Music makes the film – there’s no doubt about it. It has the magical power to shape scenes. Whether it is the gentle, gestural moves of a composer like Thomas Newman urging us to consider the profundities of life or the monolithic motions of a monster composer like Hans Zimmer, the role of musical scores in both the development of film as an art form and as a central force in plot is undeniably important.
Film music as an art form unto itself is a relatively new phenomenon. As such, some of the greatest musical accomplishments of the last century have occurred in the medium. The emergence of musical ‘memes’ to match story events, such as those found in Jaws or Halloween, is a peculiar and interesting occurrence to observe.
Of course, the world of film music has become massive. Just take a minute to think of all the films released each year, all with their own composers and scores, and you will realise the enormity of the genre.
With that said, let’s explore a handful of the most gripping, greatest film scores of the 21st century. We’re taking you from the beginnings of the genre with collaborations between Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock, to the contemporary force of composer and cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir and finally to the synth modulations of Vangelis and Hans Zimmer.
AMERICAN BEAUTY – THOMAS NEWMAN
Thomas Newman’s breathtaking score for the 1999 film American Beauty practically defined a style of minimalist film composition, in particular with the cue “Any Other Name.” Relying on a simple, four note piano motif floating above a bed of synth drones and strings, the cue emerges while the characters are watching a film of a plastic bag dance in the wind.
Newman’s use of the C Dorian mode paired with gestural moves around the dialogue helps to evoke a feeling of unresolved melancholy, as the characters contemplate the meaning of existence and the beauty found in this most basic element: watching a tape of a plastic bag.
JOKER – HILDUR GUÕNADÓTTIR
Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score for the 2019 film Joker helped solidify her place as one of the preeminent contemporary composers and cellists. Her score, built primarily around the cello and electronic textures with an increasing orchestral presence as the film develops, is haunting, deep, and perfectly conveys the twisted mind of the Joker Arthur Fleck.
Guðnadóttir began composing early in the process. Director Todd Phillips sent her pages of script with which she began to sketch melodies and textures on the cello. Her demos were fleshed out and eventually the cues were played on set during several important scenes. Apparently, Joaquin Phoenix even had an earpiece in some scenes feeding him the music, further embedding the importance of the melodies in the entire process of the film.
BLADE RUNNER – VANGELIS
One of the defining examples of the synthesizer in film music, Vangelis’s score for Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner is without a doubt one of the composer’s finest achievements. Composed mostly in his London recording studio in 1982, Vangelis chose to compose in conjunction with the images from the film, as opposed to composing themes and sketches in the pre-production process like other examples in this survey.
The resulting cues are full of warmth and intrigue, drawing a direct connection between a distant, unrecognisable future and a nostalgic, film noir-esque past. You can hear echoes of Bernard Herrmann’s work on Taxi Driver, John Carpenter’s cues from Halloween, and perhaps even David Raskin’s score from the film noir classic, Laura.
PSYCHO – BERNARD HERRMANN
Composer Bernard Herrmann worked with director Alfred Hitchock on a number of his films, including such iconic works as Vertigo, The Birds, and North By Northwest. However, it is his groundbreaking film score for Psycho that perhaps had the greatest impact on the world of film music.
Opting to forego the use of technicolour to save on budget, Herrmann likewise stripped down the orchestration to the most basic of organisations: the string quartet. The resulting cues helped define the greater genre of slasher films and have since influenced composers of horror for generations.
JAWS – JOHN WILLIAMS
The main cue from Jaws by John Williams might be the ultimate meme score. What other motif from film music is so consistently used to portray gruesome suspense? We all know what the end result of that haunting, two note oscillating pattern will be: shark attack!
What we all forget, however, is the rest of the score. The orchestrational accompaniment to the main motif, the idyllic scenes of New England summer beaches, the plaintive, misleading calm of the ocean all support the unyielding conclusion of the score's primary motif, and produce wonderful music on their own.
INTERSTELLAR – HANS ZIMMER
What survey of film score music would be complete without some work by Hans Zimmer? After all, Zimmer is perhaps the greatest film composer of the last two decades. His portfolio of work is immensely prolific and his contributions to the craft are undeniable. And a great example of his combination of the piano, synthesizer, orchestra, and electronics is found in the Christopher Nolan film Interstellar.
In the main theme, the piano forms the foundation of the harmony, while the strings build up around it to a climatic crescendo, only to drop out suddenly – a classic Zimmer move. The piano figure is built around a steady, almost sequencer-esque figure in the upper register with a simple, step-wise harmonic movement below. Apparently, Zimmer composed this theme before he even read the script; Nolan simply asked him to compose something epic!
ONLY A SCRATCH OF THE SURFACE
Whether you prefer the classic character of Bernard Herrmann’s orchestrations, the rich and warm synth environments of Vangelis, or are more drawn to the explorations of Hildur and Thomas Newman, there is much to appreciate in the world of film music. Take these examples as a starting point and dive into this massive world!
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Cover Credit: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
Writer | Edward Bond
Edward Bond is a multi-instrumentalist composer, performer, and writer currently bouncing between Trondheim and Berlin. He apparently has the eyes of the devil, enjoys leopard prints, and will read your tarot, but not your future.