One of the most frequently used soundtracks in films and TV shows is “On The Nature Of Daylight” by Max Richter. Lasting six minutes, this piece of music has the ability to evoke strong emotions and tug at our heartstrings. The reason for its profound impact on the world of storytelling is explained below.
As of 2023, Richter’s On The Nature Of Daylight has been used over 20 times in film and TV and has most recently been featured in the third episode of HBO’s The Last Of Us. A series adapted from Naughty Dog’s video game, it has taken the internet by storm and already successfully emulates the essence of the original gameplay.
Furthermore, it uncovers moments that were initially left to our imagination. Without any spoilers, On The Nature Of Daylight provides a moving and compelling undertone to a heart-breaking montage. Additionally, this piece of music has been used in many other films due to the poignant sound world it offers. But why is it so effective?
The Blue Notebooks (2004)
Max Richter composed On The Nature Of Daylight in his album The Blue Notebooks. Richter describes this work as a reflection of his feelings towards the political and humanitarian state of affairs of the Iraq War in 2003. He describes this album as a protest piece that magnifies that feeling of hopelessness and a reflection on the violence.
The Blue Notebooks comprises acoustic and electronic mediums, field recordings, and narrations by Tilda Swinton, reading excerpts from Franz Kafta’s Blue Octavo Notebooks.
“Facts were beginning to be replaced by subjective assertions in the build-up to the Iraq war, which seemed to be viewed as inevitable and justified in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. Kafka’s use of the absurd to investigate power structures struck me as highly relevant.”maxrichtermusic.com
Richter’s musical language is shown through simple yet effective melodic, harmonic, and textural structures. His use of repetition, subtle textural, timbral variation, and instrumental handling combine to create a moving body of work.
On The Nature Of Daylight – a closer look
So why does this piece of music work so well? How does it get us to shed a tear by the time the piece has ended?
On The Nature Of Daylight is written for strings, including violins, violas, cellos and bass. There have been variations on the ensemble, having it performed in a full-string orchestra to a small chamber group consisting of 2 violins, a viola and two cellos. Richter adds an electronic element using a sub-octave electronic bass to add more richness to the foundations. Whilst the material seems minimal, it is also a prime example of Richter’s ability to create artwork adaptable to promote a variety of scenarios in an equally impactful way.
On The Nature Of Daylight – Musical Analysis
The lower strings open the piece, establishing the 32-bar chord progression we hear throughout. In an interview with Deutsche Grammophon, Richter discusses how this work includes strict counterpoint that eludes to 18th-century classical composition. We hear this counterpoint emerge when the violins enter the texture. After the chord establishment, a violin (violin II) plays a quaver-moving melody in addition to the entrance of the sub-octave bass. This melody isn’t complex, following a step-wise motion and alternating between two notes a 5th apart. After another 32-bar cycle, the final violin (violin I) emerges with soaring high-pitched countermelody, which completes the texture.
Richter implements subtle but highly effective variations in the melody, intensifying the atmosphere. After we hear the soaring violin entrance, the viola moves more, only by an extra note in each bar. Once that 32-bar cycle has passed, the quaver-moving violin and viola subtly change by extending their melodic range.
One of the standout moments musically in the piece is the ingenious break in a routine within the quaver-moving second violin. Rather than doing an upwards-moving step-wise phrase before the alternating 5ths, Richter composes a falling step-wise melody. While this is a small change, it completely strengthens the emotive sound world, bringing that hopelessness to the forefront.
The viola underneath also intensifies by playing this yearning countermelody which perfectly compliments the texture. The composition gradually decreases in dynamics and energy before drawing to a close on a minor chord, leaving a sombre feeling in the air.
Minimal but Powerful
The musical material itself is repetitive and stays familiar; however, the variation within the gradual build in texture, melody and dynamics creates this transcending sensation for the listener.
What’s more captivating is the build-up from the lower range of pitch to the highest can be closely related to the movement from darkness into light. In the same interview with Deutsche Grammophon, Richter describes how he wanted to “create something which had a sense of luminosity and brightness but made from the darkest possible materials”, from the great depths of the sub-octave bass to the glistening violin countermelody.
Furthermore, this piece is so popular amongst many films and tv series due to how it can complement a variety of visual scenes. Max Richter speaks of how he wants his music to be a listening space to think. The simplicity behind the building blocks of this composition creates a space that isn’t too invasive to our subconscious. The piece moves along.
In Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016), the film opens with On The Nature Of Daylight. It accompanies a scene montage of protagonist dr. Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) and her daughter Hannah. With the unfortunate event of her daughter’s life-changing diagnosis, the hopelessness radiates in this prologue with Richter’s ornate composition.
In Martin Scorsese‘s Shutter Island (2010), Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Teddy Daniels reflects on memories of his deceased wife Dolores in a dream vision, including Richter’s masterpiece accompanying this heartfelt scene.
The theme of losing a loved one, grief and hopelessness is common when we hear On The Nature Of Daylight. The solemness that lingers throughout the music is so present the delicate nature of the composition is near perfect enough to accompany those heartfelt scenes. Listen to the piece in isolation to listen out for those gradual changes, but for that moment of reflection.
Cover image via HBO
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