What Makes a Film Score Compelling?
Every year since 1934 several movie scores have been nominated for an Academy Award for the Best Original Score. The nominated scores represent bodies of music that are written specifically for the film. This past year there were 5 Oscar nominations for Best Original Score. With hundreds of movies released every year, each with multiple music scores, a question that may arise is what makes certain music scores compelling enough to deserve to win an Oscar while others are quickly forgotten.
According to Emmy, Grammy, Golden Globe and Academy Award composer Michael Giacchino, several aspects make music scores compelling (original source).
Repeat, Repeat, Repeat: In Pixar’s Up, Giachino built up a marriage scene at the start of the movie by repeating the melody over and over again while changing certain aspects of the scores to match the echo and mood of the scene. As the marriage proceeds in the scene and both individuals age, the melody slows until the wife dies and the music ends with a piano playing for a long bit. In the scene, Giachino created a score whose progression changes to mimic the emotionality of the scene through small changes. These small but significant tweaks consequently increase the emotional response moviegoers feel while watching the scene. Ultimately this scene and the score sets the tone for much of the movie.
Be Prepared to do the opposite of what you should do: In Super 8 Giacchino opted for going with a quit score in the final emotional scene whereas other composers may have gone for a big and loud score. His goal was to have the music act to “figure out how to help” the moviegoer during this powerful and emotional final scene rather than using “loud music to yell” and ask the moviegoer how they are doing.
Know When to Strike Out of the Movie: In Star Trek Giacchino’s attempts to score a scene between young and old Spock kept sounding too spacey. He contributed his struggle in composing music for the scene to trying too hard to write music specifically for a Star Trek movie rather than for the particular scene. Prompted by some great advice from Damon Lindelof, Giacchino focused on making a music score that was made specifically to compliment two people who meet and become close friends.
The common thread that all of Giacchino’s tips for making a compelling music score is the importance of the score matching and maximizing the emotional response moviegoers feel from watching the scene. Giacchino’s advice in making excellent scores underlines the essential role music plays in movies and television. In fact, one must wonder if Oscar-winning films like Moonlight, Up and Titanic did not have music would moviegoers have still connected with the characters on an emotional level, a connection that cements movies into timeless classics.