'Braaams' for Beginners: How a Horn Sound Ate Hollywood

More than one composer lays claim to the ubiquitous effect used in action trailers. Says one music supervisor: "It's a very, very, very touchy subject."

You know them when you hear them — and if you've seen a blockbuster movie trailer in the past five years, you've heard them a lot. They're those bassy, brassy, thunderous notes — like a foghorn on steroids — meant to impart a sense of apocalyptic momentousness to everything from superhero showdowns (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, above) to dinosaurs run amok (Jurassic World). The Internet has even given them an onomatopoeic name: "braaams," often spelled out in capital letters.

Most agree that Hollywood's obsession with braaams began with a series of trailers for Christopher Nolan's 2010 film, Inception. But just who invented them is "a very, very, very touchy subject," according to Bobby Gumm, head of music for Trailer Park, the company behind such braaam-filled trailers as Mad Max: Fury Road and Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation.

"There are several people that claim they came up with it," Gumm continues. "It's a little weird."

Braams have been kicking around in movie trailers as far back as 2007's Transformers and were used more definitively in the 2009 trailer for Neill Blomkamp's District 9. But even the creative team behind the latter — Carrie Gormley and Michael Trice of Create Advertising Group — acknowledge Inception's role in popularizing them. Says Gormley of the music in the District 9 spot, "It was fresh for the time but not something we were thinking would become a trend."

The District 9 trailer, which predates the Inception trailers by almost a year.

Inception's composer, Hans Zimmer, has said in interviews that he is the godfather of braaams — an effect he stumbled upon as he tried to achieve a sound described in Nolan's screenplay as "massive, low-end musical tones, sounding like distant horns." In 2013, Zimmer told Vulture he made the sound by putting "a piano in the middle of a church and I put a book on the pedal, and these brass players would basically play into the resonance of the piano. And then I added a bit of electronic nonsense." Zimmer added that he found it "horrible" that he had inadvertently created a "[musical] blueprint for all action movies." (Zimmer would not comment for this article.)

Then another, lesser-known composer, Mike Zarin, claimed Zimmer was unfairly taking credit for his own invention. Zarin had been hired in 2009 to compose music for Inception's first teaser. With only one shot to work with — that of Leonardo DiCaprio riding on a bullet train — Zarin told Indiewire that he "hopped on the subway [and] did a whole bunch of foley recordings, capturing this idea of being on a train." That rumbling sound, Zarin claims, was the beginning of the braaam sound, which carried into the film's first trailer.

But it gets even more complicated, as a second trailer, this one featuring a score by a composer named Zack Hemsey, refined braaams even further, placing them into a stirring piece of music called "Mind Heist."

Inception's second trailer, featuring Hemsey's "Mind Heist."

Hemsey is a soft-spoken guy with a thick New Jersey accent who lives about 70 miles north of Manhattan in the town of Stormville, New York. He says he rarely travels to Los Angeles and has never met Nolan or Zimmer. Unlike other movie trailers that use his existing compositions (Insurgent and Selma, to cite two recent examples), Inception was a case in which Hemsey was hired specifically to compose music for the final trailer. Press him any further for details and Hemsey starts to get a little vague, saying only that Warner Bros. had him "sign an NDA."

Hemsey thinks no one should take credit for inventing braaams. ("They're a musical device, a technique that's been used throughout the history of music.") But he is willing to go so far as to take credit for how he uses them in "Mind Heist." In Zarin's teaser, the braaam is one part of a larger sound design. In Hemsey's trailer, they are weaved into the music. (I asked a musician friend to describe the Hemsey braaam. His response: "It sounds like synthesized instruments, essentially low brass playing the note C.")

Whatever they are, Hemsey's braaams feel bigger, more satisfying and ultimately more dramatic — like the climax of a Carl Orff cantata — than any braaams that came before. As a result, there is a faction of passionate fanboys who credit Hemsey with being the true creator of the braaam. (Some anecdotal evidence: Should you stumble upon any of several "braaam buttons" on the Internet, it's invariably the Hemsey braaam you'll hear.)

"It certainly made some noise for sure," Hemsey recalls of the excitement that greeted his Inception trailer. "It ended up getting parodied by South Park. I think at that point I was, like, that's pretty surreal. I'm used to making music in obscurity, so it was interesting to see it really take off."

Six years later, the trend is showing no signs of slowing down. Still, execs are reluctant to come right out and ask for braaams. Says Trailer Park's Gumm: "Nobody wants to sound like they're ripping off Inception, but at the same time everyone still wants that big, loud, attention-getting thing in their trailer." As a result, trailer companies will craft signature braaams, such as the one made out of a dinosaur roar customized for the Jurassic World teaser.

The pressure is on to innovate. "Everyone wants the 'new' Inception sound," says Create's Gormley. "Now we've just got to solve what that is." Gumm has landed upon "a pulsing sound that feels really big, but it's not horns." That effect, which sounds more like a guitar riff and figures heavily in the Rogue Nation trailer, doesn't yet have a name. Then there are "power-downs" — a deep techno vibrato that accompanies slow-motion shots, a cousin of the "drop" that gets dubstep fans riled up.

But ask industry pros, and they'll all tell you that braaams are here to stay. "There's literally not a bigger sound out there," says Gumm. "They've used horns for ages to warn people. It's the signifier, the call to arms. It punches through to everything — and it's just one note."