I’ve got a funny story for you.
At my school, there’s a specific hallway on a certain floor where you’ll always hear a constant tonal buzz as you pass through. During my freshman year, this buzz was in B, & though I absently realized that one day (perfect pitch does that to you) I never really paid it much mind.
However, something strange started happening my sophomore year. Whenever I’d walk through that hallway, or near enough to hear that buzz, I’d think of the opening to The Dark Knight. For weeks, I wondered why in the world this was happening—what was going on that this film kept coming to mind?
Then, I realized it—the buzz’s pitch had shifted up to the note D, & guess that what defines The Dark Knight’s opening scene? The D’s that can be heard throughout the entire scene.
So, let’s talk about that scene, & its use of that repeated D.
When the film starts, strings are softly repeating one note—D. This transitions into a shot of our man holding a mask, then to a group of masked men. Here, everything stays centered around that D except for our strings—they go down to a C. But of course, this new note is still fairly close, & the new string note against our old D is a perfect accompaniment for the first shots of all our robbers. As they talk (“Every guy gets a share, five shares is plenty. Six shares. Don’t forget the guy who planned the job.”) those strings go back to a D, everything once again on that note.
Throughout the rest of this scene, D is all we hear, over & over again. There’re some slight changes in rhythm, but those aren’t the focus; the D is. However, our note does change from a D in a few very interesting places.
The first is when one of the masked men inspects a bank employee who tried to shoot the robbers, using his shotgun in an attempt to stop them. He fails, & after this our robber looks at this man, tilting his head to one side as he does so. Instead of our constant D’s, a new pattern of 3 new notes emerges. Yes, one of those notes is a D, but the other 2, a G & a B, immediately attract the ear. In a sea of repeated uniformity, those new sounds stand out. But, as we cut from our robber to 2 others elsewhere in the bank, the new pattern vanishes—we’re back to D’s.
The second is after our robbers get into the vault. As one of them shovels money into a duffel bag, the strings play their C’s from when we saw our masked men together for the first time—remember that? But this pattern, too, disappears quickly as we cut to our robber hauling one last duffel bag into a pile of them near the bank entrance.
But then, those C’s return. Our robber holds a gun to one of his compatriots, & a new instrument (a gentle synth) plays C’s, then D’s, in a slowly repeating pattern. So far, the scene has had an element of rhythm (necessary to portray the swift nature of the robbery) & the repeating D’s have had a fairly quick pattern. But this new pattern is slow, & this, plus our new note, makes this moment of danger seem much longer than it actually is.
This new, slow pattern is also a brief transition point. It’s interrupted by a bus crashing into the bank, & once music can be heard again, new notes are being explored. No longer is every instrument playing a D & only a D—things have changed.
But, as our banker who failed to stop the robbers talks to the last one remaining, we hear nothing but D’s again. It’s all D’s as this man talks to the robber, asking him what he, as a criminal, believes in. Our robber walks over to this man, the D’s crescendoing as he sticks an explosive in the man’s mouth, & then again as the robber finally responds.
On his last word, when the robber pulls of his mask, strings loudly play not a D, but a C, contrasting what the music was building up to. But that’s The Joker after all—he never does what one expects. A madman to behold.
With a few more repeated D’s, the scene is over, The Joker driving away with his loot, having left the banker, explosive still in his mouth, to die.
What makes this scene so excellent is absolutely its use of repetition. Hearing D’s over & over gives a sense of musical complacency, so when anything new is heard, it immediately gets our attention. Zimmer uses this technique to use new notes to highlight key moments in the score, with of course the quintessential moment being our loud C on The Joker’s final word. It’s only a C—it’s not a complicated chord, or a strange harmony, just a C in different octaves. But because it’s different than what’s been heard throughout the scene, it captures our attention, & accents one of the greatest opening scene reveals in filmmaking.
This repetition also lets the D’s be remembered, too. If the story above is any indication, I will always associate a synth-like D with The Dark Knight, specifically the moment right at the start when we zoom in on The Joker’s mask. This association would be impossible without the scene’s impressive use of repetition, & goes to show how powerful it truly is.
In short, repetition does great things in The Dark Knight’s opening scene. Less is more.