Because filmgoers have recently been totally showered with spectacular scores in the past few years, I wanted to turn the spotlight towards ten film scores that I feel are essential listening, especially to help understand how we got to where we are today.
The following scores were approached in a way that pushes the boundaries of music composition for the cinema, and in the process, made these pieces and songs somewhat iconic in popular culture as well.
It’s important for me to state that these scores are in no way considered to be “better composed” than others that have been left off; and that they are not listed in any particular order either. *Also, we’re entering spoiler-alert territory, so if you haven’t seen any of these titles and you want to keep away from revelations about the plot, I suggest you watch the films first.
1. Birdman (2014)
A drums-only score for a film.
This film was directed by Alejandro G. Iñarritu, and its score is one of the most peculiar that I can think of. Composed mostly for drums and percussion by Antonio Sánchez, I remember being quite impressed by this quirky choice when I saw the film for the first time. The soundtrack is also interspersed with pieces from the classical repertoire.
Sánchez is well known in the jazz international scene, having played with Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, and Michael Brecker among many others; and here, all of his mastery in jazz drumming is on full display. His choice to use non-tuned percussion can almost be seen as a parallel between the main character’s confused psychological state and the apparent randomness of jazz drum soloing.
In the cue above, the drum textures mimic someone walking with the use of a constant drone-like sound of the cymbals, enriched by drumming on very different pieces of the drum set. These are played in different spots, creating a psychological parallel between the constant physical movement and the randomly emerging activity of a disturbed mind.
2. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Texture and microtonality applied to film music.
We have already looked at some of the score’s characteristics in this film by Paul Thomas Anderson in a previous article here on Flypaper. Composed by Johnny Greenwood, lead guitarist for the band Radiohead, this film is a precious resource for how to make use of orchestral timbre in a score. Greenwood’s love for the music of the recently deceased Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki is here in full bloom: the score contains adaptations of Greenwood’s work Popcorn Superhet Receiver, a textural piece for large orchestra consisting in long, droney, chromatic and microtonal textures which function as a counterpart to the bleak and vast spaces in the film.
The composer’s focus here is not about creating thematic material and variating it to help unfold the events in the film in a classical fashion, but rather representing musically a more central theme of the film: the dark desire of man wanting to interfere with nature for his own gain.
For example, in the above cue, entitled “Henry Plainview,” the choice to use drones which move according to intervals smaller than the semitone suggests a parallel link with the bleak landscapes portrayed in the film. These are vast, seemingly never-changing sceneries which are paradoxically also in constant movement, just like the quality of the oil that they carry in their “womb.”
3. Psycho (1960)
A new sound for strings.
One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most acclaimed films was also one of the most controversial films of the 1960s. Before this film, nobody in popular cinema showed a woman in lingerie, or a toilet bowl, in a movie. The “shower scene” — probably one of the most iconic and influential scenes in modern cinema — also created stir for featuring a naked woman taking a shower. Those were indeed different times.
Composer Bernard Herrmann, Hitchcock’s long-time collaborator, was commissioned this score. Herrmann chose to mirror this black and white film with a “black and white” tonal palette: he limited the timbral choice to a string orchestra. However, the strings in Psycho don’t sound anywhere as lush as the strings in most Hollywood films — they scratch, move, disturb, and even stab!
The story goes that Hitchcock in fact didn’t want any music at all underscoring the shower scene, and warned Herrmann that he wouldn’t accept anything. But when Hitchcock left for a couple of weeks on vacation, Herrmann came up with the brilliant idea to translate the killer’s knife slashes with a high-pitched violin glissando, played staccato, that expanded towards the lower register in intervals of a flat 9th (one of the most dissonant intervals there is). When Hitchcock came back from his holiday, he allowed Hermann one chance to convince him that the scene could benefit from music. The rest is history.
4. Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Where string textures and electronic music meet.
Darren Aronofsky’s second feature film features one of the most iconic scores of the last couple of decades, composed by Clint Mansell. The style of the film is very frantic, featuring fast-paced edits, and it’s built in a sort of collage form. The film deals with the topic of drug addiction in a broad sense, displaying misuse of both heavy and prescription drugs. While the score for this film was composed by Mansell, it was orchestrated by David Lang and performed by the Kronos Quartet.
It features a mixture of organic string sounds with elements of electronic sounds such as synths and beats, which is at times pretty and at other times harsh. The music in this film is a great example of how very simple material can be manipulated into haunting and remarkable variations. The music’s incessant motivic repetition contributes to a hectic sense of urgency and despair that the film also conveys in narrative.
Let’s listen to the cue above. Are you able to tell organic sounds from synthesized sounds? This difficult-to-discern mixture of relentless timbres mirrors two important aspects of the film. On the one hand, the film’s characters have a difficult time discerning reality from drug-fuelled perception and hallucination; and in a broader sense, this unceasingly intense score and the unclear nature of its sounds reminds me of mankind’s compulsive search for an illusory form of happiness.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “How Engineer Brian Losch Creates Big, Immersive Mixes of Orchestral Film Music.”
5. Gravity (2013)
Spatialization and mixing as a composing tool.
This acclaimed film by Alfonso Cuarón was scored by Steven Price. The score is quite innovative in that it purposely keeps away from the clichés of action film music (e.g.: there is very little use of drums and percussion). What is more, the score was conceived and engineered for full surround-sound performance — just like in the sound editing, all musical and designed sounds move in the stereo surround field according to how they would be perceived in real life by the characters in the film.
This approach also entails the use of pure vibrations, just like an astronaut would hear in space, through a spacesuit. The mixing process and the spatialization of sounds in this film is an integral part of the composition process, therefore displaying a groundbreaking alternative approach to the composition aspect of film music, expanding the usual palette and role of the composer.
The positioning of sounds is of great importance in the fields of musique concrète and electroacoustics, since the tonal framework is joined by other elements such as timbre, found sounds, distance from the listener, and other neglected aspects central to the listener’s experience (more so than melody or harmony for example).
6. Drive (2011)
A postmodern use of pop music.
This film, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, features Johnny Jewel from the band Chromatics as its musical composer. The truly groundbreaking approach this film took can be found in the way the songs are edited to the visuals — essentially by extrapolating pre-existing lyrics and tuning them to the feelings and perspectives of each character in the story.
This approach is commonly used in TV synchs, where music editors often remix the stems so that the sonic characteristics of a pop song can be re-used in a custom context. This is a sort of “music recycling” technique that not only gives bands an opportunity for exposure and — let’s be honest — a decent revenue stream from their recorded work but also solves issues like workflow speed and pressing deadlines. Yet it’s used less so in films because it tends to dangerously undermine the role of the score composer.
Anyway, in Drive, and in this scene in particular, we hear the song “A Real Hero” by College (feat. Electric Youth) used to hint at the nature of the main character, who — despite being an aloof and merciless driver for criminals — is the only person who shows humanity and actually helps people in the film.
+ Learn more on Soundfly: Create deep, complex chord progressions and jazz harmonies with Soundfly’s highly-acclaimed course The Creative Power of Advanced Harmony.
7. The Shining (1980)
Experimental on so many different levels.
Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece features a fantastic score and soundtrack. In this film, as in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick makes use of bits of classical music from a wide range of periods: from Hector Berlioz to Bela Bartòk to Krzysztof Penderecki. Berlioz’s excerpt is taken from his famous masterpiece “Symphonie Fantastique,” one of the most brilliantly orchestrated pieces and such an innovative work for its time.
This piece also features psychedelic synthesizers by composer Wendy Carlos. The transgender composer had been pioneering synth modelling over classical pieces since 1968, when her synth arrangements of Bach’s works ended up forming the album Switched-on Bach. Her The Well-Tempered Synthesizer also mirrors Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” in a quite a significant way: both composers were at the time writing for “new” instruments. While Bach was composing pieces which would end up demonstrating the possibilities of the new tempered system, Carlos was composing for synths that, thanks to Robert Moog, were now equipped with a keyboard to input notes from.
On a side note, Bartok’s “Music for String, Percussion and Celesta,” used in the soundtrack, features a symmetric construction both in terms of microstructure (pitches) and macrostructure (form). This piece mirrors effectively Kubrick’s use of symmetry in the construction of his shots visually.
8. The Good the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Classical themes that sound like popular music.
Sergio Leone’s famous western was scored by none other than composer Ennio Morricone. This score is quite innovative in both its concept and compositional execution. Firstly, this is one of the few cases of a composer scoring the themes before the film has even been shot and a director shaping some of his scenes around the music. This fact should already give you an idea of the importance of the music in this film.
Morricone had a formal classical training, but he also worked a lot for Italian TV shows, and thus collaborated with famous Italian singers throughout the ’60s; and so his style gradually became a mix of orchestral and pop forms. But he also experimented highly with unpredictable techniques and sounds.
One such example can be found in this film’s cue entitled “The Sundown,” whereby a classical guitar is playing an “incorrect” style. Its strings are pulled so strongly that the pitch bends slightly, creating new timbres and a tiny amount of dissonance often considered a “mistake” in classical music. This performative choice reveals a musical representation of the photographic effect of a desert in high temperatures — that hazy visual mist that hot air creates.
Among other timbral experimentations, Morricone makes use of unusual sounds for an orchestral setting; such as surf-rock electric guitar, triple tonguing trumpets, a coyote-mimicking ocarina, and so on. Needless to say, cues like “The Ecstasy of Gold” above have massively influenced both film music and popular music over time.
9. Jaws (1975)
A modern classical approach to film composition.
Our list would not be complete without this masterpiece, filmed by Steven Spielberg and scored by the great John Williams. Williams’ scores are probably the most acclaimed in the whole film music industry, and rightly so. In this example, one among many possible choices, he makes use of the most simple compositional means to build an astonishingly remarkable score. The main building block of this construction is the interval of a minor second, the most unsettling interval there is.
This interval is so dissonant because of the harmonics inherent in these notes (E and F for example). This interval is played firstly as a distant sound and then it is repeated faster and faster in order to mimic the arrival of a shark, or perhaps the speeding up of one’s heartbeat from such an anxious encounter. The horn notes on top of this string ostinato are also derived from a minor second (a little bit like the music in the shower scene in Psycho).
This score, as a lot of William’s music, is reminiscent of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in both its treatment of accents and orchestration. Compare the main theme string parts with the “Augurs of Spring” and you will get an idea of how much “borrowing” took place. This is obviously not intended as a critique, but rather as a way to note how much film music has helped getting modern and contemporary classical music out of concert halls and into popular culture, whether the audiences realize it or not.
10. Joker (2019)
Timbre as a motivic representation of character.
This film, directed by Todd Phillips, was scored by Hildur Guðnadóttir. The Icelandic composer did a wonderful job of it, and ended up winning an Academy Award for her score. The treatment of the music reflects the overall take on the character of the Joker, which for a comic book story is as far from a comic-aligned film as you can get.
Our anti-hero, Joker, is depicted in all his fragile human psychology and the music reflects this approach very convincingly. Guðnadóttir uses the cello as the main instrument for the score. However, the themes are often doubled by numerous instruments in the orchestra, creating layers that inhabit the background, constituting a “timbral curtain,” rather than being embellished by harmonic or contrapuntal enrichment.
In this way, the composer manages to mirror Joker’s deepest psychological pits with texturally and timbrally rich sound design as underscore. The textures are dense, thick, and frankly, quite unsettling. This score shows how a composer can push the psychological elements in film music even further than the visuals can anticipate.
Don’t stop here!
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