What Makes A Film Score Good?
Whether it's a pop song compilation, an original score with a full orchestra, or merely a collection of ambient noise, a good soundtrack has the ability to transform a good film into a masterpiece. Even if you're not someone who tends to pay attention to things like music in your media, I promise you wouldn't be nearly as fond of your favorite movie scenes if it wasn't for the sound design. It's no secret how important a film's soundtrack is, but how exactly does one make an effective one? Let's find out...
Of course everyone loves a good musical like West Side Story or Little Shop of Horrors, but today we'll be focusing mainly on background scores rather than lyrical songs meant to be sung by characters. But don't fret, Broadway fans, I'll have something written for you one day.
Let's start with the iconic scores, the ones that the casual moviegoer will have no time identifying/enjoying. Think of the main theme from Star Wars by John Williams, the haunting, sinister tune of "Lux Æterna" from Requiem For A Dream, or the tear-inducing melody of the Schindler's List theme. They're the kind of songs you would hum as a clue for your friends in a game of movie charades. While these songs are all works of creative genius, they seem to be way too under-appreciated in the world of mainstream music. Very rarely will you find someone on the street with headphones in listening to a film score rather than something like a rock song or the latest pop album, aka music with lyrics. To explain themselves, most people would simply call this kind of music "boring." But when did this become the case? Less than 100 years ago, classical music devoid of any lyrics were still largely popular among the world's population, with entire radio stations dedicated to the genre. The truth is, the art of the film score is something this world has forgotten how to appreciate, but hopefully we can change that soon even if it's by one person at a time.
Personally, when critiquing a film, one of my favorite features to observe is the music, and the movie that got me into that and film scores in general is Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. Not only did Taxi Driver serve as my introduction to the world of film scores but it also allowed me to discover my favorite composer of all time, Bernard Herrmann.
Before Taxi Driver, I'd never paid much attention to a film's score but there was something so magnetic and perfect about Bernard Herrmann's music that made me instantly want to explore more film soundtracks. The opening track's use of saxophone and contemporary jazz fit the tone of the movie so much I couldn't take my eyes off the screen, and this was during the opening credits. Although it remains my favorite soundtrack to this day, that's not saying I haven't found other extraordinary scores that have come close.
After watching it pretty much my entire life, I can't tell you how many times I've listened to The Incredibles soundtrack by another incredible composer, Michael Giacchino. In fact, Pixar movies in general rarely ever have music that isn't memorable. In addition to The Incredibles, films like Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, Up and WALL-E have some of the best scores to come out in past years, almost all of which have garnered Academy Award nominations. While these are all extravagant scores with big orchestral arrangements, a soundtrack does not have to be made up of original content to be one of a kind.
There's a plethora of famous movie soundtracks that simply act as a mixtape of songs someone put together, like a Spotify playlist. One of the most recognizable soundtracks of modern cinema is the compilation album used in Danny Boyle's Trainspotting featuring artists like Lou Reed, New Order, and Brian Eno. Artists I can't hear anymore without instantly thinking of the raucous, fast-paced nature of that movie, picturing Ewan McGregor running from the cops down the Edinburgh streets. I bet whenever you hear "Twist and Shout" by the Beatles, the first thing that comes to mind is of course, Ferris Bueller's Day Off. That kind of iconic status can make a soundtrack just as powerful as one composed by a professional orchestra.
One of the most comforting soundtracks I've had the pleasure of coming across has been from Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude. This humble, emotional comedy has a soundtrack entirely comprised of Cat Stevens songs. Although it might not have the grandiosity of something like an Ennio Morricone score, it perfectly fits the tone that Hal Ashby was going for. Harold and Maude isn't a movie that would work with a huge orchestral score. What's important to remember is that the tone of the score matters a lot more than how elaborate it is. What makes a soundtrack good is how well it fits in a specific film.
No matter how much you enjoy or pay attention to the music in your movies, I guarantee you'd like them a lot less if they were filled with silence. In a world where big scores are becoming less and less common, it's important that we cherish this art while we still can.