6 Pop Songwriters Turned Film Score Composers

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There has been a trend in recent years where notorious pop and rock musicians and songwriters have been trying their hand at scoring films, whether as a side project or as a new direction in their career path. Of course, this has been done in the past in various ways but it’s becoming more commonplace in and around Hollywood.

Take Son Lux and their frontman Ryan Lott for example. While all three members of this trio have amassed experience as composers, their score to the major motion picture, Everything Everywhere All at Once, was done collaboratively as a full band, and includes collaborations with other pop artists like David Byrne, Mitski, André 3000, and even Randy Newman.

Learn more about how Ryan Lott approaches his sampling, composing, and songwriting processes in his exclusive online course with Soundfly here.

In this article, we’ll look at a few examples of this recent phenomenon and try to understand some of the characteristic features of pop music that are transferable to film music.

Of course, one of the more famous artists in this category is Radiohead’s guitarist and composer Jonny Greenwood, who started a collaboration with director Paul Thomas Anderson back in 2007 with There Will Be Blood. And Greenwood has scored seven full length films since. His scores for large ensembles and his experimental styles and techniques align with 20th century composers like Krzysztof Penderecki.

Yet, since we’ve already discussed Jonny Greenwood’s film music in depth in a previous Flypaper article, we didn’t want to double cover him here; please check that post out if you’re interested to discover more about his fabulously adventurous score work!

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What are some characteristic features of pop music that can be useful to film scoring?

This is definitely a tricky question, since popular music is more or less an umbrella term encompassing a plethora of styles as diverse as hip-hop, shoegaze, gospel, reggaeton, you name it!

Pop tends to differ from Western Classical or orchestral music in the following ways:

  • It is recorded music (as opposed to music transmitted orally)
  • It gravitates around a pitch center (use of scales/tonality/modality)
  • It makes use of many kinds of recorded sound and synthesized elements (and features a diverse timbral palette)
  • It uses looping chords (as opposed to the majority of Western Classical music, which uses harmonic directionality)
  • It uses forms that make abundant use of repetition (song form)

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at some composers scoring films today who are pop artists, and discuss the techniques they employ in their work.

1. Thom Yorke

Our first example is from Greenwood’s bandmate Thom Yorke, who scored Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria in 2018. Here’s a transcription of the first bars of the track “Suspirium:”

This is the main theme in the track (which is in song form, accompanied by piano) and it clearly gravitates around C# minor. The treatment of the harmony is modal: Yorke uses a major chord on the IV of the key, which gives the music a Dorian flavor. He ends the loop with a Picardy third (a major triad on the I — C# instead of C#m), perhaps to reference the ambiguity that pervades the film’s narrative.

Even if this is piano music, the piano writing here draws more from pop music than classical music: the chords move in parallel, with very little voice leading and abundant use of parallel fifths and octaves. This is a characteristic of pop music that originates in how the guitar is typically played (ie: bar chords moving parallel instead of keeping common tones through the progression).

This theme has a haunting beauty, a sort of dark luminosity which comes from the contrasting sound of mostly major chords in a minor progression, along with Yorke’s melancholic, comforting falsetto; a beautiful and evocative example of a song composed specifically for a film.

2 & 3. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis have roots in various rock bands, most notably Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. The duo has recently scored the soundtrack for Marilyn Monroe’s semi-biopic Blonde (2022).

While the Netflix film did stir up some controversy around the exploitation of Monroe’s character, among other aspects, some of the cinematic elements of this work were beautifully crafted; and complimented brilliantly by the music of Cave and Ellis.

Their score lends a sense of empathy and humanity to this otherwise quite blunt biographical study, and includes romantic, tender cues to deepen our identification with the characters.

This is a beautiful piece that reminded me of the ethereal quality of songs from artists such as Sigur Ros. It makes use of looping chords in C minor: A♭ – B♭ – Cm (♭VI – ♭VII – Im). The use of such a loop, orchestrated with roaming synthesized strings, makes a connection with the swirling bodies of the scene, sitting back in the scene and felt more than heard.

On a familiar level (for audiences), listeners have heard these chord progressions a thousand times, and in so many songs, that they immediately feel comforted by the space this music provides.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “Rondo, Rondò, or Rondeau? They Sound the Same But They’re All Different!”

4. Trent Reznor

Another important aspect of pop music that can greatly contribute to film music is variety of timbre. Any recorded sound can be used (and reused in the form of samples) in a pop song — and one artist that has made this into a signature style is Trent Reznor, with his band Nine Inch Nails.

Reznor’s career as a film composer started back in 1994 when he produced the soundtrack for Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. From 2010 on, he has worked consistently in film, collaborating with Atticus Ross on the scores for David Fincher’s films The Social Network (2010), The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011) and Gone Girl (2014), and others.

Here’s an extract from The Social Network.

Reznor uses a low drone on the pitch D, played with an instrument called Swarmatron, a handmade analog synthesizer with eight oscillators and a peculiar sound. Over this layer, the piano plays the very minimal motif of descending intervals. Please note the use of reverb, silence, and space.

Because of the inherent timbral qualities of the synth, audio processing and sound become elements of the composition itself. The Swarmatron’s unpredictable activity over the stereo field (it moves randomly from left to right) makes it more interesting than a static drone, and inform the drama of the scene accordingly.

This hidden quality of a certain timbre shifts the focus of the music away from the notes used, towards other aspects like mood or texture — an important aspect of pop songwriting. In turn, this results in a less assertive construction of musical material, alternatively giving more weight to raw emotional, sensory evocations in the scene’s visual development.

5. Clint Mansell

Another great example of how very simple elements can have a dramatic effect can be seen in the following example by Clint Mansell, who started his career as a member of Pop Will Eat Itself, a British band that combined influences from hip-hop, house, and industrial genres.

Mansell’s career in film began with Darren Aronofsky’s 1996 debut, Pi. But he is much better known for his brilliant score to Requiem For a Dream (2000). Here’s a passage from the main theme of the film:

As we can see, the motif is as simple as it is effective. The part (played by the brilliant Kronos Quartet and arranged by David Lang) is made of three layers: two lines in the bass, a mid-range ostinato layered with a synth part and a theme in the high register. The main theme is literally one motif scattered around rhythmically and has a narrow range of a minor third. The harmonic loop is Gm – E♭ – F (Im – ♭VII – ♭VI in Gm).

The urgency of the string sound and the restricted musical elements used here echo the film’s own main theme: addiction, where patterns of behaviour repeat incessantly until self-destruction is (unwillingly) attained. This is yet another brilliant example of how a combination of very simple elements can achieve dramatic effects.

6. Ryuichi Sakamoto

Finally, we have Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, originally a member of the Yellow Magic Orchestra, a band that was active mostly in the ’80s and mixed several aspects and sub-genres of electronic music. Sakamoto started his career as a film composer in 1983, when he acted in and scored the film Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, also featuring David Bowie as an actor.

Sakamoto’s compositional style draws from his popular music background but also reveals orchestral writing skills. His choice of harmonies is refined, and yet still constructed in the format of repeating loops and song form. The thematic material is evocative of the film’s location, Vietnam.

Sakamoto uses mostly pentatonic material for the main theme but leaves the chords in a liminal space between major and minor (notice how he uses the root-fifth-seventh approach. Another interesting detail is that the main theme appearing in Bar 13 implies the same harmonic progression as the Nick Cave and the Mansell examples (Im – ♭VII – ♭VI).

There are many other examples of successful film composers who started in pop or rock acts: Vangelis, who was part of Greek prog rock band Aphrodite’s Child and composed the famous score for Chariots Of Fire (1981); Danny Elfman, who was part of Oingo Boingo and then scored many of Tim Burton’s early films as well as the theme music to The Simpsons; not to mention Hans Zimmer who started as a keyboard player for a number of bands before starting his career as a film composer in the 1980s.

The familiarity of film audiences with the sounds and styles of pop music helps to make this kind of hybrid music all fit together. In a way, perhaps this trend might not have been possible before the globalization of pop in the last 40 years. Contemporary viewers almost expect it to help tell contemporary stories.

My bet is that we’ll see a lot more of this before we see less.

Don’t stop here!

Continue learning with hundreds of lessons on songwriting, mixing, recording and production, composing, beat making, and more on Soundfly, with artist-led courses by KimbraCom TruiseJlinKiefer, and the new Ryan Lott: Designing Sample-Based Instruments.

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