What is the secret of inspirational movie music?
By inspirational, I mean the kind of music traditionally used to salute artists who have inspired audiences and other artists.
Part of the reason cinema has traditionally been a superior medium to television is the immersive experience in an auditorium.
It accentuates not only the sound design of the film but also the musical choices of the director.
Although the effect is reduced at home in front of your TV (or computer) the same principles are at work.
But how do they work?
Composer Hans Zimmer briefly touches upon the subject in this interview about his early career, when he discusses the rise of MTV, how he got his break in Hollywood [interview starts about 0:30]:
When we listen to music our brains instantly detect a mood, which makes it appear effortless or easy.
But is actually precisely the opposite, as the composer or director are always skating on very thin ice as they risk the danger of sentimental cliche at any moment.
Such a moment can ruin a sequence, which is especially apparent in a film when the final audio and visual mix blends so many key elements together.
I’ve written before about frequently used trailer cues and, though they often get overused, there is a reason they were popular in the first place.
What’s interesting is that these pieces of music don’t necessarily have to be in great movies.
Last night I saw this tweet about music that was playing during one of the Oscar montages:
Twenty years after David Newman’s HOFFA score, and it’s still getting a workout in inspirational montages.
— Matthew Seitz (@mattzollerseitz) February 27, 2012
Although I saw Hoffa (1992) when it came out, for some reason it rarely gets played on UK television.
I remember it as an interesting, rather than a great movie, but listening to David Newman‘s score again I realised that there was something about it that fits neatly into a tribute segment.
His brother Thomas Newman is also a noted film composer and he too had a piece of music used in a montage last night.
It was from Meet Joe Black (1998) – a passion project for director Martin Brest that is now remembered as a costly 3-hour indulgence.
But although it is by no means a masterpiece, Thomas Newman’s score is magical, hitting emotional buttons all over the place.
Likewise, I’ve heard cues from Newman’s scores for Road to Perdition (2002) and Finding Nemo (2003) crop up on television, often in factual programming that needs a bit of a musical lift, which have his signature blend of melodies and instrumentation.
Similarly Carter Burwell’s main theme for Miller’s Crossing (1990) is another piece of music that provokes an instant mood, which is probably why it was used on the trailer for The Shawshank Redemption (1994).
Although it didn’t do that film’s theatrical prospects much good – it was only later that it became a hit on VHS and TV – you can see the marketing folk at Castle Rock chose it.
Then there are pieces of film music that live in through influence.
One of the most indelible scores of the last twenty years is Hans Zimmer’s work for Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998).
The track ‘Journey to the Line’ somehow manages to capture the epic dread, excitement and adrenaline rush of men about to kill each other.
But like a lot of music used in Malick movies, somehow goes beyond that to a state of ecstasy that is hard to pin down.
Zimmer repeated the soaring strings – albeit with a heavy does of electronic elements – for his remarkable score to Inception (2010).
You can see why Nolan – a huge Malick fan – went to the same man who composed that poetic war movie.
The combination of strings, brass and slow-burn build up pays off brilliantly.
Which brings us back to last night’s Oscars ceremony as another piece of music used in the montage ‘what-makes-movies-great’ segments was Mychael Danna’s score to Moneyball (2011).
Not only was this my personal favourite of last year, I suspect that it is going to become a fixture with TV companies looking to add inspiration to their coverage of the forthcoming Olympics or various other supporting events.
Not only does it sound like a cross between Philip Glass and the aforementioned Thomas Newman, but it doesn’t fall into the trap of overkill.
As a commenter on YouTube puts it:
“the progression and growing intensity in this piece rouse feelings of tremendous achievement, glorious victory, energized accomplishment…”
Which is ironic because Moneyball reflects the bitter-sweet nature of Billy Beane‘s career – whilst his ideas conquered Major League Baseball, his team did not.
But then that is arguably a strength of the film is that it focuses on the power of ideas (specifically on-base percentage) rather than luck or phoney sports movie clichés.
The score reflects this by always holding back on a big flourish – some of the pieces are under 2 minutes – so maybe that’s partly what’s so effective about it.
“Absence of external association makes music unique among the arts”
Whilst this is true of music generally, it does not apply to film music as it is precisely about the external association of sounds with the image we see on screen.
There are differences between music specifically scored for a film and use of pre-existing pieces (maybe the subject of another post) but it the question still remains as to why it affects our emotions in this way.
It is hard to write down or even talk about the precise effect film music has on us, so I asked Twitter users earlier what music they found ‘inspirational’ (not a perfect word, but it is indicative of a certain mood) and they suggested the following.
Another user suggested:
‘most of Sergio Leone’s films’
Can you imagine the climax from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) without Ennio Morricone’s iconic score?
[Spoiler alert, obviously]
It is worth noting that this is Quentin Tarantino’s favourite movie scene of all time, which is interesting that such a master of dialogue should fall for a wordless sequence – but then maybe that’s what he admires about it.
What would be you inspirational music of choice?