I have listened to some 'epic' music online and I find I more or less like it. But I'm having trouble understanding what makes it epic. For example, wikipedia mentions that this type of music can be described with 'feeling adjectives' such as powerful and uplifiting or dramatic, but you can have powerful, uplifting, dramatic pieces that aren't epic (Pachelbel's Canon is emotionally powerful and uplifting but it isn't epic).

Does it always have to be played by an orchestra?
What other characteristics (tempo, type of instrument, grave tones, ...) make it epic?

Edit: Any suggestions about improving the question?
I'll add some context if necessary: I'm a teacher and I was discussing music genres with my students. When 'epic music' came up, we were all stuck on 'it sounds epic' and 'it is played by an orchestra'. I'd like to be a bit more articulate next time the topic comes up.

  • Can someone explain the downvote so I can improve the question? – Sara Costa Jul 22 '16 at 18:35
  • Music by John Williams – RedCaio Jul 30 '16 at 9:50
up vote 3 down vote accepted

joseem invited me to provide an answer based on my previous answer in I would like to get some fresh epic music.

"Epic" music will be slightly different for everyone, and I think we can separate it into "epic moments" and entire "epic pieces."

In my experience, "epic moments" are pretty easy to explain, as there are some common characteristics:

  1. Harmony changes. From a cultural standpoint, there's a grab-bag of particular harmony changes most of us equate with "epic."
  2. An instrument (or instrument family, etc.) being highlighted in its upper register.
  3. Oftentimes the climax at the moment where most people go "whoa...this is epic..." has an adjusted meter of some kind. Sometimes the music will go into a doubletime feel; in my opinion, this matches the human reaction of relaxation at a moment of climax. (Insert sex analogy here.)
  4. There's often a common tone held over in at least one voice, but often it's highlighted and emphasized by the composer.

So, some examples (many taken from the previous thread):

  • Listen to Fountains of Rome for about 2 minutes (until around 9:30), and pay attention to what you think the "epic moment" is. Is it around

    8:42?

This example has all three of the above aspects.

  • The finale to Bruckner's eight symphony is all about harmony changes. I haven't met anyone who listens to this and doesn't sense the "epic" aspect. It gets even better at the recapitulation. Harmony changes, harmony changes, common tones, and common tones.

Lastly, there's one surefire way to make an epic moment: soaring horns! Famous examples include Alfred Reed's Russian Christmas Music (give it about 30 seconds; this has points 1, 2, and 4 from above); hell, even high school marching bands can be epic (give about 30 seconds; this has all four points from above); so can drum corps (give it about 15 seconds; it helps that you'll recognize the piece!)

Other pieces are just "epic" the whole time. I can't state anything scientifically, but I have a suspicion these pieces are just playing on our evolutionary/cultural history. They will be loud (to get our adrenaline going), the choirs will often emphasize deep male voices or high female voices (to get our battle juices flowing; see Verdi's Dies irae), and often very brassy (to align with our cultural understanding of the hunt, again preparing us for battle; see Shostakovich's Leningrad).

And, since you mentioned film music, I'll throw in my plug for what I think is the least acknowledged influence on film music today: the finale of Sibelius's fifth symphony. You'll really hear it around 2:10.

  • I know it's bad form to thank answers in comments but I must say that your answer completes the one I've chosen since it explains the characteristics mentioned. I also admit I would have chosen yours if I hadn't already made a choice (even if I do like and I did feel satisfied with Joseem's answer at the time). I suppose I will end up waiting longer to choose an answer from now on. – Sara Costa Jul 31 '16 at 14:12
  • @Sara Costa, no worries. Glad I could help! – Richard Jul 31 '16 at 16:20
  • Olá @Sara, I believe you can "unaccept" an answer and I urge to do it. I too think Richard 's answer is more fulfilling and have edited my answer accordingly (I still kept it rather than deleted it as I think the reference to professional music production companies is of interest). – José David Jul 31 '16 at 16:57
  • @joseem: thank you for the information. I hadn't realised I could change my mind after making a choice. I shall do as you suggest and, yes, I did find the information about music production companies very interesting indeed. – Sara Costa Aug 1 '16 at 15:55

Genre classification is always a tricky subject with a lot a subjectivity and cultural context attached. With that caveat, I'd say "Epic" (as a classification, and when not used simply as an adjective) is not so much a genre as a professional categorization for the trailer and business music industry.

Specialized companies offer music catalogues that can be searched for by businesses when they need to fulfill soundtracks for corporate videos, advertisements, motion pictures trailers, video games, web sites, etc. Many times the timing or nature of the project does not justify or allow the comission of a dedicated composer to do the job, so it's convenient to have a source you can browse for music readily available with different moods, tempo, instrumentation, etc.

If you want to advertise an action movie or video game or even a new company offer to potential investors, you would request "epic" music for your soundtrack, i.e. resounding music with a lot of tension, and drama. It wouldn't have to be strictly orchestral, although due to the influence of big budget Hollywood action movies, that would be the expectation.

Having said that, from other answers and from this question there seems to be grounds to use "epic" to categorize music that matches a certain set of expectations from music fans, not just the professional community, even if such music can come from different genres like classical, film, or production business music.

Richard's explanation and examples are the best answer within that context.

I'd say anything that rises to a big climax can count as 'epic' music. It gets more and more intense as the action of whatever is happening continues. Could range from anything from Beethoven to Nine Inch Nails, really.

I would define modern epic music as the orchestral film music style that features a minor key melody played in triplets with a heavy use of horns, percussion and sometimes choirs. An example of this would be "The battle" from Gladiator. If a medieval or fantasy feel is wanted, then folk instruments are usually added and this could be called fantasy epic music.

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