IMO: Film Scores

When I select “film scores” on Pandora, I try to guess the film and the composer while I write, grade papers, or blog. Do you play that game? John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith utilized full, melodramatic orchestras with a signature sound that echoed in your head long after the film was over. Just playing the main song links the film to history. High-handed manipulation? You bet.  How many mediocre story lines are elevated because the musical score became a character itself, going along with the ride, telling you how to feel at every turn, alerting you to upcoming doom? Star Wars IV is a prime example.

Before those two heavy-weights, excluding musicals, classic films such as Gone with the Wind (Max Steineror The Magnificent Seven (Elmer Bernstein) had their signature sound but there was enough intermittent silence to allow the actors to speak. The score was saved for the opening, transitions, and the end. This was expected and pleasing.

In my opinion, there has been a shift away from full orchestral compositions in the last, say, 20 years. Now more than ever contemporary songs fill in as background music to the events. Second, dramatic films are increasingly not using much music at all. The effect is a stark and unsettling as the silence fills the space. Third, instead of full orchestras, now we hear more lighter chamber music such as string quartets, duets or singular instruments. Fourth, urban-mechanical grindings and hammering simulate apocalyptic or the robotic presence. All of these changes have intruded the orchestra.

To claim one style is superior than the other is subjective. I can tell you my favorite all-around composer who did all styles was James Horner. However, my favorite scores of all time do not belong to Horner, they belong to Leonard Bernstein, Alexandre Desplat, Philip Glass, and Rachel Portman. 

I miss the full orchestrations and the effort to sweep me off my feet. I enjoy it when the music and I attend the story. I also think it’s best to stick to one style instead of including part orchestration, part contemporary song tunes. My least favorite style is when there’s very little music at all.

Who’s your favorite composer? Your favorite score? Here’s mine by Rachel Portman. It’s breathtaking.

36 thoughts on “IMO: Film Scores

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  1. Great post. I have listened to the soundtracks for a classic Bond film – lots of beautiful orchestrations and then you get jolted back to life by an action sequence! I also love the soundtrack for “Shaft” – Isaac Hayes delivers an iconic title track and then an hours worth of soul and jazz…really terrific! I have also attended several Hollywood Bowl nights with the music of John Williams…and 10,000 light sabers fill the bowl as the opening notes of “Star Wars” take off….

    1. Welcome! There are the staple ultra-successful leaders, but there are so many others who have contributed. I’m glad you mentioned ‘Magnolia’. It resonates with you, and I’m glad you shared.

  2. I have rarely placed film music in the same category as the films themselves, as some people do. Though many themes are memorable of course; Dr Zhivago, The Godfather, and the wonderful music from Lawrence of Arabia, to name a few.
    I personally love it when a soundtrack captures the period or era of a film so well. So for me, my absolute favourite is this, (excerpt, not full soundtrack) from The Draughtsman’s Contract. (1982)

    Best seen in context, obviously, so here’s the trailer.

    Did I mention it is my favourite period film of all time? Or did you guess?

    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. Pete, I’m so sorry your links didn’t come through, because I really wanted to check them out. I’m sorry I’ve not seen ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’. I did find this example and wonder if it is what you meant:

      You like horns and violins, then?

      1. That’s funny. I can see and play my links, but I cannot play yours. That’s it though, Michael Nyman. Old-fashioned instruments and violins, so appropriate to the period.

  3. It’s wonderful to see kudos for Rachel Portman, who I agree is superb. My favorite score of hers was for The Cider House Rules. I have too many favorite film composers to name. (You probably remember I used to work in film mixing and scoring.) If forced to limit it to five, I would choose Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith, Alex North, Ennio Morricone and anyone named Newman (Alfred/Lionel/Randy/Thomas – all great). I’m a bit sad that most of my favorites are dead, but most of my favorite non-film composers are too.

    Note how much North’s mixture of modern and exotic ancient instruments adds to this:

    1. Mikey, welcome back! It’s sad there are very few women in the business that’s managed to elbow up to the table with the boys. I like the score for Cider House, as well. She has a breezy, spritely sound and flow of notes. I lover her instrument choices. I feel the same way about Dario Marianelli. ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is perfect. Here’ my favorite:

      1. Hey Cindy! I just rewatched P&P and man that score is just luminous and brilliant!

        Glad you mentioned Rachel Portman as I adore her score for BELLE, which I hope you have seen. It’s one of my all time fave period dramas now, and the score is absolutely beautiful.

        As for John Williams, well I have several CDs of his Best-Of collection so yeah I’m a big fan 🙂

  4. Love seeing blog posts about film scores! I don’t feel like that is talked about enough sometimes when it comes to the medium. I post about them sometimes too.

    RIP James Horner. Did you hear his last score in The Magnificent Seven? Has done better, but some cuts are really impressive.

    1. Welcome, Jackson! Was the Mag 7 score similar to the classic? It’s on the list to see, the redux, but honestly, the traditionalist in me doesn’t want to see it. The original is too iconic to redux. Like redoing ‘The Wizard of Oz’. I wouldn’t go see that, either. 😉
      BUT, if Horner scored it, now I am curious.

    1. I bought Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Spielberg had full reign of summer entertainment in the later half of the 70s, didn’t he, made more famous by his relationship with J. Williams.

    1. I am SOOO glad for your sound out to Carter Burwell! He’s scored some favorite films of mine and I didn’t know it. God and Monsters. In Bruges. Hail, Caesar!Conspiracy Theory. Hamlet. Being John Malkovich.
      Wow. I’m sure the music had something to do with it. Of course it did. Thanks, Paul.

  5. So many to mention !!!
    Hans Zimmer’s music for The Da Vinci Code was powerful.
    The Lord of the RIngs …
    Theme music for Game of Thrones. (Does that count?)
    Could go on and on …

  6. Very thought-provoking post. I share your feelings about full orchestra film scores, but I also believe it depends on a movie. With some films less full-blown and grandiose scores may actually work better. I just absolutely love the orchestral score to Harry Potter composed by John Williams. It just something out of this world. I don’t have one favourite composer. I loved Desplat’s work in the Painted Veil, but I equally love Marianelli’s scores in both Atonement and in Pride & Prejudice, Newman’s score in the Revolutionary Road and Nyman’s in the Piano. Having said that Gabriel Yared’s work in the English Patient was the work of a genius, so I’ll go with this one 🙂

    1. Wow! Your list could very well be mine! All of your choices are personal favorites. What is it about the violin and cello that pulls at the heartstrings? I saw that you “liked” the recent Lucky 13 Film Club topic, Allied. In that post, my major complaint with the movie was that it lacked a score. It would have helped the film a lot. I thought of Gabriel Yared or John Barry (Dances with Wolves) and wished they had had a chance to create some beautiful music….Thanks so much for your comments!

      1. Yes, my favourite of John Barry’s is Out of Africa, and I love how the movie opens up with the score. I am yet to see Allied, but I totally agree that a score is a very important component of a film, no matter whether it is action or romance.

  7. Gabriel’s Oboe from The Mission by Ennio Morricone. We played it when my wife and I signed the registry. A great post Cindy. There is a guy I follow on YouTube named Oliver Harper who does film retrospective videos. He had made to gain a new appreciation of film scores with his videos and he has also spoken about how film scores how changing and becoming less orchrestral. I do feel something is lost there. Although I dig Hanz Zimmer’s later stuff and really enjoyed the score for Mad Max: Fury Road. But then you hear something like The Last Starfighter or The Rocketeer wonder. Thanks for your post.

    1. I have been watching a lot of films from the 90s, 80s, 70s, and 60s. Take John Williams — his scores are downright melodramatic in his films. Sweeping, constant, superseding the dialogue. You don’t get that these days.

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