Arts & Culture

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What makes a good soundtrack?

What makes a good soundtrack?

Tamsin Hilliker discusses film soundtracks

Generally speaking, if you were to check the top ten soundtracks on iTunes at any time, the majority, if not all, will be compilations of songs, rather than original orchestral scores. It is also interesting that many of the Oscar winning soundtracks have been Disney scores, again, full of songs. Not at all to discredit the work of Alan Menken, a fantastic multi-Academy award winning composer (including The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin) it is simply interesting to observe the pattern. There have been some amazing soundtracks over the years that have lost out to Disney films, perhaps due to this assumption that songs make a soundtrack more worthy of winning. However, it is a too-common misconception to think that a soundtrack needs songs.

As for style, individuality is key. Some of the greatest composers have very obvious styles; James Horner’s was characterised by a combination of modern and ethnic elements with unrestricted tempo, and Thomas Newman’s music is instantly distinguishable for its ethereal, almost nostalgic quality. Very particular styles can instantly complement a film and juxtaposition of the musical style with the setting of the film can also make for an incredibly memorable score. One recent example, perhaps controversial due to the film’s negative reception, is 300: Rise of an Empire. Junkie XL’s electronic-meets-antiquity music in fact enhances it perfectly, most likely due to the very stylised comic book-feel of the franchise.

Another idea I would like to challenge is that soundtracks have to be melodic or typically ‘pretty-sounding’ to be good. Admittedly most of my favourite soundtracks are fantastic to listen to outside the context of the film, however there are numerous that are still great despite their lack of obvious ‘attractiveness’. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ soundtrack for Gone Girl is not exactly what most people would describe as ‘easy-listening’, as the tranquil tones throughout are contrasted with jarring electronic sounds. This perfectly reflects the nature of the film, instantly creating an incredibly uneasy atmosphere. Even Horner’s score for Apocalypto is, at times, hard to listen to, due to its intensity and discordant quality. This, however, is a display of his talent and versatility; the violent sounds superbly matching the thrillingly violent film.

Of course, it would be an injustice to discuss great soundtracks without mentioning Bernard Herrmann, whose music has inspired so many composers – his score for Psycho no doubt becoming the archetypal horror music. Despite his talent as a musician, it was decided that Hitchcock’s The Birds would not have music at all, but rather the charged atmosphere was created using electronic bird sounds. Although simple, it was ingenious, and incredibly progressive for the time. Herrmann’s work continues to be reflected today, particularly in television shows such as American Horror Story.

A great soundtrack will also play upon the main themes of a film. Before Christopher Nolan told Hans Zimmer the plot of Interstellar, he simply asked him to write a piece of music about being a father. Most distinctively the soundtrack uses organs – not exactly what you’d expect from a sci-fi film. With the sound of organs, particular images are invoked; the church services of christenings, weddings and funerals, thus symbolising the journey through life shared by a parent and their child. Rather than being obviously sci-fi, it intelligently complements what the film is really about: the unbreakable bond of love between a parent and their child.

There are various aspects that can make a soundtrack great. Being ‘easy-listening’ is not necessary for it. A great soundtrack breaks boundaries, yet knows its place within the narrative of the film. It complements and enhances the main themes, yet can be outstanding in its own right. Subtlety or outrageousness can be signs of a fantastic soundtrack: it entirely depends on the nature of the film. For films such as Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean, a bizarre soundtrack would not be appropriate, as their iconic melodies are part of why the franchises are so popular. However, for many of the more unusual films, having an experimental soundtrack can be an admirable quality. As Hitchcock and Herrmann proved decades ago, an absence of ‘soundtrack’ as we know it can be the perfect soundtrack.

Featured image: Cover album for Psycho’s Original Motion Picture Score

Tamsin Hilliker