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  • Writer's pictureKerry Chambers

Music to My Ears - In Search of Soundtracks in Mainstream Cinema

Updated: Dec 12, 2020

Note: All scores used throughout this article I am very fond of, no hating from me on the links shared today.

Music is possibly the quaintest enjoyment humans share with one another. No matter your taste, no matter how tone deaf and dreadful that taste is, someone out there shares your love of that. It transports you to a time or place, makes you feel. It connects us. Our other basic human function is storytelling. These two things go hand in hand, either story through song or songs to support story, the arts have allowed us to express ourselves in ways that no other form can.

So music has also held much imperative to filmmaking; as we moved from tales around the campfire, the theatre, the novel and the symphony it all came together through cinema. From the beginning of film, we’ve almost never gone without it. I've always been in love with music in films but it was the score to Edward Scissorhands (Burton, 1990) that showed me the power and influence beautiful music can do to a wonderful story. And now it's what I listen out for most of all. Yet as we have moved forward, the score has diminished in use and complexity. When once we had sweeping orchestral pieces, harking back to the classic composers, we now have synthesizers and one note score. This isn’t always a bad thing but to look over the evolution of the score and to see where and how it changed is what I’d like to examine, and more specifically is there room for the classic score in our visual media today?

Some History

At the beginning of film, The 'silents' were always accompanied by a man on the organ and so we knew with our visual arts, even in the transition to film, that it would enhance our experiences. Upon watching classic silent films, even now, the music that is chosen to accompany on the DVD releases can heavily rely upon the success of that film. Many releases have gone as far as sourcing the original accompaniment for the films so it can be viewed how audiences would have one hundred years ago.

What came next was the ‘talkie’. The first of its kind was The Jazz Singer (Crosland) in 1927, and the start of a very long relationship between cinema and musicals. It soon became the norm to have sound in cinema although the equipment to record it could be deemed primitive. The music was often performed live, with an orchestra or gramophone on set.

This did not last long and soon music advanced, scored alongside the film to track the characters rising and falling emotional breaks, with the characters movement much like an animated film would be. Films are still scored like this today. In classic cinema we received some of the most powerful scores to date for the most iconic composers: Max Steiner’s work on Gone with the Wind (1939) and Casablanca (1942), Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s beautiful romanticism in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Disney played its part in this, creating original musical adventures - that do this day stand out as some of the greatest scores written for film - and even a variety of music-inspired animations such as Fantasia. Britain carried its weight producing excellent composers such as of John Barry and British classics like Richard Addinsell’s emotive accompaniment for Dangerous Moonlight (Hurst, 1941) and The Red Shoes (Powell & Pressburger 1948).

By the 1960’s and 1970’s, directors and sound designers were playing with the multi-layer tacks to create more engaging soundscapes seen in Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979) and sounds created through technology rather than instruments. The Doctor Who theme is a good example of the innovative techniques used, creating an otherworldly feel without the assistance of instruments. Furthermore, many directors like Stanley Kubrick using music from composers of old to score their soundtracks, we began seeing a shift in the movie score itself.

Big-budget family films still had room for the orchestral score and with the likes of Steven Spielberg, he kept the spirit of the epics of classic Hollywood alive in his films such as Indiana Jones films and E.T: The Extra:Terrestrial (1982) and capturing fantasy and adventure with the help of composer John Williams. But the complexity of the orchestra, the resourcefulness of electronic compositions, realizing that pre-recorded songs were cheaper to produce, and licensing songs meant they could cover it for less or use little known artists saw a major shift. Along with the excessive commercialism in the early 1980s. When once you could buy the vinyl of your favourite score, we began to see the rise in original OST sales on tape and Compact Disc. You could buy your favourite films playlist and carry it port-ably with your Walkman: The Lost Boys (Schumacher, 1987), The Breakfast Club (Hughes,1985), Pretty in Pink (Deutch, 1986) and many more. Films were combining tracks with original scores and we were seeing the soundtrack as merchandise as rather part of the film.

Surround sound was being introduced slowly, making the movie-going experience more intense – the viewer could now feel the bass of the track, the tremor in the auditorium and hear the minute sounds that would immense them all the more in the film. Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1993)and Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg, 1998) became the standard of big-budget blockbusters. In contrast, the rise of the independent feature brought to prominence by Steven Soderbergh’s Sex Lies and Videotape in 1989, any film that was not big-budget depended upon indie artists, new composers, simple scores or losing the score entirely.

It was Quentin Tarantino who revolutionised the use of music in film with his work on Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), taking classic tracks – sixties songs, funk, soul and rockabilly - layering them ironically on top of scenes and crafting his scenes around a certain song this way rather than having a score. After that, it became the in-thing for all directors to do, not just low-budget, as studios could see ways to save more money on getting the music and it being easier to sell if it was already familiar to the public. The risk was gone.

And although we still had Disney, James Horner (The reason I'm a sobbing mess when I watch The Land Before Time (Bluth, 1989) - those poor baby dinosaurs!), John Williams new composers paved the way. The likes of Thomas Newman, Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer reset the stage for scores in cinema with some of the most poignant and moving work to date. Particularly Newman's works, having started in mid to late 80’s, combining with orchestral scores and symph tones to create an ethereal mood that has enhanced many a film including The Shawshank Redemption (Darabont, 1994), The Green Mile (Darabont, 1999), American Beauty (Mendes, 2001), Finding Nemo (Stanton, 2003) to name a few. This style became very popular, and it soon became clear that the sweeping score had gone out of fashion.

History Lesson Over

Listening to a film now I am less excited by the music I hear. Soundtracks exploiting the 80s trend or beating you to death with songs you’ve heard on the radio for the past three weeks has grown exhausting. More than likely we’re due a revamp in the film score. Tired am I of the same three notes on the piano, a droning melody or a soundboard action piece. I suppose one could argue that The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a combination of all the tropes I have discussed through the history of film – but why are they the only ones? Because they can afford to.

I believe an idea came into play. That a score is a form of emotional manipulation to a film – that a scene is only funny if you slap a song on it, or sadder if the violins hit. This is true to an extent, but only in a bad movie. How many comedies have you seen where they have tried desperately to distract us from the underwhelming performances and dreadful writing? Too many, right? But when done right, music in a film can transcend the scene with the composer being hailed as revolutionary as Beethoven of Rachmaninoff. There’s’ plenty of working composers right now that I can think of that are blowing me away by their sound. But are they working in popular film?

Music applies to where it can seamlessly fit, where it belongs. So does it mean more stories we tell have less space for music? Or is the miserable world we’re living in meaning that we would rather watch a film stripped back to reflect it with a more realistic approach. I don’t believe that either, with the popularity of the superhero movies and action cinema, it’s clear we need to escape from this realm. But maybe we’re not listening out for what we deserve anymore? Maybe a beautiful score is lost because we’ve run out of ideas? Maybe we don’t realise how much it can enhance our viewing experience?

I have nothing against minimalist pieces or modern music score; one of my favourite soundtracks is the aforementioned Sex Lies and Videotape by Cliff Martinez who later went on to score plenty of neo-noir films including some nice pieces for Drive (Refn, 2011). But he was imitated quickly. Following the latter films release, it seemed everything became stripped back and where it worked for Refn it felt lazy on other things. Because where originality lay in the minimalism, gradually it lost its identity and with it being used in every other crime programme, moody teen show its becoming harder to separate one from the other.

Where I want to push originality and creativity, I don’t want it stuck behind a soundboard for the rest of time. Of course I want progression; I want new voices to come through who were inspired by the masters of the past. But I don’t want to lose the inherently raw soul from where we came. There is no sound so powerful of that of an orchestra, of instruments; its why watching a live recording of a musical isn’t the same. The horns sound deeper, the bass rocks your core, the piano lifts you up, a classical guitar pulls are you heartstring, and the violins carry you away. And it’s so organic, knowing those trained professionals, that have worked so hard for their exceptional talent, are able to create such beautiful music and bring so much joy to so many. That the composer was able to conjure such beautiful melodies in his mind and convey them to paper and the musicians bring it to life. I love the sound of instruments when utilized. A sound board can enhance it but it can’t capture its essence, successfully done rarely – an example of great work being Space Lion by Yoko Kanno, a track that must sound amazing live.

Even Disney soundtracks have been underwhelming and they have been some of my favourite of all time. During its renaissance, there isn’t a soundtrack I don’t cherish. Nostalgia can blur this but the combination of the great actors, the beautiful art and the amazingly put together stories combined with perfect music brings these films together as classics. Now, I’m lucky if I remember one or two songs and will rarely remember a melody – Love is an Open Door is worth remembering. Animation in general in the West has become a little lackluster since the transition from 2D to 3D, Stop-Motion Animation being the only works I get super-excited about.

I still believe that music is capable of enhancing a scene to its fullest. (SPOILER) I think of E.T going home, with the growing crescendo on his theme, as the characters all watch him leave in one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in cinema – beautiful lighting, framing, directing, set-design and writing. It’s iconic. That scene would have been powerful on its own. But when the music comes into play, it’s stuck in your head, you are trapped in this emotional whirlwind where just the melody smothers you in anguish, and you see each of their faces and E.T through the doors, his heart glowing and plant in hand. I can hear the beats, each of their expressions. In comparison to the Inception (2010) score, it Christopher Nolan and Hans Zimmer’s work can’t hold a candle.

It shouldn’t be the case that it is either one or the other yet in the West it seems to be going that way, with little emphasis on co-existence. Of course a matter of budget is considered. Of course what suits the story comes into consideration. Sometimes blending of the two, of orchestral and thumping tracks makes the experience far better. Whatever suits the story and the moment? Of the last films I saw at the cinema, Little Women (Gerwig, 2019) has the best soundtrack to support its story, but I’m not sure I could remember the melody on my own.

If it’s familiarity that audiences want then we shan’t see the end of the compilation soundtracks. Because although storytelling has always fed off of nostalgia, in the 21st century this has become close to an epidemic with audiences pining for the world before computers. It is my nostalgia that brings me to writing this today. I write to music, I love listening to scores and music from films and shows – BBC’s Poldark a favourite of recent years. For my own reminder of what I loved.

I’m always listening out for a new score and where it’s lost itself in western media, there are other places it is thriving. In foreign cinema, we have the amazing compositions of Alberto Iglesias making beautiful music for the films of Pedro Almodóvar. Japanese films and Anime are making the most of their excellent composers such as Yoko Kanno and Joe Hisaishi, combined soundtracks of both classical and pop in the case of The Radwimps for Makoto Shinkai’s films Your Name (2016) and Weathering with You (2019). Plenty of series are producing powerful scores such as Blue Spring Ride (2014), Gintama (2006-present) and My Love Story (2015). Kanno’s work on various projects, collaborating with amazing artists like The Seatbelts, Arnon Dan, Mai Yamane and Steve Conte has allowed her to blend a multitude of genres together seamlessly; Blues, Rock and Jazz for Cowboy Bebop (Watanabe, 1998), Pop/rock for Terror in Resonance (Watanabe, 2014), Classical and 80’s sounds for Wolf’s Rain (Okamura, 2003). Hisaishi works restore the magic to storytelling. Even a symphy soundtrack by Kensuke Ushio such as A Silent Voice (Yamada, 2016) makes room for beautiful piano melodies that reach right into your heart.

Another visual form that is producing some of the best scores of the past twenty years has been videogames. Somewhere along the way in the immersive experience, we allowed ourselves to be swept up in the characters we played to the beautiful music that would never find its way into a mainstream film today. Spanish composer, Oscar Araujo’s compositions for the fabulous Castlevania: Lords of Shadows (Konami, 2010 and 2014) one and two won a multitude of awards and its re-playability and emotionally engaging complexity makes it an all-time favourite of mine. Fable (Lionsgate, 2004) was also blessed with a wonderful score, as was The Dragon Age series (Bioware, 2009-present), The Mass Effect series (Bioware, 2007-2012) even the original Silent Hill (Konami, 1999 – 2003) games were iconic, including the ever-haunting Alessa’s Theme.

So the score isn’t dead, it’s found its home elsewhere. If we’re going to say it’s emotional manipulation then that’s fine by me. But sometimes we need to remember we’re human, and if listening to a melody from the saddest scene you can think of helps remind you of that, then go be human. Currently I’m listening to music as I type – right now it’s Separated by Yoko Kanno, from the Wolf’s Rain OST. It seems I want to cry as I write this. And as I listen, I recall a man remembering his lost love as he searches for her across a barren earth, I recall the bond of friends in a series I didn't expect to cherish so dearly. It allows me to connect with a story I love.

I want to see some resurgence of this kind of storytelling, I want to be moved by a film, where a piece plays and I can’t get it out of my head. We used to be really good at it. Music doesn’t have to be excessive. I think we’ve just fallen behind a little, once we start opening our eyes to World Cinema and those subtitles, once we acknowledge Animation and Gaming as legitimate storytelling, then maybe we can draw some true influence from them without seeming elitist or moronic. There’s a reason we’ve been enraptured by it.


If you want, you can have a listen to some of my other favourite works. Links are attached to titles leading to playlists and such so you can check them out!

Here are my Favourite Composers (And some of My Favourite Soundtracks):

Yoko Kanno

Terror in Resonance (Watanabe, 2014)

Wolf’s Rain (Okamura, 2003)

Cowboy Bebop (Watanabe, 1998)

John Williams

E.T: The Extra Terrestrial (Spielberg, 1982)

Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1993)

Thomas Newman

The Green Mile (Darabont, 1999)

Meet Joe Black (Brest, 1998)

The Shawshank Redemption (Darabont, 1994)

James Horner

The Land Before Time (Bluth, 1989)

A Beautiful Mind (Howard, 2001)

Braveheart (Gibson, 1995)

Joe Hisaishi

Howls Moving Castle (Miyazaki, 2004)

My Neighbour Totoro (Miyazaki, 1988)

Spirited Away (Miyazaki, 2001)

Disney… there’s a trend in this one

Beauty & The Beast (Trousdale & Wise, 1991) by Howard Ashman & Alan Menken

Pocahontas (Goldberg & Gabriel, 1995) by Alan Menken

Hercules (Clements & Musker, 1997) by Alan Menken

Brother Bear (Blaise & Walker, 2003) by Mark Mancia and Phil Collins

The Little Mermaid (Clements & Musker, 1989) by Howard Ashman & Alan Menken


Edward Scissorhands (Burton, 1990) by Danny Elfman

Interview with the Vampire (Jordan, 1994) by Elliot Goldenthal

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Jackson, 2001-2003) by Howard Shore

Out of Africa (Pollack, 1985) by John Barry

Psycho-Pass (Shiotani & Motohiro,2012 – present) by Yugo Kanno

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Hosoda, 2006) by Kiyoshi Yoshida

Wolf Children (Hosoda, 2014) by Masakatsu Takagi

Clannad: After Story (Ishihara, 2009) by Jun Maeda, Tabibito

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow One & Two (Konami, 2010 -2014) by Oscar Araujo

Hope you enjoyed and found some new favourite along the way. Tell me your favourite soundtracks and any great ones you've heard in recent films and shows. I'd love to hear what you love and discover.

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