Matching the Melodic Theme with the Contour of the Desert in Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Maurice Jarre’s main musical theme for Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is coupled with a stunning and iconic image of a vast desert scene. [See 0:38 onwards]. This grand statement of the main melody occurs during the first epic shot of desert: a grand panoramic view, in wide-screen, of the undulating contours of dunes and lasting on screen for more than 30 seconds. (For the first 10 seconds, absolutely nothing happens. Then we see two specks appear in the distance as men slowly approach for 20 seconds).

This theme, with its series of rising and falling musical contours, is clearly intended to be linked with the visual grandeur of this desert shot.

We know that before writing the score, Jarre spent a week watching 40 hours of pre-cut footage to get a feel for the film [1]. Is it too speculative to suggest an influence, albeit subliminal, between the contour of the opening shot of dunes and Jarre’s theme?


If we trace the contour of the dunes in this shot, it appears to be linked with the theme, especially if the falling triplet in bar 4 follows the lower contour. This assumes the western cultural bias for movement of the eye going from left to right [2]. Director David Lean even admitting he had designed the direction of movement across desert shots this way. [3]



There’s certainly a precedent for this sort of visual matching. Ebert has noted Lawrence of Arabia’s similarity with epic films, such as Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938). [4]. In the “Battle on the Ice”, from Alexander Nevsky, Eisenstein explains how visual contour such as flags on a horizon is linked with individual notes in Prokofiev’s score, connections deliberately created through intense collaboration with the composer as the film was created. [5]

Recent studies into the psychology of music in film lend weight to Eisenstein’s much-debated theories. Where there is a strong match (‘congruence’) between audio and visual components, the brain is more attentive [6]. Certain shapes even yield a stronger perception of match – such as ‘ramps’ (when musical pitch, loudness, or texture increases or decreases) and ‘arches’ (movement which is up then down) correlating with ascending or descending visuals [7].

Where congruence is perceived most strongly, a film is judged ‘more impressive’ [8], lending weight to the idea that the brain is aware of the fit between the contours of a melody and the visual contours on screen.

[1] Jarre describes this in ‘The Film Music Foundation: Interviews’ in conversation with Jon Burlingame. [online]. Available at:

[2] Kendall, R. and Lipscomb, S. (2013). Experimental semiotics applied to visual, sound, and musical structures. In: S. Tan, A. Cohen, S. Lipscomb, and R. Kendall, (eds.), The Psychology of Music in Multimedia, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.48-65.

[3] Dirks, T. Filmsite Movie Review: Lawrence of Arabia (1962). [online]. Available at:


[5] Eisenstein, S. (1947). The Film Sense. Edited and translated by Leyda, J. New York: Meridian Books (1957).

[6] Cohen, A. (2013). Congruence-Association Model of music and multimedia: Origin and evolution. In: S. Tan, A. Cohen, S. Lipscomb, and R. Kendall (eds.), The Psychology of Music in Multimedia, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.17-47.

[7] Kendall, R. and Lipscomb, S. (2013). Ibid

[8] Iwamiya, S. (2013). Perceived congruence between auditory and visual elements in multimedia. In: S. Tan, A. Cohen, S. Lipscomb, and R. Kendall (eds.), The Psychology of Music in Multimedia, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.141-164.

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