What makes Michael Nyman’s music for The Piano so great? We unpack its simple brilliance.

19 August 2021, 14:59 | Updated: 19 August 2021, 16:10

What makes Michael Nyman’s music for The Piano so great?
What makes Michael Nyman’s music for The Piano so great? Picture: Alamy

By Rosie Pentreath

We explore why the melody, harmony and structure of Michael Nyman’s ‘The Heart Asks Pleasure First’ makes it so catchy and unforgettable.

The 1993 Jane Campion film, The Piano, landed on Netflix US this week.

Starring Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel and Sam Neill, The Piano is the story of mute woman, Ada, who travels from Scotland to a remote area of New Zealand with her young daughter, to honour a marriage arranged by her father. Ada does not speak, and instead expresses herself through playing the piano and sign language, which her daughter Flora translates.

With the iconic film back on our small screens, we’ve been inspired to revisit the powerful music that accompanies it.

Who wrote the music for The Piano?

The Piano soundtrack is by English minimalist composer Michael Nyman, who wrote a fittingly captivating and affecting score for the film.

The main theme, which is evocatively titled ‘The Heart Asks Pleasure First’, is especially memorable and enchanting. Hauntingly familiar every time you hear it after first discovery, it seems to stay with you and leave as much of a mark as The Piano’s tense and heart-wrenching onscreen action.

But why, from a music theory perspective, is the theme quite so powerful? We unpack its magic…

Read more: 11 of the most relaxing pieces of piano music

Watch the trailer for The Piano released in 1993

The melody

A film about somebody using music as a tool to communicate with the world was destined to have a powerful soundtrack. Composer Michael Nyman wrote a simple, memorable and ravishingly beautiful piano melody for The Piano’s theme music.

The accompaniment

While the right hand of the piano in Nyman’s theme is accentuating that beautiful, lyrical melody, the pianist is also tasked with swirling semiquavers (sixteenth notes) that create a mesmerising minimalist texture underneath, and a deep sense of unease.

A minor key

And it’s in a minor key, which reinforces the uncertainty and longing in the music. The melody and accompaniment together breathe and yearn for love and resolution, echoing the plot of the film.

Read more: 10 of the most iconic uses of classical music in film

Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin star in 'The Piano'
Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin star in 'The Piano'. Picture: Alamy

A sense of hope

As Nyman’s musical theme progresses, it reaches a second section that sounds more uplifting and resolute, and every time it comes along it evokes an irresistible feeling of hope.

The way the theme music builds and builds also keeps the ear hooked, and creates a wonderful sense of elation.

While the pianist busies themselves with the expressive melody and accompaniment we’ve mentioned, swelling string chords add richness to the score. These romantic strings give Nyman’s music an expansiveness that evokes the remote corner of New Zealand that is the backdrop to this deeply moving story.

Repetitive structure

The way the main melody in the theme keeps circling back makes the piece feel like a never-ending loop of music.

Couple that repetitiveness with the minimalist semiquavers, and it becomes a hypnotic and mesmerising experience. And it’s music that you simply can’t get out of your head.

We’re lucky it’s such a gorgeous melody, else that might not be such a good thing.

The Piano is streaming on Netflix in the US now.