What Is Film Scoring? Plus 8 Famous Film Score Examples
Learn how composers craft pitch-perfect audiovisual stories with music, then explore famous examples from the world of film and documentary
A film score is the music that underpins any great movie, adding an extra layer of emotion and power to a narrative. Successful scores prepare the audience for major plot events, guide them through character emotions, and leave a lasting impression.
But as musician and composer Simon Smith (@simon_smith) explains, “filmmaking is a complex business and you need to know your place in it, and how music creation and placement fits into the whole.” Here, we’ll learn how scoring augments stories, the different types of film score music, and eight iconic projects that reveal the true potential of sound.
What is a film score?
Simon explains that scoring an audiovisual project means applying music to enhance the story with “depth, commentary, and emotional fuel.” The music will clarify emotions, build tension, and support the story’s rhythm. It should also feed into the director’s vision, so you need an open mind and collaborative approach—balancing your expertise with the film’s overall intentions.
You’ll find scores in feature films, documentaries, animation, short films, advertising, and more. In each case, it serves a purpose that adds to the overall effect on the audience.
Simon explains that his approach to a new project is to break down the story, working out where to add layers of musical narrative. You are essentially “sculpting a musical journey, working on the outline” with layers of subliminal messaging. Viewers may not even notice the music and sound, but their brain will pick up cues subconsciously.
What are the different types of scores?
Depending on the project, a composer or sound designer will make specific music choices. First, let’s examine the different ways music can be incorporated into a story.
1. Diegetic or “source” music: This is music that the characters can hear. For example, someone playing a song on an instrument in the scene. Another example would be your protagonist playing their favorite song on the radio—this helps to build characterization.
2. Non-Diegetic, or the “score”: This is music the characters can’t hear. The underscore is the music layered under scenes for dramatic effect. Montages are songs that play over a sequence of short scenes, which shift the plot or location forward. Opening and closing music might feature a distinctive few bars which repeat like a chorus.
3. Pre-existing: This is music that the viewer is familiar with, like a famous pop song. Some films use only pre-existing music, like Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
4. Written, or bespoke: This is commissioned music, which might be diegetic or non-diegetic, written exclusively for the film. This allows for more creative control.
Now, let’s consider some of the genres that commonly appear in film scores.
1. Orchestral, classical: this is romantic and varied, and often appears in sad films or hero stories.
2. Jazz: this is a genre with lots of space and flexibility, ideal for scenes full of movement.
3. Avant-garde and experimental: this minimal music style might be very repetitive, and is great for dramas and horror.
4. Ambient and electronic: ideal for sci-fi and noirs, here the atmosphere is more important than a complex melody.
5. Acoustic: this style is lonely and spacious, great for quiet and thoughtful films.
The genre you choose will affect many aspects of your composition, like instrumentation, rhythm and pace, and melody (harmonies and baselines).
Now we have a basic understanding, let’s look at (and listen to) eight examples Simon mentions in his course, where music is a foundational part of the storytelling.
1. The Lost Weekend (1945), music by Miklós Rózsa
This film about an alcoholic man provoked a strange response in early screenings. Without any music, people confused the tragic moments for comedy. The creators pulled the film and gave it to Miklós Rózsa to score, and it ended up winning an Oscar for best actor. Nothing in the acting was edited, but the new orchestral score supported and clarified the actor’s performance. Listen in the trailer below:
2. The Incredibles (2004), music by Michael Giacchino
This Pixar animation pays homage to classic hero narratives with a family comedy spin. Simon notes this is a good example of the balance between practicality and originality—understanding the patterns people expect while adding something new. The orchestral score uses heroic brass and strings for retro vibes that recall old spy thrillers and mystery films. Listen to the clip below:
3. Inception (2010), music by Hans Zimmer
Zimmer is a great lesson in minimalism and more avant-garde approaches. In “Time” and other songs, four simple chords led by piano and strings grow and swell like waves, with symmetry and repetition that trigger our emotions. Listen below:
4. The Dark Knight (2004), music by Hans Zimmer
Taking this idea further is Zimmer’s theme for the Joker, “Why so Serious?”, which slides and plays around one note. This restriction keeps the music feeling tense, and somehow makes louder moments even more shocking—ideal for an inconsistent villain character.
5. In the Mood for Love (2000), music by Shigeru Umebayashi
Umebayashi’s score for this romantic drama about two people whose partners have an affair, and also develop feelings for each other, features a lilting violin layered over plucked strings. The effect is curious and haunting, and feels like a slow evolution—mirroring the story.
6. Requiem for a Dream (2000), music by Clint Mansell
This score, performed by the Kronos Quartet, blends together a constant pulse with what Simon calls a “terrifyingly insistent” melody, which perfectly captures the sense of deprivation of the main characters, who battle with drug addiction.
7. Lucky People Center International (1998), music by various artists
This documentary on world culture features choppy flash-cuts set against various soundscapes and music. Sounds from the real world (diegetic sounds) become integrated into the underscore (the non-diegetic music). Lucky People Center was a Swedish artist collective, and through this film fed various artists’ sounds into their trademark ambient trance style.
8. What About Me? (2002), music by 1 Giant Leap feat. various artists
What About Me? is an album by the UK group 1 Giant Leap, who also undertook a documentary project featuring everything from throat-singing to afro-pop, electronica, rock’n’roll, hip hop, and more. Alongside the CD, a movie version was broadcast on British television. Like International, this is a great source of inspiration for large-scale, supercut projects that fuse world music genres to paint a picture of the human condition.
Music can transform and enhance a film’s atmosphere and experience. If you’re ready to try it yourself, remember to check out Simon’s course, Music Production for Films, where you’ll learn how to score a short film from the basics of composition to the production process.
Discover more musical inspiration with these resources
1. Read tips on how to perfect an at-home sound recording booth.
2. Watch these ten must-see movies that were made by their sound.
3. Learn how to create new rhythms with this introduction to percussion course by Carlinhos Brown.
4. Master Ableton with this course to learn musical composition for films by Jonah Schwartz.
You’re selling the film short: yes, Ray Milland did win the Best Actor Oscar but, of greater import, Brackett and Wilder’s film also won the BEST PICTURE OSCAR. Did Rozsa’s score have anything to do with both those Academy Awards? It’s unquantifiable, of course, but common sense says that neither likely would’ve won without Rozsa’s music.
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