One of the trademark characteristics of a nerd is that he or she loves film scores.
Actually, I just made that up and it’s not always true anyway; it depends on what flavor of nerd you are. Someone who obsesses over music, movies, and stories (versus, say, computers) is probably the sort of nerd who’ll love film scores. In other words, me. I love many types of music and one that I can’t believe I didn’t love passionately until about a year ago is film scores. After I see a really good movie, I usually end up listening to the score a few days later on YouTube. My definition of a good film score is one that both enhances the film and can be enjoyed when you’re not watching the film.
If you’re still not convinced that film scores are awesome, try this. Imagine the opening sequence of any Star Wars movie, from the title to the yellow font scrolling up the screen. Without even trying to, you probably heard the familiar triumphant theme as you pictured the beginning. See what I mean? Many excellent pieces from film scores are well known even by non-nerds, but sometimes there are pieces that deserve to be better known.
It was very difficult to make this list, first narrowing the long original list to just ten pieces and then putting them in what I considered the proper order. To make it easier for me and more interesting for readers, I gave myself some rules. There could be only one piece from a movie, otherwise one or two films might dominate. Also, I needed to have actually seen the film so that I could analyze how the music affected the movie. This caused me to drop my choice of either the main theme or A Promise from The Avengers. The pieces also had to be from movies I liked because if I didn’t like the movie, I wouldn’t have paid enough attention to it to explain how the score enhances the film. For example, the score for Thor is actually quite good – probably one of the prettiest I’ve listened to – but it’s the best part of the movie by default because the actual movie was easily the stupidest thing I’d ever seen. Finally, the songs had to be instrumental. If they had any vocals, those had to be purely embellishment and not the main focus of the piece. Well. That was my intent. I did kind of bend the rules, but just once. I swear.
In spite of all those rules, this list may still be slightly biased and I don’t deny it. See, my choices come overwhelmingly from movies made within my lifetime, the past sixteen years. (The two that don’t are from 1962 and 1993. Neville will give hugs to anyone who knows which ones!) However, as I said above, at least I didn’t include six songs from one film! Some of you may be happy about this, but some of you may not. The latter group might insist that one film has such a great score that I really should have included at least two songs from it. However, I want to represent the wide range of excellent film scores and my little rule allowed me to do that. You may notice that I didn’t mind listing a composer more than once, because their work can differ widely from movie to movie. So you know that if any of them are mentioned more than once, I really love their work.
If you like a certain piece I’ve chosen, branch out! Listen to the rest of the songs from the same score; in many cases I liked several songs from a movie and it was just a matter of one being ever-so-slightly better than another. Also, I’d love to hear your opinions about what I’ve chosen, whether you agreed with me or thought I picked something crazy.
10. Married Life from Up – Michael Giacchino
Sometimes I’m jealous that films for little kids get some of the best scores. Actually, I don’t think Up is necessarily a little kid’s film and the music is a huge reason why. The relationship depicted between the elderly couple, Ellie and Carl, is touching. I hardly ever cry during movies (books are a different matter) but I did tear up a bit when Ellie died because Carl was so sad – and because the music that starts out so happily becomes melancholy. This movie is one of the most bittersweet I have ever seen and that’s why I wouldn’t classify it as only a little kid’s movie. The main theme, titled Married Life, begins playfully, then slows and grows more introspective. It sounds like growing up – the beginning reminds me of kids playing and as they grow up and become more serious, so does the music. But even when the music becomes darker, the melody – the heart of the piece – is still the same. Just like people.
9. Main Theme from Lawrence of Arabia – Maurice Jarre
I saw this movie a couple of years ago and remember that it was pretty good, but out of all the movies mentioned here, this one is by far the foggiest in my mind. It’s very long and there are a lot of guys in turbans riding about in the sand and occasionally fighting. The theme is so, “Look at me!” in the beginning but I like the quieter parts later on. And now I’m running out of things to say. I told you I didn’t remember much about this movie!
8. Main Theme from The King’s Speech – Alexandre Desplat
I was going to say that this was one of the few truly happy songs I’ve chosen for the list, but then I realized that it’s just as bittersweet as some of the others. It just fools you into thinking it’s all happy because the beginning is happy. To me the start sounds determined, just as the Queen of England is determined to help the King get rid of his stuttering. But about halfway through it gets slower and quieter; it sounds like things are getting difficult and people are giving up, which is what they nearly do. But I’m not telling you what finally happens. Go watch the movie.
7. Main Theme from Jurassic Park – John Williams
How does John Williams do it?! It’s like he not only managed to travel back in time to see the dinosaurs; he also somehow manages to make the piece just sound so dinosaur. I’m trying not to describe too many pieces here as “majestic” and yet I have to call this majestic. It shows how magnificent the dinosaurs are. It’s not particularly fast at the beginning (just like the bigger dinosaurs – somehow I don’t think the sauropods were sprinters) but just sit back and listen. This is also a ton of fun to play on the piano!
6. Across The Stars from Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones – John Williams
I nearly chose the Imperial March, but I had one of those, “What are you thinking?!” moments. The aforementioned piece is really cool because it’s so intimidating, but I think Across the Stars is better because it shows a different, more peaceful side of Star Wars. (This is possibly the only piece where I’m cheating a little, because while I like Star Wars as a whole, the prequel trilogy wasn’t as good as the original. But it has the best musical pieces.) This is Anakin and Padmé’s love theme and while the acting and plot were both decent in Episode II, what really sold me on their being so in looooove was this song. It’s so quiet and calming and yet if you have any idea of where the story’s going, it’s also very sad. It sounds happy at the beginning but we know that their story doesn’t end well and then towards the end of the piece, the music gets darker. My favorite part is the last minute or so…
5. Test Drive from How To Train Your Dragon – John Powell
This song makes me want to jump on the back of a dragon and fly away, preferably to Middle-earth or Narnia or Hogwarts. It’s another little-kid’s-film score that makes me jealous. The movie was quite good especially since most of its kind are so stupid that you start banging your head against a wall because there’s just too much cutesyness. But it’s the music that I loved most. It sounds magical but not the kind of quiet magic that makes me think of, I don’t know, elves. This song is about something just as fantastical but it’s all about power and majesty – what dragons have. It makes me want to scream, “It’s not fair! Why aren’t dragons real? Why can’t dragons be real at least for me? I would name mine Boris!” It’s also basically the only piece here that isn’t downright sad or at least bittersweet.
4. Lothlórien from The Fellowship of the Ring – Howard Shore
I was going to choose In Dreams from the same movie, but then I figured that if I was going to use a song with quite a lot of vocals, I shouldn’t use one with words. Lothlórien has just stuff, as far as I can tell. No actual words, so they shouldn’t count as anything more than embellishments, right?
Lothlórien is one of the places where elves live. It’s my favorite place in all of Middle-earth and I was very pleased that its scene had such cool music in the film. Its theme is unearthly, which is the point; the elves aren’t technically from Middle-earth. It’s very pretty, but also intimidating. Just like the elves.
3. Main Theme from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Howard Shore
What I love about this song is that it sounds a lot like any of Shore’s other compositions for the world of Middle-earth, but it’s obviously dwarven. The trilogy films sound elvish but that wouldn’t work for this film since it’s about, well, dwarves. It sounds strong and no-nonsense. It mixes in some familiar stuff like Concerning Hobbits but also follows the tune of the dwarves’ song Over the Misty Mountains Cold from the original book, which is really cool because I don’t know of any other composer who’s done that. I swear it played every five minutes in the movie, but that still wasn’t enough for me.
2. Obliviate from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I – Alexandre Desplat
(What?! Harry Potter isn’t #1? This means it can’t be #1, right? Yes and yes. Am I out of my mind? No. It’s true that I love the Harry Potter books; I’ve been a fan of them for most of my life. But it irritates me when people think that I am all about Harry Potter. There’s far more to me than my love of those books and I don’t let them blind me to all the other awesome things in the world, therefore I did not choose music from the Harry Potter films to be #1. Get over it, people.)
Oh my Gollum, it was hard for me to choose just one track from all the wonderful Harry Potter songs. At various times I considered choosing Hedwig’s Theme, Lily’s Theme, Severus and Lily/Dumbledore’s Farewell, Fireworks, and Leaving Hogwarts. I ended up choosing Obliviate because it is both typical and unusual of the Potter movies. It sounds pretty; that’s normal. However, it’s a lot darker than most of the songs and I really love that. It’s also completely its own song. It doesn’t incorporate any new themes but that’s not a bad thing. It begins quietly and sounds like thunder, then the violins come in sounding insistent. This is the opening song of the movie, by the way, so those violins make you feel a bit anxious about what will happen next. What really surprised me when I saw the movie for the first time was that about a minute and a half in, it gets really pretty – but it’s dark. I mean, it plays while Hermione wipes her parents’ memories and the trio all look despairingly towards the camera! Normally the Harry Potter music is only pretty during happy scenes. This song is amazing and I tried to learn it on the piano but I have to admit that I gave up (for now) because it’s so hard to make it sound as pretty as it does with a full orchestra.
1. Rue’s Farewell from The Hunger Games – James Newton Howard
The CD I listen to the most is The Hunger Games film score. I got it for my birthday and I can play this song on the piano! Lots of people have heard of The Hunger Games soundtrack with all the Taylor-Swift-and-other-popular-artists songs, but the score is what you actually hear in the film and it’s amazing. But not many people pay attention to it. Remember what I said about how if I list a composer here more than once, I must really like him? (I ended up not choosing any songs written by female composers.) Well, it’s kind of funny that I only listed Howard once because I adore the score for this film. He’s a brilliant, brilliant guy.
I chose this piece, a funeral song for a little girl, because it is the saddest and most beautiful song I have ever heard. It makes me feel more grief – and more anger – than even Lily’s Theme. While reading The Hunger Games, I was sorry that Rue died but I didn’t care too much about her. One of the most amazing scenes in a most amazing movie was Rue’s farewell scene; it was wonderfully acted and filmed. It was already incredibly emotional and adding the music made it more so. It’s sad all the way through, but starts quietly and becomes louder, almost angry-sounding. This music made me cry but more than that, it made me angry towards the Capitol. Yes, I know that the Capitol doesn’t exist – that’s the power of film scores. They make you feel emotional about things that aren’t even real.
If you asked me to define beauty, I would say that it is both beautiful writing and beautiful music. I hope you like some of what I think is beautiful! What are your favorite pieces from film scores?