Morse on the Case – Revision Notes

Image © Radio Times

This is another Applied piece, which was composed by Barrington Pheloung for the 1990s TV show Inspector Morse. Pheloung’s music for the show contrasts in style with the more traditional classical music which was often used during episodes, including excerpts from operas by Wagner and Mozart (however, Pheloung’s pieces are non-diegetic – they are heard only by the audience – while the other music used is diegetic, as the character of Inspector Morse listens to it as part of the narrative). Some of his music also includes messages in morse code, including the names of some episodes’ killers (also this is not a feature of this particular piece).


The piece is through-composed, but can be loosely divided into two sections, before and after the silence in bar 61. Some analysts have suggested that there are, in fact, three sections, based on the changes in texture, which are approximately from bars 1-49 (before the solo oboe enters), 50-97 (with the oboe) and 98-112 (all instruments can be heard).


The very static movement of the piece means that traditional descriptors are not generally appropriate to describe it, although there is some monophony in bars 59-64. The texture mainly centres on changes in density – for example, it is reduced to only two parts at bar 53. Doubling is also used, such as in the violin and viola parts up to bar 14, and the sustained octave in the oboe and violins in bars 66-68. As previously mentioned, there is a general pause (a complete silence) in bars 61-62.

Harmony and Tonality

The key of the piece is ambiguous; although it ends on a chord of C major, it never settles in that key, often hinting at A minor (the relative minor), to the extent that it sometimes verges on bitonality (which is most obvious in bars 8-11). There are also modal inflections, as the G naturals in the piece hint at the Aeolian mode, while the F#s in bars 100 and 105 suggest the Lydian.

Because of this, the harmony is considered non-functional, occurring mainly as a coincidence of the overlapping melodic lines. Some of the intervals used are consonant, while others involve mild dissonances (such as major 2nds and minor 7ths), and harsher dissonances are often softened by placing the notes in different registers (like the compund major 7th in bar 52), or placing all of the notes in a high register and a quiet dynamic (such as the minor 9th in bar 67). Because the harmony changes so slowly, any sustained notes are considered drones, rather than pedals.

The harmony of different phrases is often built around collections of between three and five notes, for example, ABDE (bars 1-7), CDEGA (a pentatonic scale, bars 12-31) and ABAb (bars 98-112).


The ensemble used in this piece is somewhat unusual, involving a string section, a solo oboe, four horns, a harp and a piano. The piano, violins and violas play throughout, but the cello and bass do not enter until bar 99, and the harp two bars later. The solo oboe enters at bar 49, while the horns begin to play in unison at bar 98.

The sonority of the piece is also interesting – the strings are muted, while the piano uses mainly high pitches, and is notated mostly in treble clef.

Rhythm and Metre

The time signature of the piece is 4/4, but the static motion means that no clear pulse is ever established. There are many sustained notes, such as in bars 39-52. While significant harmonic notes tend to start on the beat, for example in bars 8-12, many notes have irregular values, or start on weak semiquaver beats.


There is no clear melodic line in the piece, but Pheloung does make use of melodic cells, which slowly evolve as it progresses. The sustained pitches include the ADBA chord held in the piano in bars 1-6, which is inverted in the strings in bars 1-11.

There are some more rapid melodies, such as bars 26-27, which are a diminution of bars 17-20, and some large leaps, as seen in the piano in bars 8-10, but the melody is mostly held together by the gradually progressing harmonic intervals.

This is the piece in context on Inspector Morse. Video analysis by Jane Leitner on YouTube


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