Essay uitgelicht

Musical Signs in Netflix’s Mini-Trailers

Searching for hours before finding something to watch has become even more difficult in the twenty-first century with the coming of streaming platforms. The variety and amount of films or series to watch has become the burden of the modern consumer. Not so long ago, Netflix introduced a sort of “mini-trailer,” that is made available when one leaves the mouse long enough on the rectangular frame of the film or series one is interested in. This implies a conscious act; we choose to see and listen to something we are already interested in. Netflix dominates a great part of the streaming market, with a few competitors like Starz and Hulu, and Amazon Instant Video. The company also competes with cable TV, for example, it managed to get The Artistas an exclusive. The fact that movies who won an Academy Award were usually played on the premium cable, shows that the streaming service heightened its commercial value.[1]This leads to the question of the influence the new feature has on our viewing pattern, however it is not the focus of this essay, rather, I will focus on the role of music in the last step to the “watch” button. Theories of semiotics will help analyse the musical fragments to define which musical signs contribute to a certain ideology and will help determine the method to keep viewers. Finally, the essay will consider Lisa Kernan’s trailer theories and how these apply and differ to the mini-trailer on Netflix. In her analysis of trailers, Kernan uses the concept of Enthymeme, which allows her to take into account the “assumptions trailer producers make about audiences”[2]and will be an important concept to which I will refer to:

The film industry attempts to know its audience both through increasingly sophisticated market research and through tried-and-true “seat-of-the-pants” techniques,and trailers display the nature and extent of this knowledge enthymemically. That is, trailers utilize enthymemes, or deliberately incomplete syllogisms, which rely on implicit assumptions that the audience is enjoined to “fill in,” thus becoming complicit with the advertising argument to the degree that they do so.

Audio-visual fragments on Netflix differ in many ways. Some show only images in a slide show with prominent non-diegetic music while others use a fragment from the movie or series themselves, with music corresponding to that specific fragment. There are fragments as well that use spoken language only or fragments without music at all. There are so many different ways in which Netflix deploys music that it is difficult to choose one case study. I have therefore chosen two case studies of different movie genres and in which music works differently. By using the enthymeme as a starting point, it allows to analyse the mini-trailers in a global way and understanding one ideology behind the choice of the audio-visual relations.


1.1 E.T.

The music in the mini-trailer from E.T. begins with an ostinato in the bass and a pedal high note. The moment we see the iconic scene with the bike flying in front of the moon, there is a slow horn crescendo followed by a functional harmony descending from a flat second degree to the tonic, creating a minor second interval. This interval can be considered as one of the most famous intervals, introduced by John Williams’ composition for the 1975 movie Jaws. The interval has become so iconic that it has lost its mere denotation function, to become much more. It has attained a level of connotation, going behind the level of denotating the shark, and becoming a connotative sign for danger.[3]

However, the harmonic progression with the descending minor second is also used in many other science fiction movies to create tension more than provoking fear. In the music from Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time we can hear at the very beginning a chord progression from flat II to I, which creates a descending minor second and gives a typical sci-fi feeling, recognizable from many other movies of the same genre.[4]The timpani clearly accentuates the I as opposed to the bII, further strengthening its resolving value. Again, it is striking that bII is suggested as I in the majority of the entrance.


The music from the E.T. mini-trailer follows this sci-fi lingua francamore clearly than signifying danger through musical techniques, however, the effect of potential danger and tension is created through the audio-visual interaction as the succession of images with an extra-terrestrial creature and men running in the dark with torch lamps. These enabling similarities create a new meaning through the combination of the music with the images. Nonetheless, we see a few images with the character smiling, and being strangely fascinated by the light on the fingers of the alien, as well as the bicycle that flies in front of the moon. Again, these images foreground the sci-fi genre through the enabling similarities of the audio-visual fragment. As a whole, the mini-trailer thus engages with the message of a movie full of tension, potential danger and extraordinary discoveries.

Philip Tagg uses the term musemeto define a musical sign, which is commonly associated with a meaning outside of the movie itself.[5]For example, a rising fourth in the horn can be considered as a museme.[6]Ronald Rodman, uses a similar term, topical implicationsto define “discursive labels that trigger within the audience some idea of extra musical expression. Audience members are able to decode these musical meanings based on their own experiences and competencies with musical styles.”[7]I will use Rodman’s definition of topoi to depict the musical signs in the mini-trailers.

The music from the E.T. fragment rises gradually through the use of an orchestrated crescendo while the visuals change, and on the eighth image of the second repetition, a sync point takes places with a hard drop and the image of smiling Elliott. At this point, the music becomes more frenetic and louder. The strings and brass play sharp, separated notes. The drop in the music is a common feature used in trailers and is used to create a “high emotional response” of the viewer.[8]This method, derived from electronic dance music and popularized in film music by Hans Zimmer has clearly integrated the rhetoric of the Netflix mini-trailer to promote a series or movie, which seems necessary to keep viewers on such a massively diverse platform where we could otherwise get lost.[9]

The crescendo in the brass clearly builds up to the I as a resolution rather as a tension point. Use of bII is striking because in the majority of the piece it – rather than I – is used as pedal.

The repetition of the image-sequence is an important feature on the mini-trailer and Kernan argues that repetition “generates rhythm, and rhythm is an important structural feature of trailers’ sensory appeal.”[10]A mass culture calls for a way to address as many people as possible and repetition has become a way to do this, by creating a certain familiarity but at the same time awakening a yearning for the same thing over and over again. Trailers use this to create a response to the movies they promote. The mini-trailer for E.T features this repetitive pattern as well in the visuals but while this type of promoting idea may coincide, there is one feature in particular that differs from this pattern and that is really striking, which is that the music continues while the visuals consist of nine images constantly repeating. The musical composition thus evolves and increases in tension, giving each repeating image a new meaning as the audio-visual relations change. This allows for a visual flow: the viewer has the opportunity to keep watching the fragment, listening to the music and how it modifies the fragment each time it is repeated. The music is thus foregrounded and used as the principal medium to encourage the person searching for something to watch to click on the start button.

One thing I have not addressed yet is the peculiarity of the music fragment that accompanies the mini-trailer from E.T., which is not John Williams’ original music from the movie. Where one could expect the famous melody beginning with a rising fifth in the melody, we hear a totally different, yet similar track as it is composed in a new symphonic style, using a big orchestra and serving a narrative purpose. Why choose this music to fit the mini-trailer while you have a whole soundtrack of original film music that can attract viewers? This question opens the path to a next question, which is to whom the mini-trailer is addressed. To answer this, it can be useful to use Roman Jakobson’s communication model, which considers different functions and aspects in a broad communication system.

While this model is a bit dated, the channels are still relevant to a streaming platform such as Netflix, which tries to address a mass culture in a similar way television has done. The first function to take into account is the addresser, in this case the Netflix management. They carry an emotive function, but while this function is distinct on television, it is in this case more difficult to pinpoint as the medium is even broader than television. The emotive function then can be to address the streaming platform as a whole or to address one genre available on the platform. The conative function however, seems somehow clearer in this case: address people who are not already acquainted with the movie E.T. In fact, the use, or rather the non-use of John Williams’ original score, suggests that the public being addressed is not the one that grew up with E.T. and goes down a nostalgic path when hearing the well-known soundtrack. I propose the view that the choice of an unknown score fills the conative function of sparking interest for a new public, as the music shares similarities in style with the original soundtrack but incorporates techniques that are more suited to the actual trailer conventions, such as the ostinato and pedal high note.[11]According to Kernan, the film industry conducts extensive research to find out what the audience wants to see.[12]This may not totally apply to a less specific platform, regrouping many different genres, however, it demonstrates a general knowledge of the audience, which certainly applies to Netflix for the platform is famous for the algorithm to fit individual preferences.


1.2 Coco

The music from the film uses many typically Mexican styles like mariachis, jarocho and ballads, using acoustic guitar, the requinto and the jarana. The choice of the music is interesting, as the music track we hear so prominent on the mini-trailer, is backgrounded in the film.[13]What does it do and why did they choose this music to represent the movie?

The beginning of the audio-visual fragment does not seem to be synchronised, while one would expect some sort of stinger or synch point when Miguel strikes his guitar in a very theatrical way. However later in the fragment, we see the feet from Hector, dancing a zapateado, which, without being exactly synchronised with the music, still has conformance with the music in that its movement imitates the stomping feet. The enabling similarity between the dancing,[14]very rhythmic music and rhythm of the feet, create an iconicity of process,[15]giving the idea that music and feet are synchronised.

In the next shot, we hear the brass play a descending minor second. However, this cannot be seen as a signifier for danger, even though the visuals show the main character running away and being confronted with a giant dragon. In this case, the minor second is the result of the 7thsolving from V to I. In addition to this, the music is too lively, and the repeated interval is a call and answer that follows the logic of the musical development very well. This would discard the idea of a topical implication. Nonetheless, the combination of the visuals and the musical elements of the brass, create in a way, a tension, which results from a transfer of attributes.[16]The image of the dragon brings tension to the screen; it denotes a threat, which we may in turn hear in the music.

On the twenty-third of January 2019, Netflix introduced a change in the mini-trailer of Coco, which may turn the analysis above irrelevant, but is however an opportunity to shed light on the differences in ideology of promotion strategies. The new fragment we see in the promotion area is the exact piece from the movie with the same music. The main character, Miguel, is performing on stage, singing “Un Poco Loco” and playing the guitar. The mini-trailer begins with a grito, followed by cheering of the public. Miguel then starts singing a ballad, accompanying himself with the guitar. The striking of the strings is very agile and reminiscent of flamenco. The shout, acoustic guitar, bits of Spanish lyrics and the skeletons with bright colours immediately invoke Mexican culture.

This scene is very important in the film as it is the first time Miguel performs in front of people and begins to reach for his dream of being a musician. The song he performs is a choice for the mini-trailer that sets the mood for the whole movie, fitting the style the makers tried to recreate. The song in the mini-trailer ends on Miguel striking his guitar; the abrupt end giving the impression that something is lacking and that the song has actually not finished yet. After this, three images appear consecutively, without the fragment starting again like it was the case for E.T. This is a very neat strategy to encourage users to continue watching. Kernan argues that “essentially, any montage creates assumptions about audience associations. But when a montage structure is created for the purpose of persuasion, these associations can be categorized as enthymemes, and fall within the domain of rhetoric.”[17]In this case, there is not a clear montage like in a traditional trailer, but rather one single fragment from the movie itself, followed by three images with no sound repeating themselves. We can then consider it as a montage that is in fact created “for the purpose of persuasion.” While the trailer itself is very different from the standard Hollywood trailer, the rhetoric remains within the same ideology. In this case, the music holds a conative function, which is to address viewers that are interested in music and /or in Mexican culture while the visuals may attract viewers that like animated films. Contrary to television, the mini-trailer from Coco also holds a poetic function as the message transmitted across the screen is also the quality of the music itself. We see and hear the playing of the guitar, executed like a virtuoso, accompanied by the enthusiasm of the public.


1.3 Conclusion

The analysis of Netflix’s mini-trailers can tell us something about the ideology the streaming giant carries through the promotion of its platform. As the mass medium becomes mass valued, the knowledge of how musical signs in audio-visual relationships interact to boast the consumption of movies remain of value.

The mini-trailer form E.T. showed many interesting aspects in musical and visual structure as well as in the choice of the specific track to accompany the image slideshow. One defining novelty in trailer use is the repetitiveness of the visuals while the music continues growing, that is defining for the use Netflix gives to the mini-trailers on such a massive platform. The immersive aspect of the streaming service is heightened and can be acknowledged as a promotion strategy. This differs from the strategy employed for the mini-trailers for the movie Coco, where the music from the movie itself was used in both mini-trailers. The difference being that one was promoted in a narrative way while the second played on the emotional value of the movie, citing in a way, what is to come and regrouping the main aspects of the film, the music and Mexican culture.

Through the use of mini-trailers, Netflix has created a new idiom, nonetheless based on the traditional trailer. The three main features of the Hollywood trailer Kernan identifies, genres, stories and stars, are still at the base of the promotion in the mini-trailers.[18]In the case of the two case studies, there is a clear alignment in the rhetoric of these similar trailers, as their function and ideology remain very close. Nevertheless, it is important to realize that as Netflix is a company that reaches worldwide and therefore makes the spread of originally American ideologies and codes easier, its different versions per country make it hard to state a single interpretation and decodation of audio-visual signs. The fact that Netflix works with an algorithm is also something to consider, as the music choice could also be personalized through such a device, giving place to further investigation on the relation between music and visuals.





Cook, Nicholas. “Multimedia as Metaphor.” In Analysing Musical Multimedia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.


Cunningham, Stuart and Jon Silver. “The Players, Part Two : Rivals in Online Distribution.” In Screen Distribution and the New King Kongs of the Online World. London : Palgrave Pivot, 2013.


Kassabian, Anahid. “Hearing Film: Tracking identifications in contemporary Hollywood film music.” In Soundtrack available: Essays on film and popular music. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001. Quoted in S. Moore. “The Flat Second to Tonic “Jaws” motif in Heavy Metal and Film Music: Transformations and Orientalist use of the PiantoTopi,” Edinburgh: IPMDS, 2013.


Kernan, Lisa. “Trailer Rhetoric.” In Coming Attractions: Reading American Movie Trailers. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004.


Rodman, Ronald. “Towards an associative Theory of Television Music.” In Tuning In: American Narrative Television Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.


Summers, Tim. “From ‘Sabotage’ to ‘Sledgehammer’ Trailers, Songs, and the Musical Marketing of Star Trek Beyond (2016).” Music and the Moving Image 11.1 (2018): 60.


Tagg, Philip. “Kojac- 50 seconds Television Music: Toward the analysis of affect in popular music.” PhD diss., University of Göteborg, 1979.



Secondary Sources:


“Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time-Space Radio (Polaris Classical),” YouTube Video, 9:32, “LombaxWhisperer,” June 21, 2013,


The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Official Theatrical Trailer (2013) HD,” YouTube Video, 2:49, “Movieclips Trailers,” July 21, 2013,

[1]Stuart Cunningham and Jon Silver, “The Players, Part Two : Rivals in Online Distribution,” in Screen Distribution and the New King Kongs of the Online World,(London: Palgrave Pivot, 2013), 89.

[2]Lisa Kernan, “Trailer Rhetoric.” In Coming Attractions: Reading American Movie Trailers (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004), 40.

[3]Anahid Kassabian, Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in contemporary Hollywood film music,” in Soundtrack available: Essays on film and popular music, (Durham: Duke University Press), 2001, quoted in S. Moore, “The Flat Second to Tonic “Jaws” motif in Heavy Metal and Film Music: Transformations and Orientalist use of the Pianto Topi,.” (Edinburgh: IPMDS, 2013).

[4]“Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time-Space Radio (Polaris Classical),” YouTube Video, 9:32, “LombaxWhisperer,” June 21, 2013,

[5]Philipp Tagg, “Kojac, 50 seconds Television Music: Toward the analysis of affect in popular music” (PhD diss., University of Göteborg, 1979.)

[6]Ronald Rodman, “Towards an associative Theory of Television Music,” in Tuning In: American Narrative Television Music(New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 37.

[7]Ibid, 37.

[8]Tim Summers, “From ‘Sabotage’ to ‘Sledgehammer’ Trailers, Songs, and the Musical Marketing of Star Trek Beyond (2016),” Music and the Moving Image 11.1 (2018): 60.


[10]Lisa Kernan, “Trailer Rhetoric,” inComing Attractions: Reading American Movie Trailers (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004), 48.

[11]“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Official Theatrical Trailer (2013) HD,” YouTube Video, 2:49, “Movieclips Trailers,” July 21, 2013,

[12]Lisa Kernan, “Trailer Rhetoric,” in Coming Attractions: Reading American Movie Trailers (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004), 40.

[13]Molina, Adrian, “Coco.” Pixar, 2017, 47:27,

[14]Nicholas Cook, “Multimedia as Metaphor,” in Analysing Musical Multimedia(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 57-97.



[17]Lisa Kernan, “Trailer Rhetoric,” in Coming Attractions: Reading American Movie Trailers (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004), 42

[18]Lisa Kernan, “Trailer Rhetoric,” in Coming Attractions: Reading American Movie Trailers (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004), 42.