In 2010, my favourite film was released- Inception. It is one of a series of fantastic collaborations between Christopher Nolan and Hans Zimmer. The soundtrack for the film is undoubtably a magnificent feat. It became notorious for the use of Piaf’s Non Je Ne Regrette Rein, the massive brass section, and the end theme Time- which is now Zimmer’s most successful and widely recognised pieces, with over 100 million streams on Spotify.
Throughout the film, we see the characters delve into three (and eventually four) layers of ‘dream worlds’. We are told that as the characters descend further into the dream world, time stretches further (e.g. 1 hour in real time = 12 hours in the first level = 6 days in the second level and so on).
From the first act, the Piaf track is established as the way of letting the ‘dreamers’ know that they are about to run out of time under their sedation in the real world. Zimmer uses this track as the main basis for this notion of ‘time’. Mirroring the dream world theme, Zimmer slows down Piaf’s track, converting the short staccato brass notes into long and extended legatos…and behold- we can here the origins of the brass hits!
These brass hits were later referred to by musicians and sound designers onomatopoeically as ‘BRAAMS’. Ever since Inception they have been used in numerous trailers. In an interview with Vulture, Zimmer stated “This is a perfect example of where it all goes wrong. That music became the blueprint for all action movies*, really. And if you get too many imitations, even I get confused!”. YouTube creator Gregory Porter points this out with his action trailer montage:
*John Powell’s score for Bourne Identity would disagree, really.
The irony of this montage is that it starts with Inception Trailer 2, when in fact the BRAAM originates in Inception Trailer 1. Thanks to an Indie Wire article on this topic, we are told that the original trailer was composed by Mike Zarin- who states that the trailer music was made prior to Zimmer’s score… “At that point, there was just a script”.
Trailer 2 was the music of “Hans Zimmer’s Team” according to Zarin, who took his previous work and reinterpreted it. He then goes on to say; “if you go to the actual film score [the track ‘528491’…] is a reinterpolation of trailer number two”, leading to what he describes as Zimmer ‘claiming the motif as his own’.
The thing is, as Kevin Jagernauth points out in the article, there is clear evidence which proves neither Zimmer or Zarin created the BRAAM. The 2007 Transformers trailer, composed two years prior to the first Inception trailer, clearly has sonic elements of the BRAAM. This particular rendition is a lot more percussive, but the features and sharp cuts we associate with the BRAAM sonic and visual aesthetics are essentially there.
But what if I told you the BRAAM was conceived 200 years ago by Robert Foulis.
So who is he?
Robert Foulis was the inventor of the Steam Powered Foghorn- a timbre which I would associate with the brass features heard on Zimmer’s BRAAM. Why do I associate the two sounds together? Well it’s all to do with Semiotics.
Semiotics is the study of signs. In music and sound design, we use semiotics to create a sense of nuance. The sign we associate with a foghorn historically is ‘danger’- we don’t know this danger, because we can’t see it, but with the use of a foghorn we can hear it… and feel it. This notion is an important emotional aspect of modern day action trailers. We don’t know the context of the story yet, but we know that danger lurks if we hear a loud BRAAM. It acts as a warning to the audience, a way of creating tension through sound.
Arguably, this notion of loud sounds warning humans of danger dates back further than the time of Foulis. Large bells have warned ancient cities of impending invasion for centuries. If we hear loud and sudden sounds we blink, jump, and fill our bodies with adrenaline. It is our automatic reaction, engrained in our psyche over the millenniums of human existence.
In summary, the argument of who created the BRAAM is a contentious one. It’s being able to define the difference between invention and creation. Foulis arguably invented the BRAAM, whilst the combination of Zarin and Zimmer could arguably have created it. For me the argument is in fact not an argument at all. No individual can claim the BRAAM because, as I’ve discussed, it’s an amalgamation of many factors.
The BRAAM in music is a similar device to that of a guitar tone. Jimmy Hendrix did not invent his amplifier, but instead created his tone. Since Hendrix, probably a generation of guitar players will have tried to emulate his tone- do we say that they have copied Hendrix? No. So why should Hans Zimmer have the right to claim this particular tone?