A Sound of Epic Proportions
We’ve all been there. Sitting in a movie theatre (or more recently on our couch at home) watching the trailers for an upcoming action blockbuster that claims to be the next “best movie of the year”. As we watch the trailer, our hearts start pumping. Our excitement grows. Suddenly, it happens. We hear the iconic blast of distorted low brass that signals to our brains that this will be an epic movie.
That sound is called a “braam” (or sometimes “BRAAM”) and is used today in nearly every big action movie trailer, whether that be for a superhero film, an apocalyptic movie, or a sci-fi movie about battling aliens. It makes sense, using a big sound to let the audience know that this will be a big movie. But how did this come about? And why does it successfully make us, the audience, excited?
Low brass instruments have been utilized for centuries for their dramatic flair in music. In every genre from orchestral, to marching band, to hip hop. Early examples include symphonies by Anton Bruckner, who helped pioneer the way for trombones to join the symphonic scene via the church. In his Symphony no. 8, you can hear a perfect example of this sound which serves as dramatic interjection between softer chorale moments.
As orchestral writing became more dramatized, other composers such as Gustav Mahler also utilized a punchy low brass sound in their writing. A good example of this is in his Symphony №2.
With this kind of sound adding so much drama and flair into the symphonic sound, it only makes sense that it would make its way into film scoring. And with the rise of electronic and synthesized music, a natural evolution occurred that formed what we know today as a braam.
The origin of the braam is one of contention for some composers, with each laying claim to the true founding of the big brassy boom. However, to own such a vague musical device such as that would be quite a hard battle to fight so we must look at a few different film composers to discuss the evolution of braams. Examples of this dramatic music-based sound effect can be found as early as 2007 in the trailer for “Transformers” by Michael Bay and music by Steve Jablonsky. The early iterations of the noise are more explosive than tonal in nature and are used to accent important scene changes in the trailer.
Two years later, a new version of the braam emerged that is more akin to what we expect to hear today. This further shaping occurred in the trailer for Neill Blomkamps’s “District 9”.
Carrie Gormley and Michael Trice were the creative team responsible for this trailer, and at the time they knew that this sound design was something bringing something fresh into the movie scene. According to Hollywood Reporter however, they never thought it would become a trend. But even these two creative masterminds acknowledge that bringing the braam into the spotlight was not their doing. They refer that credit to a trailer that came out a year later: “Inception”.
The trailers for inception brought this narrative device to a new level as the musical giant Hans Zimmer and sound design professional Richard King combined their skillsets to create a sound of epic proportions to match the mind-boggling concepts being presented in the movie. Zimmer has been quoted calling himself the “godfather of braams”. He says that the sound was described in the screenplay for the film as “massive, low-end musical tones, sounding like distant horns.” This was a sound he created by very unorthodox means. He placed a piano in the middle of a church, put a book on the sustain pedal, and has brass players play into the resonance of the piano. The sound was then further distorted via “electronic nonsense”.
This trend has grown and grown, and today is still being utilized by most mainstream action blockbuster trailers. Composers and creative directors are constantly trying to find new ways of tweaking the sound to create their own unique braam. A good example of this can be heard in the “Jurassic World” films which combines a braam with the iconic roar of the T-Rex.
Why does this trend continue to happen in so many trailers? Why has it become a staple of action movies? Because it works on the audience psychologically. Bobby Gumm, head of music for Trailer Park movie trailer company, says that “there’s literally not a bigger sound out there.” The psychological impact is almost primal. Horns have been used as a warning sign or a call to arms during war for centuries and throughout various cultures around the world. Even today we use car horns to signal oncoming danger on the road. This type of sound is hardwired in our brains to grab our attention for something important. Add the large distortions and electronics which are utilized in film music, and you have a sound that audiences simply cannot ignore. That’s why this trend will continue to be successful in movie trailers and impactful to audiences around the world.