low woodwinds. I’ve always had a soft spot for these mighty wind instruments that are quite often hidden amongst the crowd as they play underneath the orchestra adding a special bedrock texture all their own.

Enter the bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet and contrabassoon. Rarely heard in concert music until the later romantic period when the orchestral palette experienced an explosive expansion to broaden the range of orchestral color and power, these instruments are still not exactly regular fixtures of the orchestra today and are most often found within the framework of an expanded orchestral complement. Without getting into their uses in concert music, I‘ll just stick with film music and provide a few examples that come to mind.

Bass ClarinetContrabass ClarinetFirst a little background. The bass clarinet and its big brother, the contrabass clarinet, anchor the clarinet family with their low end, dark, hollow, resonate sound. These rather large instruments emit a sound that at times may be more often felt than heard when played in their lower registers. In the case of the contrabass clarinet, which is pitched a full octave lower than the bass clarinet, it is rarely if ever used as a solo instrument and more in a harmonic bass support role. In its lowest register it produces a rumbling pedal tone sound quality, very deep and dark. The bass clarinet is used much in the same way, but on occasion is used as a solo instrument as well, especially in its higher registers where the sound projects melodically more effectively and with a somewhat melancholy tone. 


ContrabassoonThe contrabassoon is a beast all its own. Rarely if ever used as a solo instrument, this huge instrument is capable of playing the lowest notes of any instrument in the orchestra with the exception of the tuba. When played in its low, pedal tone sounding register, you almost swear you can hear each individual flap of the vibrating double reeds. There is a buzz saw sound quality to it that is quite distinctive. There are times where you can barely make out the actual pitches of some of the notes in this range, but it still adds a very distinctive color to the orchestral sound. 

As to the use of these instruments in film music, two words: Bernard Herrmann. Certainly not the first nor the only composer to make use of these instruments in film music, but one who used them regularly, quite often in prominent roles. He called upon them time and time again as part of his orchestrational bag of tricks, very much helping define some of his trademark sound.

Sometimes used individually, but more often in combination with each other or other instruments in their families, Herrmann used these low winds to underscore dark, mysterious, brooding or wildly fanciful elements in his film scores. How often I wonder did he use the bass/contrabass clarinet as the underlying foundation for a clarinet/woodwind choir in delivering a brooding, dire, darkly foreboding feel to a scene in a film? I couldn’t even begin to count the number and this is definitely one of Herrmann’s signature sounds echoing from the Wagnerian past of the Ring Cycle.

A prominent use of these instruments helped define much of the distinctive sound of Herrmann’s spectacular fantasy film scores such as Mysterious Island, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Jason and the Argonauts, etc. Some examples follow.

Where would much of the low end sound Herrmann chose to represent the deep, dark world hidden below the Earth’s surface in Journey to the Center of the Earth be without these big boys? In the compiled suite video below, two sections are good examples of what sounds are produced by these instruments and the unique quality they impart to the feel of the music. From 1:20-2:00 they are pretty much the whole show (combined with their respective family members). From 9:22 to 11:00 they are on full display working alongside the organ and the serpent. Take special note of the vibrating, buzzing sound of the contrabassoon as it drones below the serpent from 10:00-11:00. It’s an unmistakable, one of a kind sound, perhaps with more of a sound effect quality than a musical one here.

Another prominent Herrmann example can be found in the opening of “The Bird” from Mysterious Island. The contrabassoon, normally doubled at the octave with regular bassoons is a typical pairing, but using this combination to carry the primary thematic material is generally not. The bassoons are quickly followed in the fugue by the bass clarinet and the rest of the clarinet family in typical Herrmann fashion.


Still one more Herrmann example, this time from Jason and the Argonauts. All three instruments are used here. Take note at the 46 second mark where the bass and contrabass clarinets are doubled. It's a dark, ominous, hollow sound that perfectly captures the doom laden aspects of the prophecy.


The above are but a few examples out of many that can be found in Hermann’s music.

One last example of one of these instruments can be found in Jerry Goldsmith’s music for the Thriller episode "Well of Doom". Here Goldsmith, no stranger to using an odd assortment of instruments, at times in non-standard ways, used a contrabassoon as a solo instrument. Goldsmith quite often used the contrabassoon in his TV scores, most likely due to fiscally driven small ensemble requirements which inspired resourceful thinking to deliver a big sound from a small number of instruments. The contrabassoon is able to produce a rich bass sound much like that of the string bass in which to anchor some of his ensembles. Here it delivers a rather odd, strangely offbeat sound in keeping with the nature of the series.


So as you can hear from just the above few samples, these are not your everyday sounding instruments and certainly not the type to get much solo time. There are many, many examples by other composers that reflect different usages of these instruments, but I chose to pick ones that readily came to mind and happened to be by my two favorite film composers. I personally love the deep, mysterious sound qualities of these low wind giants and feel they impart something quite extraordinary to the film music they are used in. So the next time you meet up with one of these Denizens of the Orchestral Deep in the dark somewhere, you'll recognize who they are so there's nothing to fear. Oh, and tell ‘em I sent you!


                   The place for quotes, trivia, links, etc. 

Quote of the week: "We're not doing linoleum!" --B. Herrmann 

 Be seing you...




Return to Articles Author Profile
Comments (9):Log in or register to post your own comments
Thank you, Mr. Ford, for writing an article on these lower-register wind instruments. While I love these affecting sounds emanating from all of the instruments which you spotlight, my personal favorite sonorities come from the cor anglais (the English Horn). I have loved the rich tones (between the oboe and the clarinet) of the English Horn for years, and for the past few days was contemplating posting a thread here @ FSM to ask members what their favorite instrumental sounds are. Seems Mr. Ford beat me to it and wrote a whole piece demonstrating these sounds issued from the contrabassoon and bass clarinets.

JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH is my favorite Bernard Herrmann score. The reason for this is likely due its large wind and brass ensemble, augmented by percussion, and the absence of strings. I consider Maurice Jarre's THE TRAIN as my 2nd favorite string-less score.

Despite these 2 superb scores (plus many other fine works), my first thoughts nevertheless turn to the music of Alex North when I wish to listen to excellent writing for wind instruments. North was a true master of woodwind writing, lending this family of instruments many passages of complex expression yielding various emotional responses in the listener. Bernard Herrmann may have been a genius in selecting just the right proportion of instruments within the orchestrations to his scores, but he, more often than not, wrote 2 or 3 note motivic cells, either ascending or (usually) descending, rather than composing long musical lines with abundant notes. Additionally, Herrmann's instrumental palette may impress the ears with its sounds, but often-times clarinets and bassoons and other instruments are given sustained notes to play in unison, creating simplicity (maybe even banality, to some people) as opposed to density via counterpoint lines or polyphonic invention. If one loves this Herrmannesque type of "sound", then I recommend exploring the concert works of Icelandic composer Jon Leifs, whose brief orchestral tone poems like "Geysir" and "Hekla" are even more elaborately orchestrated and outrageously audacious in nature than anything we've heard from Herrmann.

Another composer who writes very distinctive music with 'in your face' instrumentations is Gerald Fried, and Fried's movie and TV music bursts with highly noticeable wind instrument sounds, not the least of which would be Fried's scores for classic STAR TREK, especially the "Catspaw" episode.

Jerry Goldsmith's usage of the contrabassoon appears in scores as diverse as THE STRIPPER, THE ILLUSTRATED MAN, THE CASSANDRA CROSSING, etc., and in his television work, like his sole contribution to VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA. While I recall detecting the sound of the contrabassoon within Goldsmith's 1981 score for OUTLAND, I don't remember much utilization of these lower-register type instruments afterwards. Isn't it interesting that both Mr. Ford and myself are referencing soundtrack music greater than 30 years in age as our examples? Can any other member on this Board offer examples of memorable contrabassoon and/or bass clarinet appearing in scores from 1990 through the present?

Interestingly, contemporary concert music compositions have increasingly (though gradually, not rapidly) been expanding the repertoire for instruments such as the tuba, the contrabassoon, the double-bass, bass clarinets, etc. Some of these concertos (and other forms) have been commissioned because of the rise in virtuoso players for these less-than-common instruments - instruments which have typically languished in the background within large orchestral works prior to the 2nd half of the 20th century. One of the earliest pieces written specifically for the contrabassoon may have been Bassnachtigall, by Erwin Schulhoff. Modern composers like Gunther Schuller, Donald Erb, and Kalevi Aho have contributed significant works for contrabassoon. Aho's Tuba concerto was completed in 2001, and his concerto for contrabassoon was finished as recently as 2005; both are available on the great BIS label from Sweden.

There's hope yet for these large instruments, so that we won't have to rely on vintage 50-year old sound recordings to showcase them!

Well, don't know how far I want to go with my love for wind instruments (I am a pianist), but I certainly agree with you that Alex North was their master. All I have to do is hear Cleopatra Enters Rome from CLEOPATRA. Perhaps my favorite all-wind cue (of any style music). It is not just that North wrote it only for winds (including brass & percussion) but that he wrote it so well.

Some great use of contra bassoon right off the bat!


John, Not only is the contrabassoon a monster physically, it certainly does a great job of musically portraying a screen monster too. In fact, I think Godzilla should one day face Mega-contrabassoon-agon in a movie!

Mark, I certainly can't add anything enlightening to your essay. What I do want to say is that I'm grateful to you and ToneRow for enlightening ME. I've always admired music's "textures" and orchestral colors, but I lack the in-depth musical background to really articulate what I'm often hearing in music. (I did play piano and percussion, so I do have some background.) I recognize musical instruments, the standard ones: horns, percussion, strings. etc. Thanks to this essay, I now know a bit more about the often unrecognized or more rare instruments, and how they immensely contribute to the soundscapes of film scores. I loved the Herrmann, Goldsmith, and North examples which illuminated this thesis , and they were familiar examples that I could relate my ears to, which helps in understanding. Gracias!!

Thanks Joan for the kind words!

One of the reasons I wrote this blog stems from an idea I had a while back about doing a series of blogs covering each of the instruments of the orchestra for those who may not be overly familiar with them. It was to have included various techniques used by each to achieve particular sounds that many may have heard in film scores, but may not be able to determine what they are. Well on further consideration, it quickly became a daunting task in my mind so I abandoned it.

Flash forward to this week when I was listening to some Herrmann, Goldsmith and Stromberg scores in which these instruments played prominent roles. At the same time I was trying to think of what to write a blog about and the light bulb went on, I had my blog topic!

As a long ago music teacher education major in college, I've wanted to use some of what I learned since I never went into the teaching profession. These blogs give me a chance to express myself in that area and share things with others, which they may hopefully learn something from if it's in an area that they are somewhat unfamiliar with. Sounds like you are one of them here Joan so I know I'm not writing to an empty "house". Thanks!

Herrmans JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is probalbly also a score you would be interested in, it's fantastic and also without strings.

Herrmans JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is probalbly also a score you would be interested in, it's fantastic and also without strings.

I was actually listening to it while I was writing the blog to get inspiration. I mentioned it in writing, but just didn't provide any examples.

So how about this from Jason where all 3 are used. Take note of the doubling of the bass and contrabass clarinets starting at 0:46. It's a great, dark, ominous sound. I'll add it to my blog.

great, I love that score very much!

Film Score Monthly Online
Kings of The Northman
The Unbearable Weight of Musical Talent
The Gregson-Williams Age
Inside Gordon's Chamber
Space Station Eshkeri
Cronen-Shore: A Collaboration of Nightmares, Part 2
Yomi: The Sounds of a Bygone Era
Kraft Film Music Services, Part 2
It's Samurai Rabbit Season
Wong's Turn: N.A.P. (Netflix Action Pictures)
Ear of the Month Contest: John Addison
Moon Note
Today in Film Score History:
May 26
Alfred Newman begins recording his score for Man Hunt (1941)
Bruno Nicolai born (1926)
David Torn born (1953)
Earle Hagen died (2008)
George Greeley died (2007)
Howard Goodall born (1958)
Jerry Goldsmith begins recording his score for The Satan Bug (1964)
Miles Davis born (1926)
Nicola Piovani born (1946)
Sonny Sharrock died (1994)
William Bolcom born (1938)
FSMO Featured Video
Video Archive • Audio Archive
© 2022 Film Score Monthly. All Rights Reserved...