The art of movie soundtracks

Discussing the compositions of John Williams, Danny Elfman, and more

Iconic movies have iconic musical scores.

A movie is only as good as its soundtrack. 

When evaluating the quality of a film, critics judge the script, acting, and cinematography, but let’s not forget the glue that holds it all together: music. A memorable soundtrack is what truly helps a film reach its full cinematic potential. 

From Jaws to Indiana Jones, countless classic movies are remembered for their legendary music just as much as their stories and characters. Imagine Star Wars without John Williams’ iconic compositions—what would Darth Vader be without the “The Imperial March”?

While his character develops throughout the Star Wars series, Vader first appears as a masked villain in a silly suit. Nonetheless, William’s music instilled a sense of fear and dread in audiences that wouldn’t have otherwise been communicated. 

Williams may be the most well-known—and arguably the greatest—composer in the history of Hollywood, but he’s certainly not the only legend. 

It’s near impossible to imagine any of Tim Burton’s famous movies without the wonderfully quirky music of Danny Elfman. Burton’s films are often renowned for their zany personality, much of which is attributable to their musical scores. 

Elfman’s choice of instrumentation sets him apart: his scores frequently incorporate saxophones, harps, and women’s choir vocals to great effect. He’s also deliberate in his separation of instruments to ensure specific lines and melodies are heard. 

More recently, Hans Zimmer worked with director Christopher Nolan to score some of the 2000s most acclaimed movies, including The Dark Knight, Interstellar, and Inception.

Zimmer is a master of dynamics; he often incorporates slow build ups and loud payoffs into his orchestral arrangements to great effect. “I’m Not A Hero” and “Dream Is Collapsing” are two examples of his mastery at work. 

Sometimes, when done right, a film’s music becomes the star of the show. 

One example of this is in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Canadian composer Howard Shore orchestrated an untouchable soundtrack, from the jovial “Concerning Hobbits” to the goosebump-inducing battle anthem “The Uruk-Hai.”

Praised for their epic scale and unmatched scope, Shore is just as responsible for bringing these films to life as director Peter Jackson and the cast. 

Another, perhaps lesser-known, example is Clint Mansell’s “Summer Overture” from Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. 

The film, which follows the lives of four young drug users, is a haunting portrait of addiction that broke ground with unconventional editing. Mansell’s accompanying score is appropriately dark and moody, nearly inseparable from the film itself. 

Music is incredibly powerful; it unlocks memories in the listener and invokes nostalgia. People’s love for their favourite movies is often intrinsically connected to that film’s soundtrack, whether they realize it or not. 

Regardless of era, budget, or composer, the best original compositions all serve to accentuate their film’s themes and elevate their dramatic moments. 

While, yes, some films use pre-existing songs in their soundtrack—hello Shrek—there’s nothing quite like an amazing original score in a movie. Whether grand or purposefully subdued, Hollywood’s best compositions are art worth celebrating. 

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