Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Beginner's Guide to Movie Scores

I've spent the past half-hour having an internal debate with myself. You see, last night I had the brilliant idea that a movie score post was in order, and of course I could either review my current on-repeat selection, War Horse, or I could do a more in-depth these are the composers you should listen to, etc... Of course, my fellow VS ladies are no help because the sum of their advice was, "write what you love." And you see, the thing is, I simply adore movie scores. It's been an obsession since my early years when I hoarded every bit and piece of Disney music available. Of course, my tastes have grown since then to encompass a much broader range of composers. Perhaps its the years I spent training in classical ballet- hours at the bar doing pliés and relevés to Mozart and Tchaikovsky- that has given me this passion for film scores. 

Whatever it is, I'm afraid I'm rather like a new parent who tells everyone that will listen how utterly amazing their child is, or a book lover who carries around copies of their favorite novel to give to strangers. I know that y'all are too smart to simply take my word for it, so like any good person who is trying to win others to their side, I shall present you with my favorite score composers and let you make your own judgements.

Michael Giacchino: The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Up, Star Trek, Super 8, LOST
When a friend and I went to see Super 8 and the opening music started playing, I looked at her and immediately said, "Michael Giacchino did this score." (Which, silly me, I should have realized anyways because he and J.J. Abrams always work together.) Because said friend knows I'm a bit obsessive about my movie composers, she didn't look at me like I was a complete crazy person. What does this have to do with anything? Glad you asked. Some composers have a unique sound, you can hear the first pounding notes of a rousing war song or the tinkly aftermath from the first time boy meets girl and within lies the signature of a specific musician. Giacchino knows how to build suspense and induce heartbreak. It's this versatility that makes him one of my favorite composers. It is a bit of a cheat for me to include him on this list since my favorite work is his scoring on LOST, which is a TV show and not a film, but it really is brilliant work and it did earn him an Emmy. Bonus points for the cheeky titles he gives to his songs. E.g.: Aftermath Class (from Super 8), Kevin Beak'n (from Up), Here Today, Gone to Maui (from LOST).

Thomas Newman: Little Women, Meet Joe Black, The Green Mile, Finding Nemo
Thomas Newman is sort of Hollywood film scoring royalty, I'm sure you've heard of his cousin Randy Newman who's quite famous for his work on Toy Story, etc... Nothing against Randy, but I much prefer the work of his less-famous cousin. Thomas' scores are distinguishable by his prevalent use of strings and the softness the he uses to build tension and mood, unlike some composers who favor a more in your face approach. He is the most-nominated living composer to have never won an Oscar, which I think is a travesty considering Little Women is one of the best movie scores I've ever had the pleasure of listening to.

 John Williams: Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Schindler's List, Harry Potter, War Horse
I'll bet that Williams is the one composer on this list that most of you have heard of/heard. He's quite famous (that's an understatement) for his collaborations with Steven Spielburg and is considered the greatest film composer of the 21st century. His composition style is similar to that of some of the great classical composers, and many of his pieces are recognizable by their recurring themes (this is known as leitmotif in classical music).

Alexandre Desplat: The Painted Veil, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The King's Speech, Harry Potter
Of all the composers on this list, Alexandre Desplat has the most diverse range of compositions. Perhaps this is why he is my favorite composer. I can't think of a better word that enchanting to describe his work. From the musical hijinks of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, the swoon-inducing of The Painted Veil, to the tingly, teary-eyed second half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. This French composer is finally getting the recognition he deserves in the film world, and his work is so outstanding that we can forgive him for the travesty of collaborating on two of the Twilight scores.

Dario Marianelli: Atonement, Pride & Prejudice, I Capture the Castle, Jane Eyre
Dario Marianelli doesn't do background music- he does sweeping sagas and heartbreak and romantic tension. If you're a fan of pretty and moving music, then you can never go wrong with his work. His collaborations with director Joe Wright on Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, and The Soloist have produced award-winning music. But his work on Jane Eyre and I Capture the Castle is just as swoon-worthy.

Alan Menken: The Little Mermaid, Beauty & the Beast, Aladdin, Tangled
It's true that movie soundtracks and movie scores are not the same thing, so I know you're all wondering why I've put Allen Menken on this list. Because he's a brilliant composer, and although the films listed above probably make you think of songs with words, not music, Menken wrote amazing songs (his musical partner, the late Howard Ashman was responsible for lyrics). His scoring on classics from the Disney renaissance gave the studio new life and brought acclaim and attention to their animated films. 

** A special mention goes to John Powell who was not included on the list because he doesn't have a large enough body of work. His score for How to Train Your Dragon is my number one, best ever, all-time favorite.


  1. Oh my gosh I LOVE all these scores. I just had to give them all another listen just now. *SWOON!* Awesome post, Mariah!

  2. I just LOVE scores. It was so hard to control myself on this post, but I'm glad you enjoyed it!

  3. Great choices! I LOVE most of the movies you mentioned and most of that is due to the moods created by their scores. Awesome post!