Watching a movie can be a magical experience, but did you know that the music in the films we watch has always been an integral part of creating that magical experience?
In celebration of the 2023 Oscars, we thought we'd look at the ever-important role of music composition in cinematic storytelling. Read on or watch the video below to learn more about how music is used in movies to affect our emotions.
From iconic scores from films like Star Wars, The Dark Knight, Harry Potter, and more, we'll explore how these themes help give a movie its identity by taking a look at some of the most influential film composers of the time, including John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, and Trent Reznor, and analyze what makes them so unique and effective at telling a story through sound.
And while you're grabbing your popcorn from the microwave, we must disclose that naturally, since we will be exploring major plot points and how music relates to them, there may be possible spoilers. However, these films have been around for quite some a while. But just in case, we will list all the movies mentioned at the bottom of this blog post.
Have you ever watched a movie and just been moved to tears or felt like there's more to your emotional response implicated by more than just the dialogue or storyline?
Well, it might just be that the music chosen in that movie scene also impacts your emotions. Music and film are inextricably linked, and original music from a movie is often just as recognizable as one of the characters.
But when cinema began, it didn't even include music or even any sound at all. So when did music become such an important part of movies?
Take it back to 1888, when French inventor Louis Le Pros made what is considered to be the very first film, called Roudhay Garden Scene. Its duration was just under three seconds and featured some very fancy French people walking around in a garden.
This short film kicked off what is known as the silent film era, and although you've probably seen a silent film or two and know that they have no sound at all, what you might not know is that when people originally watched these films in theaters they did, in fact, hear music.
But rather than being part of the film itself, the music would be played in real-time through phonograph or by real-life musicians. Sometimes it was a small orchestra playing a classical piece, or sometimes it was a pianist improvising based on what they saw in the film. Either way, music has been a part of the film-going experience from the very beginning.
In 1927, advancements in recording technology allowed sound to be synced to Celluloid film, and the first talkie, a film aptly named The Jazz Singer, allowed viewers to be able to hear the main actors sing jazz for the very first time.
And with that, the world entered the Golden Age of modern cinema, and composers began to be commissioned by Hollywood to write custom music for their films. "Film composer" became a whole new profession for musicians, and original music became an integral part of telling a story on the big screen. The first film composers mostly came from orchestral backgrounds, writing big orchestral pieces to match the movie's theme.
Max Steiner, known as the father of film music, utilized a classical composition technique called "leitmotif," in which he assigned specific recurring instruments or musical phrases to announce characters and situations, giving the audience a frame of reference and sense of familiarity with different elements of the story.
This classical scoring technique has become a staple in almost every film composer's repertoire and is used to reflect and parallel a film's narrative, plot, themes, and mood.
One of the masters of "leitmotif" and possibly one of the most well-known film composers in history is John Williams. Think of any iconic film score from the past 50 years; there's a good chance that John Williams composed it.
Whether it's that haunting two-note theme from Jaws, the adventurous and exciting theme from Indiana Jones, or the plucky yet mysterious theme from Harry Potter, Williams's compositions tend to stick in the minds of the audience so much so that his compositions are almost as much a part of the story as any of the film's main characters. With a background in traditional orchestrating, Williams's scores are big, lush productions that utilize every piece of the orchestra: string, bass, woodwinds, percussion, and even sometimes a vocal choir to reflect and emphasize what's taking place on the screen. Utilizing "leitmotif," he'll often dress character themes with different instrumentation displaying the character's emotional journey throughout the story.
Take, for example, The Force theme from Star Wars. Listen to how Williams dresses the melody in different musical outfits, so to speak, to convey the character arc of Luke Skywalker. There's the innocent "I'm just learning about the force" outfit, "Now that's the name I've not heard in a long time, a long time." The profoundly emotional "I understand the force" outfit And the triumphant "I just used the force to kick some butt" outfit. With this firm grasp of themes or "leitmotif, " Williams has composed some of the most memorable film scores of the last half-century.
Even though American film music started with a more orchestral flavor, it evolved to reflect the more popular music of the time, incorporating Jazz, Pop, and Western themes throughout movies of the 1950s and 60s.
Following their own curious inclinations, composers began using musical tonalities and instrumentation from other parts of the world to evoke more exotic settings and global stories. They even started experimenting with, bending, and breaking the more traditional orchestral formats and rules, making some fresh and unexpected choices with their music.
Take, for instance, Danny Elfman: "From my heart and from my head, why don't people understand my intentions." Unlike John Williams, Danny Elfman came from a much less traditional background getting his start in more avant-garde street performance and, eventually, his new wave band, Oingo Boingo, Elfman's musical tastes were a bit more eclectic than your average film composer.
In fact, when he was first approached by Tim Burton to compose the music for Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Elfman was slightly apprehensive given his lack of traditional training. As it turned out, his unorthodox approach to music paired him perfectly with Burton's unorthodox approach to filmmaking. And thus, the signature Danny Elfman sound was born.
This quirky style makes for a fun yet poignant musical experience, and while his music does often utilize a full orchestra, he tends to feature instruments that may not typically be featured, playing melodies that may not typically be played.
Elfman and Burton became long-time creative collaborators, and Danny Elfman went on to score many of Burton's other films, such as Nightmare Before Christmas, Batman, and Edward Scissorhands.
However, our personal favorite Elfman composition wasn't for a film at all but it was the composition of the them for the iconic television show, The Simpsons.
As technology and music advanced, so too did the world of musical film composition. Synthesizers, samplers, computer-based, and digital analog music continued to broaden the creative possibilities for film composers and had an enormous impact on the way film music was created.
Giant technological leaps were reflected in movie scores along side VFX, as heard in the synth-heavy films Terminator, Tron, and Blade Runner.
Eventually, the introduction of DAWs and virtual instruments expanded the tools at a composer's fingertips, giving them a broad palette of sounds, effects, and customizations.
Enter Hans Zimmer; like Danny Elfman, Zimmer didn't come from a traditional orchestral music background. He's a self-taught musician and began his career composing on synthesizers. Zimmer's first big film score was for Rain Man.
Still, you probably know him from almost every Christopher Nolan movie ever made, from Inception to Interstellar and other box office bangers like The Lion King, The Dark Knight trilogy, and Sherlock Holmes.
Zimmer is known for integrating electronic sounds with symphonic instrumentation and doing so in a very rock-and-roll fashion. He's the master of finding new and interesting ways to use technology to manipulate the sounds of more traditional instruments and create something entirely new. Take his theme for the Joker in The Dark Knight.
Zimmer wanted to convey the manic feeling of a wire that keeps tightening and tightening and tightening but never breaks, so he enlisted the help of his friend Martin Tillman and had him play a single note on the cello that would slowly rise in pitch but never end. He then ran that sound through a bunch of digital processing, and out came the perfect musical companion to Heath Ledger's unforgettable performance in The Dark Knight as the Joker.
The approach to film composition continues to evolve with the introduction of new technology and creative possibilities. While the traditional orchestra will always have its place in Hollywood, a more sparse, minimal, and mood-based approach has become increasingly more popular. Many films today have chosen to trade in the triumphant strings, horns, and woodwinds of an orchestra for the subtly diversity and uniqueness of a more technologically-driven sound which brings us to Trent Reznor. Yes, that Trent Reznor.
Most of us know Trent as the frontman of Nine Inch Nails, but he and his creative collaborator, Atticus Ross, have also scored several films including The Social Network, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl.
Reznor and Ross completely buck the traditional film score system using almost exclusively electronic instruments and synths in their scores, and rather than relying on "leitmotif" or themes to create framework and familiarity for the audience, they create textures and musical enviromental vibes to build tension, leaving room for the audience to bring their own interpretation to the movie.
If a John Williams score is like the main character in a film, a Reznor-Atticus score is, like the ghost lurking around the corner. All these techniques and concepts are still present in film music being created today.
The 2023 Oscar nominations for Best Original Film Score include composers for films across many genres, using a wide range of instrumentation. The nominees include veteran composers like John Williams for the Fabelmans, and newcomers like Son Lux for Everything Everywhere All at Once. All of the nominated composers approached scoring each film with their own unique sound and tools.
So the next time you watch a movie, see if you can pay close attention to what the music is doing. Ask yourself, "How would this scene feel if the music were different? Is the composer trying to tell me how I should feel? Or are they merely nudging me in an emotional direction?"
Movie Clips Star Wars:
The Force Awakens - Walt Disney Studios Edward Scissor Hands - 20th Century Fox The Dark Knight - Warner Bros. Pictures Raiders of the Lost Ark - Paramount Pictures Star Wars: A New Hope - 20th Century Fox Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back - 20th Century Fox Star Wars: Return of the Jedi - 20th Century Fox Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl - Buena Vista Pictures Avengers: Endgame - Walt Disney Studios Roundhay Garden Scene - Louis Le Prince The Jazz Singer - Warner Bros. Pictures The General - United Artists Modern Times - United Artists A Dog’s Life - First National Pictures The Lodger - Woolf & Freedman Film Sherlock Jr. - Metro-Goldwyn Pictures Jaws - Universal Pictures Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone - Warner Bros. PicturesA Fistful of Dollars - Unidis/Constantin Film/Izaro Films Pee Wee’s Big Adventure - Warner Bros. Pictures The Nightmare Before Christmas - Buena Vista Pictures Batman - Warner Bros. Pictures The Simpsons - 20th Television Terminator: Judgement Day - Sri-Star Pictures Tron - Buena Vista Distribution Blade Runner - Warner Bros. Pictures Inception - Warner Bros Pictures/Legendary Pictures/Syncopy 12 Years a Slave - Entertainment One/Fox Searchlight Pictures/Summit Entertainment Rainman - MGM/UA Communications Co. The Lion King - Buena Vista Pictures/Walt Disney Pictures Sherlock Holmes - Warner Bros. Pictures Interstellar - Paramount Pictures/Warner Bros. Pictures Gladiator - DreamWorks Distribution/Universal Pictures The Social Network - Sony Pictures/Colombia Pictures The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo - Sony Pictures Gone Girl - 20th Century Fox Everything Everywhere All At Once - A24 Danny Elfman Teaches
Music For Film - Masterclass Music Something Lurking - Christopher Hayzel Walk The Plank - Klaus Badelt The Jazz Singer - Louis SilversMedley (Casablanca) - Max Steiner The Force Theme - John Williams Prologue (Harry Potter and the Sorcers Stone) - John Williams A Fistful of Dollars - Ennio Morricone Weird Science - Oingo Boingo Breakfast Machine - Danny Elfman The Simpsons Opening Theme - Danny Elfman Blade Runner (End Titles) - Vangelis Day One (Interstellar Theme - Hans Zimmer Why So Serious? - Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard Every Night - Trent Rexnor/Atticus Ross Terrible Lie - Nine Inch Nails Technically, Missing - Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross Come Recover (Empathy Fight) - Son Lux Oscar Theme Music - Greg Hulme