Tugging at Heartstrings

Bittersweet Harmonies in the Classic Hollywood Love Theme


  • Tom Schneller Independent Scholar
  • Táhirih Motazedian Vassar College




Love Themes, ♭^6, harmonic schema, minor iv, downstep modulation


The love theme is one of the central musicodramatic topics of classic Hollywood music but, thus far, little scholarly attention has been paid to the specific musical devices used by film composers to depict love. To the extent that musical analysis has entered the picture at all, it has tended to focus on the motivic level, despite the fact that much of the emotional alchemy of film music resides in its harmonic structure. This is particularly true for classic Hollywood love themes, which often draw on subtle chromatic inflections to weave their affective spells. In this article, we will address two particular harmonic schemas associated with romance during the studio era: (1) the Heartstring schema, which involves the inflection of a major tonic by a chromatic chord usually centered on b6^, and (2) the downstep modulation, a variant of the circle-of-fifths sequence. Both schemas rely on the bittersweet frisson between major and minor modes, a tension that contributes significantly to the emotional punch still packed by the great love themes of Hollywood’s Golden Age.


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How to Cite

Schneller, T., & Motazedian, T. (2022). Tugging at Heartstrings: Bittersweet Harmonies in the Classic Hollywood Love Theme. Journal of Film Music, 10(2), 7–48. https://doi.org/10.1558/jfm.20810