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Insights from the World's Best Film Score Composers

As the movie awards season comes to a close, we thought we'd take a look at film composers. As musicians, we understand that movies wouldn’t pack nearly the emotional punch they have without the right soundtrack. While many movie soundtracks are primarily filled with clips of songs not written specifically for that movie, most will also include at least one original piece — if not an entire score.

Composing a movie score is a unique musical challenge. To learn about the process, its rewards and frustrations, we've pulled together a series of insights and observations from a group of successful movie composers.

Hildur Guðnadóttir, winner of the Academy Award® for Best Original Score for Joker

The Icelandic cellist, who had previously worked on movie scores, explains how she used the cello to represent Arthur's (the main character) arc in the film:

“The story is almost like this crescendo. We start with him not really knowing where he came from or been through, so not really understanding who he was and why he was. So I think the story starts out pretty subtle and quite emotional, and that’s what I wanted. For me, it was the cello, and Todd was clear from the beginning he wanted the cello to be a big part of the storytelling. For the cello, I wanted cello to be almost hidden in the beginning. So, in the first scene when the kids are attacking him, you hear a track you almost think is a solo cello. It’s a very low-key, lonely track that’s basically a solo cello, but in fact, there’s a whole orchestra playing behind the cello. It’s hidden, so you can’t really hear it, but you feel there’s more there, and that’s kind of what I wanted to experience with Arthur.” (Source: Slashfilm)

Call Me Joker

John Williams, World-Renowned Pianist, Conductor and Composer

John Williams has earned the second most Academy Award® nominations in history (52), just behind Walt Disney. He composed the score to Star Wars and the two most famous musical notes in movie history for Jaws. Having composed so many iconic scores, he talks about musical cultures and storytelling:

“With the Star Wars films and The War of the Worlds, one is always faced with a challenge of creating so much energy with the orchestra, because we have spaceships running and cannons firing and the orchestra blazing away. In the case of Geisha, the challenge and the opportunity was to combine the modalities of orientalism…with the broader emotional palette…of the Western symphony orchestra, and bring them together in a very delicate and even fragile kind of setting, which Geisha certainly was, at least by contrast to me…But I think the biggest single mission perhaps of the filmmakers and myself is to try to seek universalisms in the story, in the music and in the emotions.” (Source: Gramaphone)

Suite from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:

Ennio Morricone, Eclectic Award-Winning Composer of Cinema Paradiso, Magnificent Seven

Ennio Morricone has scored hundreds of movies and television shows since he began his award-filled career in 1961. His career took off in 1964 when famed Italian director Sergio Leone hired him. He would continue to work with Leone as well as other great directors such as Brian De Palma and Quentin Tarantino.

“The key to writing music as a backdrop to violence is to push musicians to their physical and mental limits. You have to convey this idea of violence, so you do that firstly by working on the register and timbre of the music,” he says. “You try to take each instrument’s range to the extreme. Because the suffering of the musician playing in that way — which is quite difficult — has to resemble the suffering that the victims of those violent scenes endured.” (Source: The Guardian)

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: 


Ramin Djawadi, Grammy AND EMMY Nominee, Composer of Westworld, Game of Thrones

Ramin Djawadi was inspired to become a film composer by Ennio Morricone (The Magnificent Seven) and was recruited to Hollywood by composer Hans Zimmer. But Djawadi takes a very different approach than either of them. His work includes Westworld, IronMan, and Prison Break. He talks about working with the producers of The Game of Thrones, for which Djawadi was nominated for a Grammy® award.

“I like to fall into the story and just dream about what it is, and it leads me to create music that puts me in the place. I create a palette of sound for that particular project.… In the case of Game of Thrones, before I started writing I sat down with David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. We talked about the tone of the show, and I just listened to what their vision was. ...They'll say, ‘We really like this instrument, do you think you can make this work? We like the violin, we don't like this.’ All that information helps me, and then I go in and actually turn that into music and go from there.” (Interviews on Hollywood Reporter, NPR)

Opening credits for Game of Thrones:


Westworld sound track:

Rachel Portman, Award-Winning Composer for the films Emma, Bessie

Rachel Portman, the first woman to win an Academy Award® for Best Musical or Comedy Score with her score for Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow in 1996. Most recently, she won an Emmy® in 2015 for Outstanding Music Composition for a Miniseries, Movie, or a Special for Bessie, a biopic starring Queen Latifah as blues great Bessie Smith. In this interview, Portman talks about working from scene to scene and within a scene:

“…obviously action music is very different from a delicate love scene where there's a lot of dialogue, where the music really needs to keep out of the way and just be very gently supportive. I think that's very important…not to add another layer of the same thing that's already on the screen.” (Source: NPR)


Hans Zimmer, Celebrated Composer for The Lion King, Dunkirk

Hans Zimmer won an Academy Award® for Best Original Score for The Lion King, (1995), in addition to numerous other awards for his other film scores. Included among them are The Dark Knight trilogy, Gladiator, and Dunkirk. He reveals the core of his approach to composing music for a film:

“The art of being a film composer hasn’t changed. The basic idea remains the same and that is to ask a question: ‘Why are we having music here?’ And they need to ask themselves, ‘Why is there an orchestra playing on this scene?’ A composer has to figure that out before they begin making music. When an audience comes into a movie theatre they want to have an emotional experience. All I’m trying to do, quite seriously, is open the doors that lend themselves to that. It’s not my job to tell the audience what to do or what to feel – I’m trying to enhance the film experience. It’s not about dictating or patronising in any way.”
“Really it’s the storytelling that is driving the process at all times.” (Source: MusicTech)

Selected tracks from Gladiator: 


Michael Giacchino, Composer of The Incredibles, Batman, Doctor Strange

Michael Giacchino started composing music for computer games and television shows before composing music for The Incredibles in 2005, for which he was nominated for a Grammy® award. He has since composed music for Cloverfield, Doctor Strange, and Spider-Man: Homecoming. Here he talks about how creating video game soundtracks played an important role in his becoming a film composer:

“You can go to school forever, but you're never really going to learn until you just do it.  So everything I did in school prior to that really helped as a baseline, but orchestration and the understanding of all of those things are only aspects of music you can really "get" if you do it.  So it was the greatest school I ever had, working for Dreamworks doing video games. It was a great training ground.” (Source: Soundtrack.net)

Theme from Batman:


Hopefully these words from these celebrated, hard-working film composers give you some insight into how they approach their craft and profession. Intrigued by the idea of composing music? Here’s where you can learn more about how to become a film composer.