All artists and songwriters curate songs with a meaning or story behind it. The same goes for cinematic and instrumental music: a slow, yet softening song describing an undying love between two individuals, or a dramatically intense wave of sounds when superheroes are fighting to save the world. It’s clear that a track must evoke some sort of human emotion or reaction in its listeners. Perhaps this is the reason why we are all guilty of over-using our Spotify memberships or simply enjoying the delights of music because in a way it allows us to get through difficult or stressful times with a moment of peace. These tracks are what enable films to have an emotional or humane impact on its audience, as well as strengthening the narrative to a point that a movie becomes more than just actors doing their day job, but creates an experience for viewers.
You see, we need to use more than one of our senses to fully understand the message that something is providing. Imagine a film without any scored music in the background. I bet you can already feel the awkwardness of what some scenes could offer you. A score is a key ingredient in what makes a film memorable and enjoyable or even determines how you feel at the end of the credits – whether that is sadness, remorse, joy or even pure terror. There are a vast majority of ways to initiate this: using sounds such as a scream or a heightened heartbeat to create tension, or even a silence to leave the audience waiting in anticipation for what’s to happen next. This is just one of many examples there are as to why scores (and soundtracks) are fundamentally important to the cinematic industry, without them films lose their depth ultimately making it more difficult for viewers to connect with the new world a movie transports them to.
There are many well-known and recognisable scores, but two that stand out are Jurassic Park, and of course Star Wars, both of which were composed by five-time Oscar winner John Williams. It’s hard to play down the influence that the Star Wars score has had in the world of cinema – there is simply no score or movie theme as famous or incomparable as the epic space drama. The main theme, playing alongside the opening sequence phrase “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”, creates an instant flowing rush of excitement at the very start of the film – a feeling that repeats itself but never changes as new Star Wars films hit cinemas. And no, it’s not only the theme of Star Wars that makes the film memorable as such, but there are many other tracks (such as ‘The Imperial March – Darth Vader’s theme’) that make the score and specific scenes in the movie unforgettable. This doesn’t mean we should disregard sounds such as Vader’s heavy breathing or the electric sound of a lightsaber, because these too attract audiences through making them feel anxious or excited about what is to happen next – and despite knowing the fate of Vader, with new characters such as Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi we still get that same feeling of intimidation as we had in A New Hope.
Jurassic Parks’ most famous track, titled ‘Theme from Jurassic Park’, acts as an introduction to the dinosaur land of both exciting and accelerating experiences – alluding an instant sense of adventure. The film, despite being released 25 years ago (1993), still has an instrumental theme that sticks to your brain. Though, it could be argued that the continuing love for the film’s theme is due to the franchise being reborn with Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World (2015), along with its 2018 sequel Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (director, J.A. Bayona) and regenerating itself with a new audience. Not that that is a bad thing, but it carries on the saga of why we first enjoyed and still regard Jurassic Park as a cinematic ride of excellence. Both of these scores were created by just one composer. Just think about the vast amount of films and notes harmonized together to make movies notable and unforgettable. The list is unending.
It’s difficult to pen a piece of writing about film scoring without mentioning Hans Zimmer. The German-born composer has scored music for over 150 films and has won Academy Awards for his work on scores such as Pirates of the Caribbean series, Interstellar, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and The Dark Knight Trilogy. When Zimmer collaborated with James Newton Howard for Batman Begins (2005) and later The Dark Knight (2008) it generated buzz. It was a musical collaboration that was unheard of in the industry, but nevertheless became something stronger than unlike anything in film composition. Christopher Nolan’s take on the Caped Crusader had a remarkable run with three major box-office hits, all of which include a sound that’s so easily recognisable that I spotted it on an episode of the British reality show Love Island (yup, that actually happened). That aside: Molossus (Batman Begins), A Dark Knight (The Dark Knight) and Rise (The Dark Knight Rises) act as a family unit of single tracks – a dark yet exhilarating sound emphasising the influence of the hero himself. The tracks include primarily two notes (a minor to a major chord), something in which highlights Bruce Wayne’s conflict and determination. Its tracks like the ones discussed that not only enhance the film as its being played but give viewers a reason to go back and watch the film for a second or third time.
A couple of my favourite scores have come from an individual not necessarily known for being a film composer, but the lead guitarist and keyboardist of Radiohead. Jonny Greenwood has been in collaboration with director Paul Thomas Anderson for the past decade, yet I still can’t wrap my head around as to why he hasn’t yet received an Oscar for his simply stunning work of composition. The scores for both Inherent Vice (2014) and Phantom Thread (2018) are two completely different entities, but there is one simple and notable structure that Greenwood has done that links the brilliance of these scores together and heightens the film’s depth – using not one but three tracks to emphasise the theme of the films. The repetition of track names such as ‘Shasta’, ‘Shasta Fay’ and ‘Shasta Fay Hepworth’ carry the film through the characters and their development. For example in Inherent Vice, Shasta (Katherine Waterston) returns to see Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) needing help in the first act, she goes missing and its Doc’s responsibility to find answers; in the last act, Shasta and Doc are reunited. Phantom Thread too has three tracks of the same name – Phantom Thread I, Phantom Thread II and Phantom Thread III, all of which highlight the confusion the audience have regarding the films protagonist Reynolds Woodcock and his struggle to balance his love for fashion and his wife Alma. These tracks in the way that they are composed are perceived as the main instrumental themes of the movie, all three sounds are similar yet as they go along they either soften or intensify for the effect of impact within the narrative.
Scoring is essential. No ifs or buts. You could compare films to an onion, and its many sounds and instrumental music are just an additional layer. Film composition allows films to have more depth, and in this modern day society where we are so infatuated with other things such as technology and social media, it is one of the main components that keeps audiences interested, invested and emotionally engaged in the movies they are focussing on. In one sense, they enhance a film’s success or rating because of how they allow audiences to invest themselves fully to the world the motion picture is taking them to. But the key reason is that they are the main contributors to how satisfied we are as the credits begin to roll.
Check out my Film Galore playlist below: