Nov 18, 2015

David Raksin's "Laura" - Soundtrack vs. Sheet Music

"Laura" is a brilliantly composed song by David Raksin, first presented as the theme of Otto Preminger's 1944 movie of the same name. The melody occurs throughout the film, but is never heard in full; the nearest it gets to a complete playing is in the opening credits, where it stops three measures short of its full 32 bars, leaving listeners with an unfinished song and a tense chord, as the movie's story begins.

"Laura" was published as sheet music in 1945, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. No lyrics appear in the movie; they were added for the sheet music version, as was the unremarkable introductory "verse." Mercer's lyrics have pretty much nothing to do with the film's storyline, but they do create a mood, and certainly contributed to the song's popularity.

There's an excellent writeup of the tune's origins at, where it is rated number 35 on their list of the top 1000 standards.

"Laura" is one of the very few "Golden Age" jazz standards that ends in a different key (C major) than it begins (G major). The only other tunes I can think of that do that are "Unforgettable" and "Autumn Leaves" - and that one only if you count relative major (G) and relative minor (E minor) as being different keys.

A couple of weeks ago my wife and I watched "Laura" via Netflix streaming. As the title theme played, I noticed an unusual modulation halfway through the tune. I checked it out, and as it happens, this modulation allows the song to end in G (or rather, it would have, if the last three bars had been played). I could guess that Raksin might have originally set up the tune to end in the same key it started, but later changed his concept when preparing the sheet music.

Below is how the changes appear in the sheet music. This is a bare-bones version; I've omitted some superfluous chord symbols. Most modern fakebooks show similar changes, but with the Fdim7 replaced by Dm7b5  G7b9.


And here's an outline of the way the movie's opening credits presented the song. The melody starting in bar 17 matches the sheet music, but is pitched a fifth higher than in the sheet music, beginning with an F# in the melody, over the Em7 chord.

The sheet music version smoothes out the tune by beginning the second half in the same key as the first half, as one might normally expect in a commercial song. The modulation halfway through in the movie version worked in the soundtrack, but may have seemed a bit strange for a popular sheet music version, hence the revision. The trade-off was that by beginning the second half conventionally, in G, the tune would have to end in a key (C) different from the one it began in.

This is just speculation, of course, but it might be why "Laura" ends in a different key. Just a guess!

Here's Charlie Parker playing "Laura" with strings, recorded live. This arrangement employs a modulation, but not the same one heard in the movie.


  1. Update from Keith Bernstein:

    Some other tunes that begin in one key and end in another: "I'll Remember Her" by Noel Coward, the theme from "Mr. Lucky" by Henry Mancini, and “Lovers In New York,” which is the vocal version of the theme music to the film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” another Mancini tune.

    As for "Laura," I always play an E7 chord (or a full ii-V of Am) in measure 16 as a lead in to the second "A" section of the tune. A quick try at the piano of a ii-V of Em works perfectly well to lead in the second half of the movie version of the song. I agree that Raskin decided to put the sheet music version of the song into a conventional AA form with the using the same first eight measures in each A section and ending each A section differently. Either way, the tune works very well.

    1. Thanks, Keith. Leaving out the E7 in bar 16 was an oversight on my part; I've corrected it.

  2. I've been comparing movie soundtrack songs to lead sheets recently. More than once I've found that chords on the lead sheet are not in the score. In particular, ii-V progressions in the lead sheet are heard as a single chord. That may be because the arranger wanted to simplify the string part and re-(de)harmonized the tune. Or it could be that the ii-V was added in the sheet music to keep the piano part moving.

    1. Mark - If by "lead sheets" you mean modern fakebooks, the reason is the practice of making these pieces fit our "jazz educator's" concept of harmony as it is commonly taught today. Recasting simple V chords into II V progressions makes things easier for an improviser who wants to think that way and play that way. Of course, you always have the option of reversing the process, and ignoring the II chord in a chart. That usually works just fine.