Where Did the Scores Go? Can Movies Survive Without Music?

As a life-long fan of classical music from all periods, I’ve always been drawn to film music—and indeed, I inherited my love of classical music from film music. I cut my teeth on John Williams’ scores for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and E.T., which provided me the basic musical vocabulary for encountering and appreciating composers such as Strauss, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Schoenberg, and so many others—and some without ‘S’’s. The richness of the orchestration, as well as the glorious melodies that seemed to emerge from the characters’ own thoughts and situations, moved me to the core, and helped me ‘see’ similar psychological richness in abstract music such as a four-movement, hour-long symphony. In fact, film music made me question whether there really is such a thing as ‘abstract’ music, since everything has its own story—you just have to find it (for yourself, mostly). Moving from film music backwards was probably the best musical education I could have received, and I attained it early: the first music I ever purchased (or had purchased for me) was the soundtrack to The Empire Strikes Back in the very early eighties. A handful of years later I was listening to The Rite of Spring and Shostakovich’s Fifth. 

In the past, every score was a veritable symphonic tapestry, from which numerous suites and even quasi-symphonies or concertos could be developed. Indeed, Korngold wrote a Violin Concerto to themes from several of his scores, and even wrote an eleven-minute concerto to be played in another film. And most classical music lovers know Prokofiev’s cantata Alexander Nevsky, which is simply the film score re-arranged, or Vaughan-Williams Sinfonia Antartica, his Seventh symphony, which is also developed from music to the film Scott of the Antarctic. From Shostakovich to Hermann to Williams, great composers put a definitive stamp on the movies, and arguably made them even better than they already were. So where are the great film composers of today? Or better yet, where are the great film scores?

To be sure, many ‘great’ composers (who write ‘serious’ music) tackle film scores: Philip Glass has written several, as has Tan Dun, and John Corigliano. But their work is few and far between, and none of them are employed solely in the motion-picture industry. Today, besides the work of John Williams, we have a staple of tried-and-true composers who get the lion’s share of commissions: Hans Zimmer, Alexandre Desplat, the late James Horner, Michael Giacchino, Danny Elfman, etc. And while each one has a great score or two to their name (Gladiator, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Aliens, Star Trek II) most of these were composed ‘back in the day’—i.e. before the 21st century. Scores post 9/11 (not that this date changed music—or did it?) have become curiously bland, lacking themes or exciting orchestration. In short, film music is now truly background music, creating less than a mood than an amorphous sense of atmosphere. In a sense, it’s like Satie’s ideal wallpaper music, which could either end in a minute or go on forever—you’d never notice. It’s simply there, and you might hear it once or twice, but could never hum it or remember it afterwards.

When Star Wars first premiered in 1976, people left the theaters humming—shouting—the score. It was one of the first best-selling soundtrack albums and more or less started a trend of using orchestral music again for film scores (which had largely been replaced by pop music cues). Today, who leaves Avengers: Age of Ultron humming the score? Or Star Trek? Only Ant-Men among recent superhero films had anything resembling a theme that reoccurred throughout the film with enough frequency to count and be memorable. On this very topic, there’s a great You Tube video about Marvel’s approach to soundtracks, you can watch here:

The gist of the video is this: directors cut their films to ‘temp music’ (music from other movies) which affects how the film looks and feels. This gives the composer almost zero room to improvise or compose anything truly new: they need it to more or less resemble the temp track, which is often a score from another composer and another movie. Ironically, that score was composed in the same way, so we get a copy of a copy of a copy. Eventually, a composer will be forced to copy so many scores that he will finally get back to his own score for a movie he/she composed ten years ago. Which begs the question: why compose film scores at all? Why not just recycle the same generic music for every single film? In a way, as the video argues, that’s exactly what we do. It’s safe, it’s predictable, and it makes movie-making (or editing) a whole lot easier.

Of course, there’s the argument that music should be heard and not seen. No flashy themes or orchestration: mere mood music to let us know that something nasty is afoot, or that two people are about to make love. What more do you need? Quite a lot, actually. Take a great film that has memorable music, for example, this one: 

It’s an exciting, nail-biting scene. But why? Only three tie-fighters are chasing the Millenium Falcon, and as we later learn, it was just to create the mere show of resistance. They were expected to get away and the hapless pilots were used as a sacrifice. So there’s very little at stake, and removing the music shows that; it’s just two guys firing again and again at these little ships flying past, like an overblown game of Galaga. Yet what makes this exciting and more importantly, compelling, is the score: Williams’ thrilling score is the vein of old swashbucklers like Korngold’s Captain Blood. It’s richly orchestrated and full of themes from beginning to end; the music pulses with our own heartbeat, and heightens the drama to the point where we almost believe destroying these three ships will save the world. Instead, they just keep flying to the Rebel base on the moon of Yavin. Big whoop. 

How would a modern composer score this scene? Loudly, to be sure, and completely anonymously. Also, the orchestration would be reduced to computer-enhanced strings, brass, and percussion. Almost no score utilizes flutes, oboes, clarinets, English horns, bassoons, piccolos, xylophones, or even interesting percussion (though exotic percussion is acceptable, since that’s more politically correct). It’s just a bland orchestral mush, which often sounds suspiciously like house music composed for a quasi-orchestra. It sounds exciting without being at all interesting. Again, it’s wallpaper music: you see it and never think twice, much less ask what it’s doing there or why.

Should the director and editor wield so much power over their scores? Are composers finally relegated to the role of best boys and people who move lights from one set to another? Sadly, all of the current staple of composers is capable of so much more. Elfman’s scores for Batman, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas (okay, that’s a musical, so maybe out of bounds here), and Beetlejuice are masterpieces of themes + orchestration + humor. They bear his distinct musical thumbprint and remake the score slightly in his image. Can you imagine Batman without that trademark theme? Well, look at any of the new Dark Knight movies—the score and anything resembling a theme is hidden beneath the faceless mask of the industry. It looks and sounds like every other action movie filmed/composed today. Doesn’t a great movie deserve a better score? Or a real one?

John Williams remains something of an anachronism today, since he continues to largely compose thematic orchestral scores, and even reaching his mid-80’s, keeps finding memorable themes to captivate our imagination: listen to Rey’s Theme from The Force Awakens

It’s charming, clever, delicate, and scored with imagination. And you can hum it! I know the leitmotif approach has been done to death, but so has its opposite—the generic score! Why not compose themes? If film music is dead, than so are films themselves, along with stories and ideas. Nothing dies unless we let it die, and everything can be resurrected with a new, fresh take on the genre. We need new composers who can think in terms of the orchestra, and know the rich tradition of classical music, both in the concert hall and on the silver screen. Is it gauche to write a theme nowadays? I almost wonder if film music is suffering the 20th century aversion to Romanticism created by the whole-sale adoption of the Twelve Tone Technique by academia. Everything has its season, but surely we’ve lived long enough with good movies let down by empty scores. I would wager there’s no ‘great’ movie out there without an equally ‘great’ score. Music is a character in the movie, and to deny this is to fly in the face of four hundred years of musical thought, as well as the entire tradition of movies in popular culture.

Long live the score! 


  1. Joshua, after watching the video on the temp music, I suddenly wondered if the editors of Star Wars in 1976 used Holst's "The Planets" as the temp music while they were cutting the film and Lucas forced Williams to "make it sound like that". I've seen the "making of" videos of the prequels and Lucas can be seen flitting from one workstation to another telling the artists exactly what he wants, not giving the artist room to express him/herself. When listening to "The Planets", there is no doubt where the major themes of Star Wars originated. Was that the beginning of temp music? Just wondering. I'm not in any way discounting the genius of John Williams, as he is my personal favorite composer, but I just had a weird feeling when I saw that video.

  2. Lucas said upfront that he originally placed Holst's The Planets, Strauss' Thus Spake Zarathustra, and Dvorak's 9th to the movie just to give it a feel. However, he never cut the movie to the music--it was just for the mood/feel. All he asked Williams to do is to compose in a 19th century idiom ala Korngold, Steiner, and other film composers who wrote in that style. He wanted an "old world" score like the famous serials, and not the music that had come to dominate 60's and 70's films. However, even though Williams obviously nods to The Planets, the only explicit use is a slight similarity of Princess Leia's theme to the main theme of Venus, and of course Darth Vader's theme to the Mars theme (though that came after the first film). I think he composed in the style of, rather than a riff off of it. But then again, Holst was also composing in the style of Richard Strauss, and would later abandon that style for a much more enigmatic, terser kind of music (he more or less washed his hands of The Planets, thinking it derivative music). Inspiration is one thing, but what's going on in film scores today is out-and-out plagiarism; and worse, plagiarism of music that was boring and anodyne to begin with! I'm so glad you showed me that video--it pointed out a problem I've had for years with modern scores.


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