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What's that bombastic music in movie trailers?

By Todd Leopold, CNN
  • Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" has become go-to music for action-movie trailers
  • "Burana" features huge group of choral singers, dramatic percussion
  • Why Orff's piece? So much use has made it cliché -- but it also "works," says a composer
  • Classical Music
  • Movies
  • Carl Orff

(CNN) -- Even if you've never heard of "Carmina Burana" by Carl Orff, you've heard "Carmina Burana" by Carl Orff.

The composition -- specifically "O Fortuna," its first movement, with its loud, insistent choral singers and ominously percussive symphonic support -- has become the go-to piece for trailers promoting action movies.

Even variations have become the norm: The new film "The Book of Eli," starring Denzel Washington, uses a "Carmina Burana"-esque combination of loud choral segments and heavy-metal percussion in heightening the drama of its fight sequences.

Which brings up the question: Isn't there anything new under the sun?

Not really, says Kenneth Lampl, a composer and professor at New York's Hofstra University.

Primarily, he says, it's because "Carmina Burana" is now shorthand for "action movie."

"It has become the standard for movie trailers," says Lampl, who's created music for a variety of media, including trailers and video games. "There are no action trailers that don't use it. They all have that screaming chorus and massively big percussion."

But other reasons have to do with expediency, he adds. Trailers are often put together before movies are scored, so movie trailer production companies rely on pre-licensed music. Moreover, budgets are limited, so the music has to be cheap -- perhaps a couple thousand dollars, says Lampl.

Finally, "the film companies ask for it," he says. "Trailer companies are pitching to get the project. None of them are going to pitch some crazy thing. ... There's not a place for experimentation if you want to land a job."

Orff's classic cantata, which is based on medieval Latin poems, was written in the '30s, but it didn't take off as movie accompaniment until the 1980s. By the late '90s it was already being recognized as cliché. The trailer for "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut" probably got in the best jabs -- not only did it use "O Fortuna" under its less-than-grand animation, but it added a voice-over from Don LaFontaine, sending up his own "In a world ..." dramatic readings.

If there's a benefit to hearing "Carmina Burana" so regularly, it's that the public is now aware of the "beautiful work," says Matthew Gray, artistic director of the Southern California-based De Angelis Vocal Ensemble choral group. "I think the movies helped bring it forward," he says.

He also acknowledges another "Burana" attraction for moviemakers: It's in Latin, an "ominous"-sounding language. Perfect for a dramatic movie trailer.

Still, he wonders why other striking vocal-orchestral works -- he singles out Verdi's "Dies Irae," the fourth movement of Mikis Theodorakis' "Canto Olympico" and Taverner's "Little Requiem for Father Malachy Lynch" -- don't get the same attention.

"I think producers ... should simply ask [experts], 'What would fit?' " he says. "I don't know if they ever think of contacting people in the music world and asking."

Besides, a number of movie directors -- Stanley Kubrick, for example -- have incisively used seemingly shopworn classical themes in their work, reinvigorating them. Surely a studio or trailer company can do the same, right?

Perhaps, says Lampl. But, when you're trying to attract the widest possible audience to an action movie, it doesn't hurt to pump up the excitement with the rumble and scream of "Carmina Burana."

"It just works," he says.