Geek obsession: Film scores.

Why It’s Daunting: Well, why bother? Even the greatest scores aren’t composed to exist on their own; they’re part of a whole, and people don’t look at, say, the sets or the lighting of a movie out of context for entertainment purposes. In general, when someone wants to buy a soundtrack, they’re looking to get a collection of pop songs with one or two hits and a bunch of filler. That soundtrack will be played a few times while the excitement of whatever film that inspired the purchase remains fresh, but its lack of cohesion and general cash-in quality will make it the first thing grabbed when it comes time for a trip to the used CD store.


This isn’t true of movie scores; at least, not the better ones. Listening to, say, Danny Elfman’s Spider-man score is different than choking down Chad Kroeger’s “Hero” one more time, because Elfman’s composition creates a supplemental experience to the movie that, while not as fulfilling on a story level, remains engaging and artistically valid in its own right. A good score works to enhance the images on screen, but when those images disappear, the music can still play on the emotions surprisingly well. Part of it’s the chance to hear something familiar in a new light, but there's also the way a score can form its own narrative, even if that narrative isn’t quite the one people saw on screen.

A quick example: check out the following cue from The Shawshank Redemption called “And So Was Red,” by Thomas Newman (this clip also includes music from the end credits, which is basically just an expansion of “Red”’s themes):

In the movie, “Red” backgrounds the heroes’ final triumph over adversity, but taken by itself, it’s just as stunning: a slow, hesitant build of optimism that rises and gains strength until it’s almost too much to bear. Watching Tim Robbins struggle and triumph against a corrupt world is powerful stuff, but the music, without the actors or the script or the pretty pictures, is inspirational and rich on its own terms. That’s at the heart of what makes a score worth experiencing separately. It’s the purest expression of a film’s potential, stripped of complexities and specifics, a single thread that pulls the listener through; a dream of a movie, and one that’s a little different every time.


Possible Gateway: John Williams’ score for E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

Why: John Williams is about as user-friendly as composers get, and his work with Steven Spielberg has generated some of the most instantly recognizable tunes of the last half-century. The rousing “Raiders March” from Raiders Of The Lost Ark; the stalking bass theme of Jaws; the eerie twists of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind; the never-get-it-out-of-your-head-not-even-in-a-million-years whimsy of Catch Me If You Can; it’s all enough to make anyone a fan of the medium for life.

The cohesiveness of Williams’ E.T. score sets it apart, however, and makes it great for newcomers. Unlike a lot of scores, each individual section of music fits together clearly and organically. The composition moves gradually, flowing from section to section, introducing themes and then reinforcing them with growing complexity, until it arrives at a final, satisfying completion. It's an easy score in which to get lost.


That it’s the music from one of Spielberg’s best films also means most listeners will come to it with a lot of built-in goodwill. The hardest part of getting into film scores is the oddness of hearing something that’s meant to be seen; Williams’ E.T. manages to get past the twin hurdles of common sense and habit quite readily. 

What Next: If E.T. grabs you, it’s worth going through the rest of Williams' most recognizable classics. In addition to his collaborations with Spielberg (Close Encounters Of The Third Kind is another “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” piece, much like E.T.), he’s responsible for the themes of the Superman and the Star Wars movies, among many others. (Williams pulls off the neat trick of being the only redeeming element of Superman IV: The Quest For Peace and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.) Part of the fun of movie scores is finding the hidden gems buried under some seriously mediocre cinema. Give Williams’ Hook a spin, and it’s hard not to yearn for the movie that might’ve been; whimsical without the treacle, and adventurous without having to see Robin Williams in tights.

But John Williams is only a first step. John Carpenter provides distinctively minimalist scores for many of his own films; Prince Of Darkness and The Fog provide terrific examples on how to get the most out of a handful of notes, as well as master classes in scaring an audience before the monster even arrives. Then there’s Danny Elfman—his work on the first Tim Burton Batman film remains iconic (it’s aged better than the movie or Prince’s goofy contributions), but for a really impressive piece, check out his hauntingly discordant score for Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan, music best enjoyed on cloudy days when shadows linger and morals corrode.


Jerry Goldsmith did dozens upon dozens of exceptional pieces in his lifetime, including successful team-ups with Joe Dante like the darkly delightful Gremlins; when it comes to composers who do better work than the movies they’re assigned, Goldsmith may very well be the poster child. His music for Supergirl manages an homage to Williams’ Superman without copying it (plus it makes sense and creates a spirit of fun, two tasks at which the movie fails), and his score for Star Trek: The Motion Picture was so superb that Star Trek: The Next Generation swiped the main theme for its opening titles.

For advanced studies, check out Ennio Morricone’s stunning compositions for Once Upon A Time In The West and The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. Basil Poledouris’ pounding rhythms made Conan The Barbarian a hit, and it remains the perfect accompaniment for storming snake cults and orgies that just can’t seem to get started. Bernard Herrmann’s scores for Vertigo and Taxi Driver still retain their power to mesmerize, and while John Barry did great work for a number of Bond films, his score for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the best of the entire series, exciting, romantic, and more than a little melancholy.

The more you listen, the more you learn, and the more you realize that movies have as much of an aural language as they do a visual one. It's enriching as a film lover to recognize the way certain basic tools are utilized by every composer (lush string arrangements make you sad, but happy to be sad; if you’re crying during a Pixar movie, and you’re not listening to Randy Newman song, chances are Thomas Newman has got some violins working, to beautiful effect); just because you know the trick in advance doesn’t make you any less susceptible to it. It’s even possible to notice the intentional connections in some works; listen to Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s scores for Batman Begins and The Dark Knight in conjunction and you’ll hear motifs used for Bruce Wayne’s father evolve into the theme for Harvey Dent.


Where Not To Start: Not every great movie has a great score, and not every great score is worth listening to in isolation. Take Nathan Johnson’s Brick. As part of Rian Johnson’s high school noir, it’s perfection, a clever, nuanced background that does everything a soundtrack is supposed to. But on its own, it’s a series of disjointed noodlings, of interest only to hardcore audiophiles, and exactly the sort of album that turns people off of movie scores in the first place. Composers are only required to make the films they write for better—that some of their work can be enjoyed for its own sake is an added bonus, but not a necessity. Expanding your horizons takes a little bit of research to find the ones best worth your time, and don’t be surprised when your favorite movie doesn’t sound as terrific in isolation as you were hoping.

Also, there’s always the chance you’ll start noticing the way certain composers have a habit of, um, paying homage to themselves. James Horner’s score for Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan is swell when its punching up William Shatner and Ricardo Montalban’s epic struggle, but it’s not nearly as fun when you hear similar ideas running behind Krull and Commando. Too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and one day you may find yourself watching a perfectly good film and getting distracted by a swelling bassline that you could swear you’ve heard before.

But the more scores you hear, the more you come to appreciate what works, and the richer your filmgoing experiences will be. Whether it’s wringing some enjoyment out of Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull simply because you realize the skull’s theme is basically a backward version of the Ark Of The Covenant’s theme in Raiders, or just blasting The Dark Knight’s “Why So Serious” and daring the neighbors to call the cops, a great score can have a life beyond the movie it was created for.