Hans Zimmer Analysis: “A Way of Life” from The Last Samurai



           The composition I have chosen to analyze is Hans Zimmer’s “A Way of Life” from the film The Last Samurai (starring Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe, directed by Edward Zwick). The movie focuses on 19th century life of the samurai in Japan, and for this reason Zimmer writes this piece (opening track of the film) infused with Japanese musical elements. While the orchestration is for symphony orchestra (horns, woodwinds, strings etc.), also present are the traditional Japanese instruments Koto (13 string Zither) and Shakuhachi (long flute used in Zen Buddhist meditation as well as performance).

The scale that predominates “A Way of Life” is never specified, but I estimate that, based on the placement of intervals and its usage frequently for Koto, Zimmer used the In scale (1-b2-4-5-b6). The track is in the simple quadruple time of 4/4, which coincides with most metered Japanese music. While the track is syncretic due to its instrumentation, the scale and instrumentation allow for “A Way of Life” to be truly Japanese in both a modern sound as well as a classical sound (i.e. Zimmer’s composition style put against Japanese tonality and instruments). Since most Japanese music is heterophonic, Zimmer at times uses this texture, but admittedly does not stay with this texture always (he also utilizes melody/drone and polyphony).

One major concept in Japanese music is “Ma,” which is in many ways the defining component to numerous Japanese pieces (such as gagaku, Zen Meditation music, solo performance music etc.). Ma is the idea that silence is as important as the notes in a given piece (and is a part of a much larger picture within Japanese philosophy that refers to empty space). What this causes in music is a stretched out pulse, or note placement that gives the view of silence to the listener. Zimmer uses Ma in “A Way of Life,” in various sections with various instruments. The way Ma is utilized to give an introspective, dramatic view of music for the audience, allowing them to become immersed in the piece at a far deeper level. As Ma is utilized, almost immediately following it is a dramatic increase in dynamics and passion from the orchestra, perhaps to draw the audience out of the introspective state. This is also a concept found at times in Japanese music, where a piece will exist in a certain emotional space, only to then dramatically shift. The most poignant moment of this occurring is at the end of the piece, where the double-basses lead in with the delicacy and fury of the samurai, leading into the gradual crescendo of all instrumental parts.

As a composer, Hans Zimmer has affected me in ways unlike my other composition influences (such as Philip Glass and the Thievery Corporation). His ability to layer instruments in such a way that the sound saturates the mind is truly unique. More importantly, his ability to dedicate himself to learning, as is evidenced by his score to the film The Last Samurai, is what separates him from so many composers (due to his humility). “A Way of Life” is one of Zimmer’s crowning achievements, and it will continue to inspire for generations to come.


4 thoughts on “Hans Zimmer Analysis: “A Way of Life” from The Last Samurai

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed your thoughts on this! It’s one of my favourite pieces, among many from Zimmer, and I wanted to try and understand WHY I liked it so much. Thank you.

    1. so glad you enjoyed it. I wrote this back when I was still getting my degree in ethnomusicology at UCLA. As a composer Zimmer is an influence, and I was listening to this track a lot back then. It kept me calm and inspired. Glad my degree is more than just paper on a wall :).

  2. Hey, thanks for your detailed analysis of this song. I’m doing a little of my own digging into it because of a particular melody that I hear that I could have sworn I heard somewhere else (maybe crouching tiger hidden dragon or a similar film). Perhaps you could help me out?

    The melody in question appears at 4:00 in this track. I came across the melody in Sarajevo by blackmill, which borrows bits from this track.

    Do you have any idea where this melody is from?

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