Happy National Film Score Day!
Film scores are one of the most powerful art forms out there. They take what you see on screen and amplify it further. Film scores are a large part of the reason a scene can evoke emotions and even cause a physiological response that the scene couldn’t do on its own.
In writing this I watched several film scenes with and without music, some where the music was removed in the final edit before it hit theaters and was added back later - often this is done for special edition releases as a bonus feature. Sometimes it is when it’s someone trying to prove a point on YouTube, either way there are a lot where the music is the difference maker. Even changing the music can change the emotions we feel from a scene. Composers are brilliant masterminds taking what you see on screen and making you FEEL it.
Here are a few examples that I’ve loved over the years:
Jaws without music, for me itisn’t remotely scary, in fact I actually find it comical. Sure their screams seem scary and intimidating but I am supposed to be scared of an obviously animatronic shark? Add in that famous John Williams score and I am suddenly on the edge of my seats with my heartbeat racing as this vicious creature leaps from the water to claim it’s next victim. All of this could be just me being cynical about the lackluster special effects, I know they were using the best they had at the time, but that shark just isn’t scary to me without music.
John Williams does it AGAIN in Star Wars. I don’t think there’s a single important scene in any of the films that would feel the way it feels without the soundtrack. While writing this I watched a version of The Throne Room Scene at the end of “Star Wars: A New Hope,” the creator had clearly altered Chewbacca’s shouts to sound funny, but without the music it was one of the more awkward scenes I’d ever seen. John Williams is the gold standard for scores. I don’t think there’s anyone that would disagree with me on this. Whether it’s in “E.T.” as the bikes all rise from the ground, Harry’s wand choosing him in “Harry Potter,” Indiana Jones saving the day, or well the entirety of “Schindler’s List” specifically the end scene “I could’ve got more” I’m a mess every time I hear that song. No one does emotion in film like John Williams, generations of movie goers felt something because of his work.
The Portals scene from “Avengers: Endgame” looks like a bunch of beat up superheroes getting saved in the most boring way possible. It’s long, there’s a lot of people and while you know there’s emotion in the scene you don’t really feel it. Add in Alan Silvestri’s beautiful score and you’re crying along with Cap as his friends reappear in Doctor Strange’s “sparkly” portals. “Endgame” is probably my favorite Marvel soundtrack because it has call backs to every MCU film from the first 10 years of films. When Tony pulls the shield out of his trunk to give to Steve you hear the Captain America theme. When Clint and Natasha are standing on the cliff you immediately recognize the music you’re hearing as the same music you heard the film prior when Thanos and Gamora were standing in the same spot. You feel the sadness the characters feel. “Endgame” is actually one of the few movies where I’d gained my composure at the end of the film and then started to cry when the credits rolled. “End on Main” pays great tribute to the sounds of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the same way the credits pay tribute to the OG Avengers.
There’s a musical technique called Shepard Tones that is used in a lot of films to create tension. Christopher Nolan’s films use this a lot. Yes, I looked this stuff up I’m not THAT smart. This YouTube video explains it really well: VOX: The Sound Illusion that Makes Dunkirk So Intense. In “Dunkirk,” Hans Zimmer’s score caused me to feel intense anxiety, add in the constant ticking sound and well it was a lot. As someone who knows anxiety all too well it was a real enough feeling that I’ve only watched the film once despite thinking it is absolutely brilliant. It’s used again by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard in Nolan’s Dark Knight films. You constantly feel an urgency from the score that without it wouldn’t be there.
While I’ve always know music had the capability to evoke emotions, especially in films, it’s something I developed a deeper appreciation for in college. As a Communication Studies student I had the opportunity to take several film and television classes. These classes were where my love of film scores grew. And are the reason I’ve spent most of a weekend afternoon writing this so you can fully appreciate just how big of a nerd I am. But before I get too deep into my favorite scores and why I love them, I should probably start with the first film score that had an impact on me.
Picture it. Summer 1989.
My Mom loads up our wood paneled station wagon with me, my brother and the kids from our neighborhood and we head to the movie theater. If my memory is correct we went downtown to River Hills/Riviera for this movie day. This was THE theater to see an epic, action packed movie in. We wouldn’t settle for anything less for this moment. Why? Because it was Batman. You don’t go see an action movie in any theater, you see it in the BEST theater for this moment. We grabbed our popcorn, sat down in our seats, and took in the moment. It was in the theater that hot summer day that I fell in love with film scores.
I was 5.
Should my Mom have taken me to see Tim Burton’s “Batman” in the theater at 5? It was a PG-13 rated movie and if I was 5 that made Tony 9. But how bad could it be? Mr. Mom was playing Batman. So it’s fair to ask if my Mom was out of her mind in taking us to see the movie but thankfully she didn’t think twice.
That day changed me. It changed the very makeup of my soul. Movies were no longer just movies. They were an experience, something that captivated all of your senses - smell could be argued but movie theaters in the ‘80s had a smell. Popcorn, sticky floors, and sweaty kids coming inside for a little air conditioning.
I know it probably seems like I’m just writing some romantic take on the scores of movies because today is Film Score Day and I need to write a blog. I’m not. I promise.
Most days if you are in my home or walked past an office back in the days where I had offices, you’d hear film scores pouring out the door. Everything from John Williams to Alan Silvestri to Michael Giacchino drifted out the door for everyone to hear. It helps me focus in, get creative, and be less distracted than a lot of music. While I have been on an 80s Hair Metal kick lately, if I really need to work and tap my creative spirit it’s a film score that gets played.
Today, while I write this I’m listening to the score from “Captain America: The Winter Solider” written by Henry Jackman. While the score for “Captain America: The First Avenger” was written by Silvestri, Jackman brilliantly pulls elements that make you think of the Captain America Theme, a theme that has a very vintage military feel and always makes me feel like I should stand up a little taller. The sounds he uses to build intensity for The Winter Solider almost sound like screams, they are fast and even when not watching the film and just listening they cause me to work faster, you should see my fingers on the keyboard right now. If you’re as big of a nerd as I am and have also watched the Disney+ show “The Falcon and the Winter Solider” you’ll hear this same style and theme used for the flashbacks that Bucky has. You’ll hear some of that patriotic feel come through in the music used when Sam is on screen. You’ll feel the same sadness and emotions that you felt when you watched the first film. The continuity between the two is something so utterly beautiful.
So now that I’ve given you the full experience in my brain of all of this completely useless information and learned about the way films scores make me feel here are a few of my favorite scenes where the score is as big of a star as the actors on screen because it makes you feel exactly the way the Director and Composer want you to feel.
“Batman” Score by Danny Elfman: Here it is, the moment that changed everything for me. Yes, it’s the opening credits but the opening credits are what sets the tone.
“Ghostbusters” Score by Elmer Bernstein: I know, I know, it’s another opening scene but like I said, the opening scene sets the tone. Also I love libraries so it’s always been a favorite. This score sets me up to know that while the film is spooky that it’s also comical and not scary. The music doesn’t make you feel incredibly scared even though it creates intensity in the way a sci-fi film should. It remains playful in the way comedy scores do and goes straight into “Ghostbusters” by Ray Parker, Jr. which happens to be the #1 song from the year I was born.
“Avengers: Endgame” Score by Alan Silvestri: I already went into detail about how much I love this film. The Marvel Cinematic Universe up until this moment (and honestly I’ll include “Spider-Man: Far From Home” as part of it) will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s hard to explain why a superhero film franchise means that much to me, especially considering I’m not a comic book fan but it does. The first Avengers film came out when I was at a really dark place in my life. My anxiety and depression were at an all-time high and I was also dealing with agoraphobia. Leaving my house was a daunting task. I watched all of the movies leading up to that film through Netflix, and this was back when Netflix actually mailed movies to you. I knew there was no way I was missing out on seeing the Avengers film in theaters. Movie theaters are a giant source of anxiety for me and often leave me in a panicked state, I haven’t quite pinpointed the cause for it but it’s improved over the years and for the most part is a rare issue now. My Mom went with me to an afternoon showing the day that movie came out so I could see it in the theater. I had a panic attack before I even left my apartment, another in the car and one as soon as we took our seats at the back of the theater but I got through it to watch that movie. Fast forward to 2019 and the release of “Avengers: Endgame” and life was so different, I saw it in the theater I think 6 times and have watched it countless more since. While the films meant a lot to me, they meant a lot to so many more people and this scene is the moment every Marvel fan had waited 23 films for, Avengers Assemble!
“Star Trek” Score by Michael Giacchino: Okay, my nerd level is about to increase. Due to being the younger sister of Tony, I like Star Trek. I’ve watched Star Trek all of my life, not always by choice but when it comes to the JJ Abrams versions not only do I watch them by choice, I also have seen every bonus feature multiple times and listen to the scores regularly. One thing I love about Giacchino’s scores is that he almost always does his own spin on the original theme if he’s doing something that’s a remake, spin-off or reboot of a series. He has a great version of the original Spider-Man Theme on the “Spider-Man: Homecoming” Soundtrack. I picked this scene because not only is it an incredible moment in the first film the music makes it that much better.
“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” Score by John Williams: Okay so first things first, picking a scene from any of the 8 Harry Potter films is difficult for me. This is the score I listen to most frequently. “Hedwig’s Theme” has been my alarm clock for years, it is also apparently my cat George’s favorite song because any time it plays he will appear from wherever he was in the house to wherever the music is coming from. The reason I chose the scene of the wand choosing the wizard is because the scene begins without music and as the music slowly creeps into the scene until the fateful moment when it becomes loud and magical is a wonderful example o of how music helps to build emotion in a scene. If you’re like me and love film scores and all things Harry Potter (except for she who shall not be named) here’s a link to the Harry Potter Playlist I’ve built on Apple Music that has all 8 film’s scores together in order: Harry Potter Playlist
“The Godfather” Score by Nino Rota: Okay instead of a scene I’m going to share the trailer for the 50th Anniversary Edition of the Trilogy. Why? Well because the scene that uses music in the best way to evoke emotion involves a horse head and I’m not into showing gruesome scenes today. I love “The Godfather” and I love both “The Godfather Waltz” or the main theme that people know and “The Love Theme.” They both feel so dramatically different and evoke completely opposite emotions but are incredibly powerful when used in context with Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece. I’ve always joked if I ever get married I’m including “The Love Theme” which usually gets a laugh out of my Mom.
“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” Score by James Newton Howard: This is not the scene I wanted to include. The scene in The Hunger Games Franchise that evokes the most emotion in a very beautiful way is Rue’s death and the song “Rue’s Farewell.” It starts soft and quiet, small even. As the scene’s emotion builds from fear to loss to anger to uprising the music helps you to experience all of those emotions too. Just watching the scene today I started to get emotional and I haven’t watched the films in several years. The reason I’m not sharing it is because the premise of The Hunger Games, both book and film, are one that is hard to grapple with. Not only do people treat children killing each other as a sport it causes a rebellion amongst the people fighting for their lives, something that is being plastered all over the news right now. So instead I opted for a very sweet scene between Katniss and Peeta. One where you feel the love they share for each other, partially because the score is telling you to. But if you want to really see the scene, just search Rue’s Farewell on YouTube. It’s a beautiful song which is part of what makes that scene so incredibly hard to watch because something so beautiful is coming from something so tragic.
That’s enough YouTube Videos for now. Here’s a sampling of the scores regularly playing in my house - I am breaking the rules because some of these are TV scores and not film scores but TV is changing and so are TV scores:
Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga Films (yes all of them) - Episode I: The Phantom Menace | Episode II: Attack of the Clones | Episode III: Revenge of the Sith | Episode IV: A New Hope | Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back | Episode VI: Return of the Jedi | Episode VII: The Force Awakens | Episode VIII: The Last Jedi | Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker
And the Apple Music Essentials Playlists for my favorite composers: