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Analysis of Music in Avatar: The Last Airbender

Uiop60 September 28, 2011 User blog:Uiop60

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I recently put together an arrangement of six themes heard throughout Avatar: The Last Airbender for string orchestra[1]. In creating this, I learned many subtle patterns and complexities in the music. Here, I will take a look at each of the six themes, break down their structure and composition, and look for details that made them difficult to transcribe.

First, Last Agni Kai: This is the theme that plays during Zuko and Azula's comet enhanced Agni Kai in the finale. Its minimalist percussion, minor key and slow pace contrast the usual fast pace of fight music, magnifying the emotional implications of the scene and complimenting perfectly the dynamic, swelling nature of the fight itself. Last Agni Kai is in E flat minor (I transposed it to E minor for ease of play). For most of the piece, it simply alternates by measure between the I chord and the IV chord, but differing inversions throughout give each phrase a different melodic feel. Each whole note crescendos to the middle of the measure, then decrescendos to the end of the measure. Unfortunately, limitations of the software I used prevented me from including this important dynamic subtlety. The simple rhythm of the percussion and swelling melodies, to me, resemble heavy, exhausted breathing. This comparison adds weight to the emotional qualities of the piece, because the conflict between Zuko and Azula is exhausting -- It has built through their entire lives, and lack of a resolution leaves both sides tired of the issue.

Next, I'll take a look at Azula's Theme. This theme plays just about any time Azula is near. By paying close attention to what music is playing where, it can sometimes even be anticipated when she's about to show up. It contains a triangle pattern reminiscent of that in the Blue Spirit theme, insinuating Azula's sneakiness. Its ominous melody calls to attention her *ahem* unkind nature, and its disjunctive chord structure compliments her undeniable insanity. That being said, let it be known that although I transcribed Azula's theme note for note (with some phrasing changes), I still have NO IDEA what key it's in. The closest I can guess is E Harmonic Locrian. But still, the kalimba riff in the background denies this with G sharps, and the end of each phrase of melody holds out an F sharp, both outside the key I mentioned. In fact, the piece involves all different notes except C and C sharp. This piece definitely shows that The Track Team is in no way afraid of dissonances, frequently including dissonant intervals like sevenths, tritones and half-steps. Azula's Theme is an insane piece for an insane person.

Next up is the theme for Ba Sing Se. This theme plays as the Gaang are first entering the city. Though not included in the arrangement, this piece contains an amazing introduction. Just as Sokka questions the difficulty of finding the then missing Appa, the chords in the background (III, IV, V) set up an easy potential for a beautiful major resolution as they enter the city. But instead, in a classic bout of deceptive cadence, rather than a major resolution (III, IV, V, I), the phrase lands in a new, minor key, rooted on the seventh note of the original major key. Since the relative major of this new key is a whole step above the previous key, this change has a similar effect to a whole step modulation (without being nearly as cheesy). This surprising key change goes well with the overwhelming revelation of not only the beauty of Ba Sing Se, but also its incredible size, whose implications show the lack of truth in Sokka's previous statement. This set of emotions is echoed in the body of the piece: Beautiful, flowing melodies are placed above a marching, phrygian chord structure that reminds of the intensity and difficulty of the task at hand.

I've got three more themes to write about, but I'm out of time for now. For some explanation of the words that might have seemed like Greek to you (they actually are), here is the link to the Wikipedia page on musical modes:[2]

I'll try to finish writing this tomorrow.

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