From John Williams to Trent Reznor: Appreciating film scores

After watching last year’s heartfelt film Beginners, my roommate fell in love with the solemn track “Beginners Theme Suite,” part of the score composed by Brian Reitzell, Roger Neill, and Dave Palmer. She wanted to hear it on its own. She checked iTunes, Amazon.com, blogs, and every Google link possible but couldn’t find where to buy the track immediately.

Finally, she discovered an unlimited streaming link, thanks to other people asking the same question online. It was only then, almost a year after its release, that she found a link to download the song. The amazing thing about this wasn’t the large number people of people asking where to buy this music — it was their desire to listen to a film score separate from the film. 

The score may not be what drew people in to see the movie, but it certainly pulled emotion from them long after the scenes had ended.

Film scores don’t just accompany the visuals — they allow the audience to connect with the emotions of the characters on screen. More so than a soundtrack of borrowed songs, scores add an additional realm to movies since they’re created specifically for the script. 

Think about receiving a gift. A friend can buy you an item from a store or make you something by hand. Both are thoughtful and heartwarming, but the handmade is special in an indescribably personal way. The overall effect is more emotional and intimate.

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At a school like Emerson, with so much emphasis on acting, directing, and editing, it’s tough to fully listen to a film’s score. The audience is supposed to be watching pictures change slowly, each actor’s movement, and the conflict steadily developing. It’s not that we don’t appreciate the music. But with our focus set on so many other facets of film, we unintentionally place the importance of a score’s grandiose swelling string parts on the back burner.

There are certain scores we recognize immediately — original songs that we associate with moods or icons. No composer compares to John Williams’ ability to create instant classics. Williams has composed music for over 90 films, including Star Wars, Jurassic Park, E.T., Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Jaws, Home Alone, and Superman

“The Imperial March” that accompanies Darth Vader has been used countless times to establish a malicious character, giving the melody powerful connotations regardless of whether or not one has seen Star Wars. The whimsical lightness of “Hedwig’s Theme” in Harry Potter sparks a playful curiosity inside us all. Considering his resume, Williams’ two Oscar nominations for Best Music (Original Score) for The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse this year came as no surprise. 

Nine Inch Nails frontman and songwriter Trent Reznor has also brought attention to the field. He teamed up with Atticus Ross to create the score for 2011’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and 2010’s The Social Network, the latter of which landed him an Oscar. His switch from arena rock shows to film sound editing studios brought a new generation’s interest to the Original Score category. Now a younger audience was cheering, however quietly, for the award.

It’s wonderful we can come to notice the genius of these composers’ work, but disheartening to think how many other composers go unnoticed. It doesn’t take a John Williams or Trent Reznor film score to win our hearts if we simply give the music a full listen. 

Next time you’re amazed by the instrumental atmosphere Godspeed You! Black Emperor or Mogwai create, consider what it’s like to listen to a film score the whole way through. Since the composers are tasked with creating music that milks a scene for all it’s worth, they pay attention to every trill and thump. 

Great scores don’t make you joyous or broken simply because you’re picturing the exact scene in the movie when it occurs; great scores make you feel the emotion of the characters regardless of seeing the film. After all, scenes may be stamped on our mind, but scores are what soak through it.