A rigorous breakdown of what makes a perfect Bond song

A rigorous breakdown of what makes a perfect Bond song

  • We dissected every single James Bond song to find out what musical elements tie the franchise together and see how Billie Eilish’s “No Time to Die” fits into the canon. 
  • We broke down the Bond sound into three key ingredients: the instrumentation, the suspense motif, and the use of unusual minor-major chords.
  • To help us figure out what makes a Bond song a hit or a miss, we spoke to Jon Burlingame, a film music historian and the author of “The Music of James Bond.”

Narrator: When I think James Bond, I hear something like this. 

[“The James Bond Theme”] 

That was the very first Bond theme, from 1962. And at first, it might seem pretty different from this … 

♪ Fallen for a lie ♪

Billie Eilish’s song for the 2021 movie “No Time to Die.” These songs fall more than 50 years apart, so obviously they have different styles. Yet there’s also something that sounds Bond-y about both of them, which made me wonder: What is it that unites these songs from totally different eras and gives them that unmistakable Bond sound? I decided to go through all the Bond themes since the beginning of the franchise to figure out if there’s a musical code that ties the best of them together and see how Billie’s song measures up to the rest. 

♪ See me cry ♪ 

♪ There’s just no time to die ♪

To help me pick apart over five decades of Bond themes, I enlisted the help of Jon Burlingame, a film-music historian and author of “The Music of James Bond.” After listening to the songs over and over and over again, I found three key ingredients that seem to define the Bond sound. I then broke down each theme one by one to find out how many of these elements they put to use and whether that might separate the hits from the misses. 

[“The James Bond Theme”]

The first component that stuck out to me in the Bond songs was the instruments. And you can trace the beginnings of the Bond instrumental style back to that 1962 “James Bond Theme,” released for the first Bond film, “Dr. No.” 

Sean Connery: Bond. James Bond. 

[“The James Bond Theme”] 

Narrator: A few elements stand out here. First, you’ve got the deep, twangy ’60s guitar. 

[“The James Bond Theme”] 

That drippy surf guitar is really a sound of its time, so it’s most closely associated with the Sean Connery era. But I noticed riffs on it in a number of later Bond themes too. 

♪ You only live twice ♪ 

♪ Until the day ♪ 

♪ From wanting too much ♪ 

The next instruments you hear in “The James Bond Theme” have stuck around through the entire franchise. 

Jon Burlingame: ♪ Da, da, da-da ♪ 

♪ Da da da ♪ 

The bebop midsection has actually in more recent years become more of a Bond theme in the film scores than the [mimics surf guitar] guitar riff. 

Narrator: All those blaring trumpets and horns are part of the big band jazz sound created by John Barry, the composer who arranged that original Bond theme and went on to score 11 of the first 15 films. By the third movie, he’d started pairing all those brassy instruments with big arrangements of strings, flutes, and harps. 

Jon: So it was Barry who began the whole Bond sound with this kind of dangerous mixture. Partly jazz, partly rock, partly orchestral. 

Narrator: This would become the instrumental template for Bond music. And it’s clear in just the first few seconds of Shirley Bassey’s theme for the third film, 1964’s “Goldfinger.” 

[“Goldfinger”]

Here you have blaring horns … 

[“Goldfinger”] 

offset by violins … 

[“Goldfinger”] 

and later on in the song, harps. 

[“Goldfinger”]

“Goldfinger”‘s intro is so iconic that Gladys Knight arranged her song around it decades later for the 1989 movie “Licence to Kill.” 

[“Licence to Kill”] 

♪ I need, I need, I’ve got to hold on to your love ♪ 

And listening to the instruments in all the other Bond themes, I found that every single one at least references that style of big brass and full orchestra laid down in “Goldfinger.” Even in the songs that seem to break with the format, you can hear clear nods to John Barry’s classic instrumental style. Take Madonna’s theme for “Die Another Day.” 

♪ Guess I’ll die another day ♪ 

It sounds super electronic, but she actually recorded it with a 60-string orchestra, and you can hear those strings cut up in the song. 

[strings playing] 

More recently, Jack White and Alicia Keys’ duet for “Quantum of Solace” has these big brass and orchestra sections … 

[strings playing] 

even if they kind of get lost in the mix. 

[“Another Way to Die”] 

So that big band-string combo is definitely a staple of Bond sound. But obviously instruments alone aren’t enough to distinguish Bond songs from your typical chart hit. I found it’s the chords those instruments play that gives Bond music its spy feel, and specifically these four chords right here. 

[“The James Bond Theme”] 

That slinky rising and falling line is sometimes called the suspense motif. It got that name because it’s such a quintessential part of the suspenseful sound in Bond movies. This four-step progression first appeared in the 1962 theme, and it’s been recycled in the score for every movie since then. 

So, how many of the actual theme songs incorporate that suspense motif? I counted 15 of them. In some of those, the motif is more obvious. 

[“Skyfall”] 

♪ At skyfall ♪ 

But in others, you really have to listen for it. I liked how Sheryl Crow hid the motif at the end of her chorus for “Tomorrow Never Dies.” 

♪ See it in your eyes ♪ 

♪ Tomorrow never dies ♪ 

The third and final element that I tracked first appeared at the very end of that original “James Bond Theme.” 

[“The James Bond Theme”]

If that ringing chord sounds kind of mysterious, that’s probably because it’s not your standard three-note chord. It’s a minor chord with two major intervals, a seventh and ninth, added in — a combination of tones we’re not used to hearing in popular music. To compare, here’s a straight E minor. And now here’s that chord from “The James Bond Theme.” This special chord also appears as the gunshot chord in a lot of the gun-barrel sequences in the movies. 

[“The James Bond Theme”] 

And it’s just the most famous example of the kinds of complex chords you find throughout Bond music. Instead of sticking to just two chord flavors, either major or minor, Bond songs tend to use all these minor chords with major intervals stacked on top. This creates harmonies that are more ambiguous and less predictable to our ears — the kind of harmonies that are perfect for spy music. That last chord in “The James Bond Theme” in particular is so closely associated with the films that it’s often referred to as “the Bond chord.” So, naturally, I had to include it in my rubric. I found that 13, or about half, of the theme songs recreate the effect of the Bond chord in some way, usually by opening or closing on a dissonant chord that’s similar to the original one. 

[“Goldfinger”] 

Or, in the case of “Skyfall,” both opening and closing on such a cord. 

[“Skyfall”] 

OK, so we’ve got the brass and string instruments, that suspense motif, and the jarring Bond cord. You could call these three of the musical touchstones of the franchise. Some of the most iconic themes use all three of them. That includes, of course, the original “James Bond Theme” and “Goldfinger,” the two songs that served as musical blueprints for the rest of the series. Other themes managed to get away with just two of these hallmarks and still retain the Bond sound. 

♪ GoldenEye, I found his weakness ♪

And six of the themes only worked in one Bond element, the instrumentation, leaving out those other two defining features. The first of these outliers was Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better,” for the 1977 movie “The Spy Who Loved Me.” 

♪ Nobody does it better ♪ 

This is a perfect ’70s ballad, but does it sound Bond-y? Not really. It was a huge hit, though, which might explain why we saw it followed by a streak of Bond songs that stray from the formula, and less successfully. 1979’s “Moonraker” is often described as Shirley Bassey’s weakest Bond song. 

♪ Just like the moonraker goes ♪

Sheena Easton’s “For Your Eyes Only” is a rock ballad that never really turns into a Bond theme. 

♪ I never felt ♪ 

♪ Until I looked at you ♪

And Rita Coolidge’s “All Time High,” for “Octopussy,” sounds more like ’80s soft rock than classic Bond. 

♪ We’re an all time high ♪

After that pretty forgettable run of songs, most of the themes have tried to incorporate multiple Bond tropes. You get a couple of exceptions in Madonna’s “Die Another Day” and Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall” for “Spectre,” each of which only really nods to Bond’s instrumental style. 

[“Writing’s on the Wall”] 

And both were pretty divisive as Bond themes, maybe because they seem to reflect the sound of the artist more than that of the franchise. 

Based on this analysis, it looks like there is a winning formula for the Bond songs after all. So let’s take a look at Billie’s “No Time to Die” and see how it fits in, starting with the instrumentation. “No Time to Die” begins with a repeating series of tinkling piano keys … 

[“No Time to Die”] 

similar to the repeating figure at the start of “Diamonds Are Forever” played by an electronic organ. 

[“Diamonds Are Forever”]

Then, as we head into the chorus, we get a little hint of the twangy surf guitar from the original theme. 

♪ That I’d fallen for a lie ♪ 

After the chorus is when we finally hear the 70-person orchestra, arranged by the film composer Hans Zimmer. 

[orchestra playing] 

Jon: You’ll hear the sort of sassy brass that Barry incorporated in his Bond scores of the 1960s. And then, of course, the sort of rich string sound that delicately works its way into the Eilish song. 

Narrator: By now, this is like a more subdued version of a classic Bond orchestration. 

So the instruments, check. Now, what about that suspense motif? If you listen closely, there’s a faint riff on it right before Billie starts singing. And other subtle versions sprinkled throughout the song. 

The main chord progression also matches that of three other Daniel Craig-era theme songs. All of them play on the chord movements in the original motif. 

[“No Time to Die”] 

[“Skyfall”] 

But “No Time to Die” is even more of a throwback to the original theme. It’s in the exact same key, E minor, and, surprise, the very last chord in Billie’s song … is the exact same one that closes out the original theme. 

So Billie reaches for all three signifiers of the Bond sound. But notice how she leaves the trademark Bond cord till the very end of the song, in the same way she does those quiet synth plays on the suspense motif and takes a long time to build from her usual sparse instrumental into the full orchestra. This is very much Billie’s take on Bond. It’s low-key and hushed, and it works. 

From going through almost 60 years of Bond themes, one takeaway is that these songs are supposed to define eras. And in the most successful ones, the artists weave in Bond’s musical traditions while also leaving their own stamp on the franchise. Billie did just that. The James Bond themes are a cultural institution at this point, and “No Time to Die” has all the DNA of a great one.

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