Film music as an art form unto itself is less than a century old. Moving in tandem with the technological developments in cinema, film music has evolved to include an enormous array of sonic possibilities. From minimal and subtle synthesisers to oversized orchestras, rock bands, or collected recordings from haunted buildings, the sounds composers choose can have a singular impact on the trajectory and emotional impact of a story.
The 21st century has already heard some remarkable achievements in film music and likewise undergone some aesthetic shifts in style and substance. Let’s take a look at some of the best film scores of the 21st century.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS - HOWARD SHORE
Howard Shore’s work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy is nothing short of an outstanding musical and cinematic achievement. His use of leitmotif is incredibly well-designed and executed, his vision of orchestration and arrangement is second to none, and his ability to convey narrative is captivating.
Shore composed nearly 13 hours of music for the film, effectively scoring the entire trilogy. He conceived of the work as a three-part operatic cycle and, contrary to most big-budget film scores, handled all the orchestration work and most of the conducting himself.
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN - JOHN WILLIAMS
John Williams’ score for the 2002 film Catch Me If You Can features one of the best opening sequences and themes of any early 2000’s movie. A spry and mysterious vibraphone figure is punctuated by hip finger snaps and sultry woodwind lines conjuring the cool feelings of West Coast Jazz circa 1955.
You might not know it if you only listened to Williams’ scores for Star Wars or E.T., but early in the composer’s career, he worked primarily as a jazz pianist in New York. He released several jazz albums under his name and worked with a handful of the icons of the era.
THE VILLAGE - JAMES NEWTON HOWARD
James Newton Howard earned an Oscar nomination for his original score for M. Night Shyamalan’s 2004 film The Village. Howard’s fourth collaboration with Shyamalan is full of lyrical, folk-like melodies, with a subtle menacing undertone, and the score features several outstanding violin solos by world-renowned violinist Hilary Hahn.
The cue “Noah Visits” opens with such a violin solo – a light pad behind an achingly melodic segment. The music transitions into a faster, arpeggiated figure in the solo violin, with a faster harmonic progression underneath. Percussion enters and the orchestra behind the soloist takes the foreground, building to a finale.
PAN’S LABYRINTH - JAVIER NAVARRETE
Javier Navarrete, a Spanish film and television composer, collaborated with director Guillermo del Toro on the 2006 fantasy film Pan’s Labyrinth. Navarrete was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on the film, which blends elements of mythical tales with the harsh realities of life in the years following the Spanish Civil War.
Navarrete’s hauntingly beautiful score centers around a lullaby piece, titled “Pan’s Labyrinth Lullaby.” The melody and harmony are somewhat reminiscent of the main theme from the early horror film, Rosemary’s Baby, and features a romantic piano and violin duo.
ATONEMENT - DARIO MARIANELLI
Dario Marianelli is one of the masters of scoring period dramas. His score for 2007’s romantic war drama Atonement, is a wonderful accomplishment, full of dashing orchestral maneuvers, deep and intriguing melodies, and a principal part played by the typewriter. Perhaps, on top of all the incredible orchestral writing, it is the part played by the typewriter that has become the most memorable!
The cue “Briony” opens with that typewriter, banging out a wry rhythm while a piano figure emerges that is neither major or minor. A fast-moving string section takes over the image, while the piano figure floats over the top. The typewriter reemerges briefly, only to fade back with a slight woodwind colour emerging on the melody. Imagine the world of Brahms meets the typewriter.
UP - MICHAEL GIACCHINO
Michael Giacchino solidified his reputation as a first-call composer with his work on the 2009 Pixar animated film Up. His jazz-influenced score captures the emotional qualities of the film in an effective way – enough to earn him an Academy Award in 2009 for Best Original Score. Coincidently, Up was also the first Pixar film to win the Best Original Score category at the Academy Awards.
One cue in particular has become something of a landmark among recent film music: “Married Life.” In a quote on his personal website, Giacchino remarks that “The first version of the Married Life sequence that Pete showed me was in storyboard form, and I cried even then. It was incredibly powerful to see someone’s life captured within just a few moments – the ups and downs, the joyful times, and the tragic ones. Just from that storyboard, I knew that everyone would immediately relate to the story on an emotional level.”
THE SOCIAL NETWORK - TRENT REZNOR AND ATTICUS ROSS
The synth-heavy score that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross composed for David Fincher’s 2010 film The Social Network about the founding of Facebook (now Meta) is a solid example of a contemporary electronic film score. Relying primarily on synthesisers, sequencers, and drum machines, the duo’s use of ambience and texture propels and accentuates the undercurrents of the film.
Reznor and Ross received the Academy Award for their score in 2010, beating out both Hans Zimmer and Alexandre Desplat. The first cue released just prior to the film was “Hand Covers Bruise”, an atmospheric composition centering around a repeating piano motif.
INTERSTELLAR - HANS ZIMMER
Hans Zimmer and Christopher Nolan have become quite the creative pair. After collaborating on the Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception, Nolan and Zimmer once again joined forces for the 2014 sci-fi epic Interstellar, for which Zimmer was nominated for an Academy Award.
Zimmer primarily relied on the pipe organ at Temple Church in London for the bulk of the score. Nonetheless, Zimmer conjures huge walls of sound that effectively glue the emotional qualities of the film together.
SICARIO - JÓHANN JÓHANNSSON
The dark and tense music that Jóhann Jóhannsson composed for Denis Villeneuve’s 2015 film Sicario captures the violence and ferocity of the conflicts between United States federal agents and the Mexican drug cartels out of Ciudad Juárez. The score was nominated in 2015 for the Academy Award.
The cue “The Beast” has become particularly influential in contemporary film music for its use of a sliding, descending figure in the bass and cello sections. The timbre is reminiscent of the intro to Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” and can now be heard in many contemporary film scores.
JOKER - HILDUR GUÐNADÓTTIR
One of the most powerful and elegant film scores in recent memory is Icelandic composer and cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score for the 2019 film Joker. Primarily based around Guðnadóttir’s idiosyncratic cello playing and incorporating electronic and drone elements as well as orchestral accompaniment, the score conveys the spiral into madness of Aurther Fleck, the Joker.
Guðnadóttir had begun composing demos and sketches before the filming had started – several of her cues were even played on set to establish the proper mood. The cue “Bathroom Dance” would actually spawn an improvised scene that became one of the most iconic scenes of any film in 2019.
A YOUNG CENTURY
Even only at the cusp of the third decade of the 21st century, we’ve already heard some unforgettable accomplishments in the world of cinematic music. How will the artform develop as it closes out its first century? What new technologies will develop and influence composers? How will the uses, purposes, and functions of music in movies shift over in the coming decades? How will the audience’s perspective on film music develop? These will be interesting questions to pursue as we continue exploring as we approach the middle of this decade and beyond.
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Cover Credit: A Paper Creative
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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.