The Importance of Scoring in Films

Lots of the magic behind films comes from the music

Every song has a story. Even instrumental music can tell its listeners a story: a slow, weeping song of two star-crossed lovers, or a cymbal-filled exciting story of a great battle between two armies. It’s virtually impossible to have a song that doesn’t tell some kind of story, or evoke some kind of emotion in its listeners. Maybe that’s why we humans have a tendency to listen to music so often; that way we always have a story other than our own to accompany us on our journeys and give us strength through difficult times. These songs provide this emotional strength to films, and give them narrative as well as something further than just acting for viewers to connect to. Basically, the score just adds an extra dimension to the movie. Instead of just appealing to viewers’ visual senses, they now appeal to the visual and the auditory senses. It’s basic science really- the more senses that are appealed to, the more interesting a person will find something (in some cases- not all). Yet there are so many different ways to do this. Using music itself to create tension, using the sound of a quickening heartbeat to quicken viewers’ heartbeats, or even the artistic use of silence to leave the audience in wonder and anticipation. For this reason and many others, soundtracks are an extremely important piece of the magical puzzle that becomes films- without them, an entire dimension is lost, making it much more difficult for audience members to disappear from their own world into the new world the film invites them into.

There is no more famous score in the entire world than the score for Star Wars. To simply close one’s eyes and imagine Darth Vader’s heavy breath and the dramatic sweep of his cape behind him is to hear the Imperial March playing. To even hear the two words: Star Wars is to hear the main theme blasting magnificently out of whatever speakers may be near. If you’re a bit more of a Star Wars nerd, you could probably hear “Duel of the Fates”, or “Battle of the Heroes”, or even “Luke and Leia” and know exactly what would be happening in the movie without the movie even needing to be present. And that’s only one movie and one composer. Just think about the many thousands of thousands of movies and thousands of notes that are strung together to make movies more memorable. The number of songs? Infinite.

Now, Star Wars isn’t the only classical soundtrack that’s reached critical acclaim. Hans Zimmer and his soundtracks for the Pirates of the Caribbean movies haven been noticed worldwide for the magic they give the film. The happy violin in “He’s a Pirate” makes listeners smile while watching Jack Sparrow and his crazy antics on screen. The rushing bass line, slowly growing bigger and faster, announcing the Black Pearl makes listeners feel apprehensive, their chests tightening as they see the black ship appear in the distance. “The Medallion Calls” holds that note of apprehension, but builds to show the true beauty and power the real medallion holds. These are songs that not only fit in directly with the movie as it is being played, but also give listeners the very same goosebumps they had the first time they saw the film without the film present. As it is, when you listen closely, you realise that the music ebbs and flows, from slow and quiet to fast and loud, much like the ocean itself. It is these notes and these songs that give these scenes that extra punch of power, and make them the memorable scenes that we know them as. Would simply watching the Black Pearl approach be as intimidating without the terrifyingly strong bass line behind it? No way!

Pirates of The Caribbean-Soundtrack(Hans Zimmer)

Consider, for a moment, the shivers that you experienced when you first saw the ring appear in Lord of the Rings. Did they emerge solely from the vision of a ring, never seen before, or was it the eerily beautiful yet haunting violin melody that brought out those goosebumps? Was it the sight of the Nazgul, or was it the bass line’s crescendos and decrescendos that brought about the tight spot of anxiety in the audience’s bellies? Was it the hobbits themselves that made viewers smile, or was it the bright and cheerful piccolo line that brought about that feeling of joy and the intense need to dance a jig? As much as these images may bring about a similar emotion, the scoring heightens that emotion, pulling it closer to your heart and making it more memorable for all occasions. Especially in the case of the ring motif, it also focuses you in on the images on the screen, pulling you into the movie more than just the images may have been able to.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 uses silence extremely artistically. Instead of keeping scores in every single minute of the film, the composer instead chose to leave certain moments in silence; allowing the actors emotions to come across unchanged with the background score. The raw emotion that then emerges has nothing to do with anything except the actors’ chemistry and acting skill. When the characters were anticipating an attack in the sewers, there was no score; all you could hear was the dripping of the water- exactly what you would have been hearing in the characters’ situation. It’s in cases like this where silence proves to be more effective than a score because it allows viewers into the character’s world and events more than it would if there was music playing in the background. Even when Katniss and Peeta are discussing their relationship and his hijacking, the background music is barely noticeable over the echo of their voices from the caves, giving the audience an aspect of realism that would otherwise be lost.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 Official Clip – “Real”

Yet there are also artistic uses of scoring that aren’t instrumental or filled with silence- some scoring, arguably some of the most well-chosen scoring, comes from already written songs. There is no better movie to demonstrate this, than the new hit movie Guardians of the Galaxy. Seeing Chris Pratt jamming out to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” was quite possibly the best start to a movie ever. It allowed the writers to establish his character, and got the audience smiling and dancing along more quickly than any other classical song could have. Baby Groot dancing to the Jackson 5 again brought out that unrestrained happiness in both the characters and the audience. Because the audience more than likely already has a connection to these songs, they will be able to bring those memories into play on top of the memories the movie will leave behind, creating a strong and positive connection to the movie, which is exactly what the screenwriters, scorers, and producers alike are hoping to achieve- after all, there really isn’t a benefit to a movie that no one connects to.

Guardians of the galaxy intro dancing

Sometimes, though, that seamless connection just doesn’t work. The 2015 film Pan uses Nirvana’s song “Smells like Teen Spirit” as an introduction to Neverland and Captain Hook, attempting possibly at a bit of humor and maybe to connect to the older audience that recognizes the song. Yes, Pan was kidnapped to that very song, but that doesn’t justify its placement in Neverland, or having Captain Hook dance along to it. Many critics have argued that the use of this song was a poor choice, because it took away from the beauty that Neverland is supposed to hold, as well as got all us viewers wondering why on earth that song, of all songs, would be playing. When that kind of questioning of the score comes out from that many people, it takes away from the beauty of the film itself. Where the vocal additions to Guardians of the Galaxy were a welcome addition, making viewers laugh and enjoy, the addition of Nirvana to Pan left a questioning laugh- and viewers wondering what exactly the director was trying to get at. The trailer for the movie was full of beautiful orchestral music, so throwing in random Nirvana songs did nothing but damage the movie and its integrity to its audience.

Pan (2015) Smells like teen Spirit Scene

Think about the classic childhood Disney songs. These include a little bit of both types of scoring: instrumental and vocal. The Lion King starts off with the beautiful “Circle of Life” song, without which the movie just wouldn’t be the same. Yet where the” Circle of Life” is background and not sung by any of the major characters, “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” involves all the major characters in that scene, allowing them to express their emotions musically. This gives us both a more in-depth connection to the characters, as we not only get to see what kinds of upbeat melodies would constitute their theme songs, as well as their words and actions. These movies use both classical and lyrical songs, which allow the audience a trip into two very different worlds of scoring, yet when used together, can create masterpieces. After all, there aren’t many Disney scenes that can compare to that of “Hakuna Matata”.

Carmen Twillie, Lebo M. - Circle Of Life (Official Video from "The Lion King")

Scoring is imperative to modern films because it adds an extra dimension to the film, and for a society that is so used to being bombarded with information and flashing signs, it is one of the major factors in keeping audiences interested and emotionally invested in the films themselves. They give the film a higher chance of success because of how they entrap the audience and allow them to journey further into the world the film is presenting. Most importantly, though, they contribute hugely to that feeling of ultimate satisfaction following the first of the credits to roll out onscreen.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Communications student, author-in-the-making, and Beatles fanatic. I write like I live: with optimism, a healthy sprinkle of reality, and never shying away from excitement

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  1. This is a great article-and I agree how truly amazing how much the soundtrack of a film can really enhance the mood of a film and suck in the viewer. I love to listen to soundtracks when I’m reading, doing work, or sometimes going to sleep. Some of my favorites would have to be “The Nightmare Before Christmas and the The Lion King on Broadway soundtracks.

  2. In my opinon, Musical score is one fo the most important parts of a movie. Usually when you I see a movie I really enjoy, I listen to the score afterwards and think it’s very good. I’ve watched some average to below average movies, but they actually have really good musical scores so it bumps it up a few points in my book. If a movie has an absolutely terrible score (which I think is hard to do) then I do rank them lower.

  3. You will notice that in some films, music is merely intended as pleasant background just to accompany a scene as it plays out and hopefully contribute somewhat in creating a certain tone, in contrast to music that contributes something very dramatically significant – music that is often shaped to a scene’s content.

  4. In my opinion Martin Scorsese has mastered the use of music in his films. For instance, Goodfellas wouldn’t be the same without the use of “Layla” in that very important scene, or Casino without “House of the Rising Sun”..

  5. Munjeera

    Beautiful article Lila. I loved it and read it while listening to the scoring. Look at how much the musical added to the experience of reading your piece. You have chosen the examples so well. Thanks for an immensely enjoyable read with a perfect concluding song. I look forward to reading

  6. Munjeera

    Your next article.

  7. Kellogg

    Good music can turn an OK movie into a great movie.

  8. Can you imagine how different Lord of the Rings would’ve been without all those amazing songs that matched each scene and setting perfectly.

  9. Jonna Do

    Some films really get the score right and some don’t need it. I guess it all comes down to the overall tone of the film.

  10. the score is the most powerful way of manipulating my emotions.

  11. Deetta Shea

    Something that’s more uncomfortable for me to talk about than it should be is…I don’t really… like music. Mostly in the sense that I don’t care to consume it, understand how it’s made, play it myself, or define myself by what I listen to. This makes a rather large amount of human culture inaccessible to me…but more often it confounds people who are just trying to have a conversation about something they like.

  12. Visual is 2 dimension. The audio provides the 3rd dimension for the total effect and impact.

  13. It was only in the last few years that I started to get more interested in music. And even then, I wouldn’t consider my knowledge or understanding of music anywhere near my level of knowledge of movies and video games.

  14. I just want to say that nothing bugs me more than when movies use music over everything.

    That was a big problem in The Hobbit movies. None of them had a quiet moment so everything just felt flat, and none of the songs are memorable.

    I like scores that are very simple and have a running theme. Trent reznor is always great for that, nick cave has done some great work, and carter burwells work on in Bruges was one of the best scores I’ve ever heard.

  15. I kinda have a love-hate relationship with the films music. Sometimes it’s great when it’s loud and overpowers your senses, but the editors should be aware of the fact that they’re overpowering your senses.

  16. Scoring is so important in video games too. Imagine what Kingdom Hearts would be like without the music.

  17. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my favourite films also include my favourite scores. Amelie has one of the most moving and evocative scores that I know of. But placement of music and the accompanying silence is just as important as the composition itself.

  18. I prefer the scores that give a movie a distinct musical identity.

    • chrischan

      Absolutely! I love listening to the music from Miyazaki movies, especially the waltz from Howl’s Moving Castle. All of Joe Hisaishi’s work for those movies so strongly invokes the world of the movie.

  19. I was recently listening to the Akira soundtrack by Geinoh Yamashirogumi and thinking about how the music to that movie tells you so much about it and helps you understand it. The music combines ancient spiritual chanting with tribal pitched percussion and blends it with futuristic 80s synths. That’s what the movie’s about. These basic flawed humans who haven’t evolved past their ancient drives for greed and violence somehow persisting in a futuristic metropolis. The music constantly reminds you of this. There’s a certain disembodied humanity singing throughout, the voices of the many ubiquitous omniscient dead whose thoughts are both with the basic fight/flight modes of thinking as well as with the apocalyptic surrender of a yearning spirituality. Even when you can’t follow the plot, that music is evoking what’s really important, and it seems to know everything and comment on the story as a God both ironically detached and endlessly empathetic.

  20. Lexzie

    Music can make or break a scene. I think it is so important that a musical score is used correctly. When done right, music can transform a scene from being simple to elevated. It is truly a beautiful thing. I sometimes get emotional just hearing a track from an OST because of the connections it has to certain themes or events, sometimes not even connected to the media it originated from.

    This is not a film example, but it is the one that sticks out most in my recent memory. When I was watching the season 6 finale of Game Of Thrones with my friend the first thing that caught our attention was the music. The track is called The Light of the Seven and it immediately brought a sense of awareness because of how different it was from other tracks, and it elevated the scene to make us invested. I won’t go into any other detail of the scene, but I went and bought the track right away because it made a lasting impression on me, and undoubtedly many others.

    Music is a powerful force that people often take for granted.

  21. I’d just say an individual work of music never has much impact on me. But the biggest exception has always been film scores.

  22. Youngblood

    you can’t have two chefs in a kitchen, you can’t have powerful diegetic and non-diegetic audio competing for an audiences senses.

  23. danielle577

    I really enjoyed reading your article! I remember when you were in the beginning stages, and struggling with incorporating a few additional details–which you executed perfectly. I especially liked your comparison of the manner in which “The Circle of Life,” plays a purpose, as a non-diegetic sound, whereas, “I Just Can’t Wait to be King,” involves all the characters and is an excellent example of diegetic sound. Even your questioning of Nirvana in Pan conjures thoughts, as opposed to appearing as if you are inquiring into your initial point. Nicely done.

  24. Jaylyn Cook

    Completely agree. I think the first time I ever realized the importance of scoring was when I saw the re-released version of E.T. when I was a kid. To this day, I get all watery whenever I hear the soundtrack during the final scene.

  25. JC

    Although I have never seen Pan, from the clip I can see that the use of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit was a poor choice. It is awkward and gives the movie a lower quality.

  26. I think a lot of what makes a good soundtrack has to do with how and how well a film is edited. Quite often the degree to which the music fits the editing makes the difference between a good soundtrack and the director seemingly hitting shuffle on their iTunes. For instance, the movie Filth has a very diverse soundtrack that fits extremely well due to the cuts and colour correction of the film.

  27. I think that the soundtrack either makes or breaks a movie. Blade Runner is a prime example.

  28. Thoroughly well-written and most informative article. I have long held the belief that if a musical score in a movie is really good, then the audience won’t really remember it. But they will remember what it depicts. You hear the Bernard Hermann’s violent score for “Psycho” and you immediately picture Janet Leigh in a pool of blood in the shower. Ditto the ominous John Williams sound which suggests the approaching shark in “Jaws”. The images which are called to mind by that music are far more memorable than the music by itself.

  29. Great article! I love how you pointed out that silence can be just as effective as a dramatic orchestral piece in certain situations. I would also give a shout-out to composers for television shows. Game of Thrones and Lost immediately come to mind. Who doesn’t tear up when they hear Michael Giacchino’s “Life & Death” theme?

  30. moonyuet

    Great article to show how the original scores influence the movies. I personally admire Hans Zimmer. I like his style of integrating the classic music with modern(electronic) elements. Some of his famous original scores such as “Tennessee” from Pearl Harbour are aesthetically descriptive pieces, which makes the movies more persuasive. The guy that gained attention from Zimmer , Ramin Djawadi, is very good at composing the majestic and sorta medieval/Celtic-inspired style of music. He is a composer of The Main Title from Grame of Throne.

  31. One of my favorite executions of music in film is Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score for The Social Network. It’s angsty and mimics the character’s emotions so well.

  32. Truly amazing what music can do for movies and just life in general, so much feeling!

  33. Music scores are often taken for granted. Not only do they provide ambiance and tonal evidence, but they also affect how our brain actually interprets what is happening in a film. For example, a character with a neutral expression on his face paired with tone-enhancing music will change the way a viewer perceives the character’s emotion.

  34. This is a fantastic article – I completely agree with all that you’ve said. I think music can make or break a scene and the talent that is required to work in the music part of film is huge. I often listen to movie soundtracks, just because they are so good and almost all of my favorite emotional scenes in movies have songs that completely move me. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Titanic and The Perks of Being a Wallflower are all some of my favorite movies, and the music that accompanies them triggers an emotional response in me the moment I hear it. I really liked your examples Guardians of the Galaxy and Pan, and how using specific music adds to a scene and draws an audience in. Pulp Fiction’s dancing scene is a great example of that, and I think that is what is so special about music – it doesn’t have to be original to have an impact or connect to a scene. The opening of Trainspotting and the torture scene of Reservoir Dogs are both great examples of this working too. It would also be really interesting to discuss the music in movie musicals, as there it really creates the tone and feeling of the whole film. I loved how you were able to articulate exactly what creates the magic of music and how it can forever be associated with a film.

  35. I always like to think of movie scoring as the finalizing element of a film. When used properly, music heightens the stakes. Jaws theme is really only based on a couple notes, but for it encapsulates the fear and intensity the audience is feeling as they watch a shark come for the unsuspecting swimmer. It can also make the world created in the film more tangible. In the 2005 Pride and Prejudice, the score builds upon the 19th century pictured onscreen to flesh out a world in which I can imagine this music as songs Mary plays on the pianoforte every afternoon.

  36. I think you described the essential role of music to convey emotion in film perfectly! Sometimes the most defining characteristic of a film or TV show is its music. For the longest time my friend and I knew that Tarzan was our favorite Disney film, but when I asked her if she would still love the film as much without the Phil Collins soundtrack, she had to seriously think about it.

  37. I love listening to soundtracks. I agree with the use of music to evoke emotions, narrate the stories, and provide an insight on the point of views of characters. For movies that integrate music with stories really well, I can imagine or have a flashback to specific scenes the soundtracks are played in the movies (e.g., Time in Inception, History of Artemisia in 300: Rise of the Empire).

    I recently watched Lala Land, and I definitely noticed the use of silence in some close-up shots. Those silent shots added the emphasis on the facial expressions and the impact of the scenes on me.

    I think you can say similar music integration to TV shows. In Scandal, a scene where Olivia Pope was struggling with her relationship with Fitz had the song called, “The Light” by The Album Leaf. It was such a powerful moment for the characters! Love it! Shows like Person of Interest also incorporated scores and songs. Root has her own theme, which evokes these mysterious and sneaky feelings. The theme just goes really well with the nature of Root’s character, which is a spy/mystery/unpredictability. It’s even more interesting that the show always play Root theme slightly before or during Root’s scenes.

  38. Jaeb512

    I agree completely that the use of music in film is of great importance. From a minor touch that enhances a scene, to a film that revolves around the music itself, music-use in films (as well as video games and other media) is a great force that (I think) a great number of people take for granted too easily.

  39. birdienumnum17

    This was awesome. I love listening to movie soundtrack. It is amazing how the music is what helps tell the story. The Harry Potter soundtrack is also a treasure. There are often themes that go with the characters called “leitmotivs” as well. Anime soundtracks are also well done.

  40. BreannaWaldrop

    The score of a movie can make or break it. Great article!

  41. This is such an enriching article about the power of music in films! As someone who plays the flute leisurely, it’s an incredible experience to be able to read the scores of popular movie soundtracks and feel the life and emotion that they envoke from the point of view of a performer. It makes me wonder how the musicians who are called to perform in an orchestra for a major film feel when, for the first time, they hear the music coming together and creating the atmosphere of a particular scene.

    As an avid fan of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations, I own many particular soundtracks from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. I can listen to The Uruk-hai track on my way to university (no orcs, unfortunately), Flaming Red Hair when it’s a sunny day and I feel particularly Hobbitish, the Dwarf Cast singing Misty Mountains on a peaceful night, and even the Sons of Durin soundtrack when it’s a Friday and I just want to march my way back home! I can also play these tracks and recall exactly where they occur in the film, just as your article indicates. In addition, I own many other tracks from many other films simply because they fill my life with the emotion that I either need to empower or uplift myself. Good, emotion-provoking music is indeed essential to every successful film and this article proves it.

    Your example from the Hunger Games reminded me of Castaway (starring Tom Hanks), as the music in this film is not played for the majority of the storyline until much later in the film, at a particular turning point in the protagonist’s story. Thus, I do agree that the absence of music is almost, if not as, powerful as the music when it is played. It robs us of the sensation of emotion that we get from music, only for it to become overwhelming when the music is later brought back to enhance the scene’s significance as an emotionally-charged moment. The absence of music parallels with the protagonist’s situation, emphasizing his losses and his separation from everything he loved (or bore emotion to). The audience is meant to feel that loss of emotional connections through the lack of music.

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