Hans Zimmer is a titan of the film score world. His music is nearly instantly recognisable and his contributions to the craft and aesthetic of film music have influenced countless generations of composers, not only in the world of cinematic music. His open-minded attitude towards collaboration, experimentation, and sonic possibilities has had profound implications on the business side of film music as well, and helped to transform the way film music is created and produced for large-scale contemporary feature films.
Like Jonny Greenwood, Vangelis, and some of the other film composers we have profiled on Sound of Life, Zimmer does not have any explicit formal training in music. Born in 1957 in Frankfurt, West Germany, Zimmer was drawn to the piano at an early age, but did not care about the discipline of formal lessons. In an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on the social media website Reddit, Zimmer once remarked:
“My formal training was two weeks of piano lessons. I was thrown out of eight schools. But I joined a band. I am self-taught. But I've always heard music in my head. And I'm a child of the 20th century; computers came in very handy.”
Additionally, Zimmer became fascinated by the music of the iconic Italian film composer Ennio Morricone. The inspiration struck Zimmer after hearing Morricone’s excellent score for Once Upon a Time in the West. Zimmer even paid tribute to Morricone in a 2020 article he wrote for Gramophone, saying that:
“Ennio Morricone is the singular talent of the 20th century, as far as film music is concerned. There is nobody else … Ennio for me personally is so above everybody. His inventiveness and his gracefulness and his daring, and at the same time the emotionality, the core truth in his music, the true heart. Which other composer reveals as much about their own heart as Ennio Morricone does?
Zimmer’s career as a composer and musician has seemingly always been intertwined with the technological revolutions in music production over the last five decades. By the late 1970s, Zimmer found himself enmeshed in the London music scene in his early 20s. Much like Jóhann Jóhannsson in Iceland years later, Zimmer found early success from a combination of creative projects and commercial work.
In 1977 he joined the new-wave band The Buggles, famous for the 1979 tune “Video Killed the Radio Star”. A young Zimmer can briefly be seen in their music video for the tune, which was coincidentally the first music video ever played on MTV.
By the early 1980s, Zimmer had partnered with the prolific British film composer Stanley Myers. The two founded a recording studio together, Lillie Yard. At this point, the primary aesthetic influence that would define Zimmer’s career and propel him to the top of the film scoring world would emerge: the fusion of orchestra and electronic instruments.
An Astounding Catalogue of Cues
In a career spanning over 40 years, Zimmer has composed music for over 150 films. That is roughly 3.75 films per year, every year, for 40 years – a truly astounding achievement, no matter how you view it.
He has long-standing collaborations with several directors – including Christopher Nolan – and runs a production company, Remote Control Productions, that has developed into a major powerhouse in the world of blockbuster movie scores.
Let’s take a look at a handful of Zimmer cues through the years.
“Journey to the Line” from The Thin Red Line
Hans Zimmer had already composed his breakthrough scores for 1988’s Rain Man and 1994’s The Lion King, when he sat down to score Terrance Malick’s 1998 World War II drama, The Thin Red Line. However, neither of those previous pictures had produced such a memorable cue as “Journey to the Line.” The cue has become a Hollywood go-to for dramatic sequences and is so frequently used in temp music by directors that it has earned the nickname “The Forbidden Cue.”
Zimmer eventually wrote several hours of music before Malick began shooting the film. Accordingly, Malick played the compositions on the set to prepare the actors and crew and set the tone for the work. Malick’s original cut of The Thin Red Line ran almost five hours long, featuring nearly four hours of Zimmer’s music, most of which was unfortunately discarded in the final cut.
“Time” from Inception
The cue “Time” from Christopher Nolan’s 2010 surrealist sci-fi film Inception is a classic piece of Zimmer writing. Based around a repeating, four-chord progression, the cue builds out of nothing, cascading and evolving much like the characters in Inception who dance seamlessly between layers of dreams.
Beginning softly with the piano, the cue begins to build tension with a combination of passionate cello melodies, driving rhythms, and subtle guitars until eventually reaching an epic conclusion in an enormous crescendo of horns and violins – a Zimmer trademark. Zimmer’s scores are nothing if not huge, and this cue is a perfect example of his trademark aesthetic.
“Paul’s Dream” from Dune
In classic Zimmer fashion, the cue “Paul’s Dream” from Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 adaptation of Dune begins from nearly nothing. An orb-like pulse opens the cue, with wind-like synths echoing and whirling through the atmosphere before a mystical melody emerges on the cello. The music swirls gently around itself for some time, before a deep, powerful bass hit awakens us. Percussive hits and whizzing synths build into a more developed and distorted melodic figure in compound time. The cue is full of sounds that are not easily identifiable – perfectly fitting for an epic, alien universe like that of Dune.
“Elysium” from Gladiator
Zimmer’s score for Ridley Scott’s 2000 epic about the Roman Empire, Gladiator, was a massively successful work. Full of epic movements, rich orchestral writing, and beautiful modal melodies, the score is quintessential Zimmer in an environment perfectly suited to his skills.
The cue “Elysium” is the melodic accompaniment for General Maximus Decimus Meridius and his various visions of his murdered family. Opening with a misty string pad, a reverb-laden vocal melody captures our attention, carrying us triumphantly through the cue.
“This Land” from The Lion King
Hans Zimmer sealed the deal for himself as one of the premier contemporary film composers with his achievements on 1994’s Disney classic The Lion King, earning himself an Oscar for Best Original Score along the way. The plot follows the story of a young lion, Simba, who is thrust unwillingly into a position of great responsibility when his evil uncle Scar kills his father Mufasa. The story is timeless and full of metaphors and similes.
The cue “This Land” opens with a light melody on the flute that is quickly enveloped by a lush orchestral texture of strings, horns, and choir. The flourish fades into a mellow interlude before another rush of epic orchestral melody envelopes us, only to fade once more before finally transforming into a triumphant celebration.
Over his four-decade career, Hans Zimmer has transformed the world of film music. His trademark sound, smashing a rock band and an orchestra together, have produced some of the most epic film music ever made. With more scores lined up for 2022 and beyond, including the second installment of the Dune series, we look forward to hearing what this titan of the cinematic music universe composes next.
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Cover Credit: Mario Beauregard Beaustock/Alamy Stock Photo
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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.