The Magic of Music in Movies: How Scores and Soundtracks Operate and Differ

Hello Interwebs! Few aspects of film are more important than music. While it might sound like hyperbole, the melodies a director chooses can make or break a final product. Will score or soundtrack better suit their needs? What’s the difference, and how are each used to enhance movies? Read on to find out…

Music is arguably the most powerful weapon in a filmmaker’s arsenal. After all: the perfect song can elevate a scene from mediocre to iconic! Steven Spielberg eloquently described the impact of cinematic music at a lifetime achievement award ceremony for his friend– the legendary John Williams:

Without John Williams, bikes don’t really fly, nor do brooms in Quidditch matches, nor do men in red capes. There is no Force, dinosaurs do not walk the Earth, we do not wonder, we do not weep, we do not believe.

Spielberg’s sentiment applies not just to Williams, but to all cinematic music (the good stuff, anyway). Thing is: a director must know whether score or soundtrack will better enhance their work. They each operate in distinct ways and create unique effects.

For the purposes of this article– I’m defining “score” as musical accompaniment to a scene (orchestral, electronic, vocal) originally written for a movie, and “soundtrack” as a collective use of songs within a film (most of which were not written for a movie, but which otherwise might be marketable in their own right as independent creations).

​It’s a filmmaker’s job to choose whatever music works best for the moment they’re crafting. To that end: Scores and soundtracks often serve different purposes in cinema. Score is primarily used to enhance what the movie is “telling” us. Whether it’s used in emotional dialogue scenes, epic action, or ambiance, a score compliments what’s happening on screen. If imagery and other audio are the movie’s “text”, the score acts as subtext. In other words: the music tells us how we’re supposed to feel. For an example of how important score is to creating a scene’s vibe, look no further than the following video. If you’ve seen Star Wars, you’re probably aware of the scene. But you probably didn’t know how bad it sucks without the music…

Contrary to the above clip– John Williams’ score lends a sense of catharsis to the proceedings. Without the music, we just watch a boring medal ceremony, but with the music we witness a triumphant moment of celebration after a victory over tyranny. Every action carries weight; the sense of joy within the characters radiates; the proceedings are lively and remarkable!

Meanwhile, soundtracks act more as “text” alongside a film’s other elements. It helps that soundtrack music rarely plays over scenes of dialogue, so the lyrics of songs are meant to tell the story alongside the visuals. At least– that’s often the case. Lyrics don’t always matter in soundtrack songs but even seemingly irrelevant subjects can’t be disregarded entirely. This scene from Rocky 3 perfectly combines both imagery and music to clearly state the thesis of the film: “So many times, it happens too fast– you change your passion for glory; Don’t lose your grip on the dreams of the past– you must fight just to keep them alive”.

Notice the switch in perspectives halfway through: at first we follow Rocky as he defends his championship, but then he becomes a more distanced figure, shown mostly to us in promotional material while we experience the rise of Clubber Lang. Rocky has sold out and lost the “Eye of the Tiger” whilst Lang hones it. The imagery would have conveyed this story well enough, but the song adds an extra layer the scene wouldn’t otherwise have had, even with a good score.

Though a film’s music directly changes the impact of its story and presentation, it also modifies a film’s cultural legacy in ways which may not be as obvious. One major factor directors ought to consider when focusing their film around scores or soundtracks is how the music will age. Soundtracks, however entertaining, are timely whereas scores are timeless.

Could you imagine Star Wars with a disco music soundtrack? It might have happened. The movie released at the height of that music genre, and plenty of film-goers of the time would have dug the choice. The original Star Wars is a classic film which inspired one of the biggest franchises of all time, but how dated would it look today if John Williams’ iconic compositions had been usurped by Abba or the Bee Gees? I love those bands but yikes!

But what about films like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 1 and Vol 2? Those films use soundtracks from decades ago! So how can that get any more dated? Fair point. However, I’d argue soundtracks like Guardians’ date themselves based on the people who curate them. James Gunn (the director of those films) was born in 1970, so most of the songs in Guardians were likely ones he grew up with. I don’t mean to overgeneralize, but I feel like movie-goers will be hard-pressed to find similar soundtracks made by anybody my age (early 20s). By the time my generation is as old as James Gunn, our soundtracks might feature a lot of music from the 2000s/ 2010s but probably not a lot older– maybe as the exception, but not as the rule.

I make the idea of “dating” seem like a bad thing but that isn’t necessarily the case. Sometimes films are meant to be timely. Modern music goes a long way to helping that. And it can be charming to watch old movies that are obviously “of the times”. It’s like a cultural time capsule to show what sorts of entertainment people liked.

Meanwhile– classic orchestral scores remain popular no matter what era of films they’re made in. The style has survived over 100 years of cinema and isn’t going anywhere soon. And the great thing about traditional scores is that, unlike soundtracks, they hold up over time! Cultural tastes in music change a lot, but orchestral music never seems to go out of style. Try listening to songs like “The Medallion Calls” from Pirates of the Caribbean in a few decades and it will still be just as awesome. Will Guardians of the Galaxy still sound cool to kids in 40 years? I don’t know. But I doubt it’ll be so universally beloved.

NOTE: I’m aware there’s other types of score. But, for the sake of this argument, I’m focusing on the most classic kind of film score.

One big problem (or sometimes an advantage) with soundtracks is the baggage they bring to a film. The thing about us human beings is that we’re liable to form associations with things. Triggering our senses with certain stimuli can bring us back to another time or place and re-awaken memories, both positive and negative. And many creative personalities hope that you’ll end up associating a soundtrack (or even just a song) to their movie till you die. Morbid? Yeah. But that’s show-business, folks.

Of course this strategy works best if you’ve never heard a particular song, or only have loose familiarity with the piece. This allows the movie to do the heavy lifting with forming an impression in your head. But if you already associate the song with something else, it can work either for or against the film. Maybe you listened to “I Will Always Love You” with a significant other all the time, but then that relationship ended badly. And the next time you watch a movie with that song it upsets you, thereby forming a rift between you and the movie. You’ll associate the film with your pain. Or maybe the song makes you nostalgic instead, bringing you emotionally closer to the film. Could go either way, really.

But where soundtrack association backfires the most is when you associate a song with an iconic scene from another movie. For example: I can never hear “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel without thinking of Reservoir Dogs. I just can’t. So if some bold director chose that song for their film, chances are slim it would make a lasting impression. In fact, I’d probably think of Reservoir Dogs the whole time the song was playing. And I’d be forced to note that the film I’m watching isn’t that film– and the movie I’m seeing is probably worse than that one…

For anyone not aware of that moment, here it is:

WARNING: If you have an exceptionally low tolerance for violence, maybe don’t check this scene out…

Scores almost never have this problem. In the majority of cases– scores are inescapably linked to their movies of origin. Take a famous theme like that of Mission Impossible. No other movie would dare use that song unless they were intentionally satirizing the MI franchise. This linking allows the best scores to take on a life of their own and become motifs throughout a franchise. In this way, characters and franchises are linked with songs for which they will forever be associated.

Scores and Soundtracks are arguably the most important aspects of their respective films. They guide our emotions, transport us to strange new places, capture the essence of characters and moments, and generally make movies magical. I don’t think either scores or soundtracks are inherently better than the other. They’re equal but different in purpose and execution. Ideally, they work together to create the best product. Maybe you should venture forth and listen to some movie music now! Appreciate the artistry of original compositions, and remember how awesome certain soundtracks are.

How important is a good score/ soundtrack to you? Can you give some recommendations for me or others to check out? If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Also be sure to Like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!

Till next time,

Joe Morin

By Joseph Morin

Joe's passion for film and entertainment began at 7 years old when his younger brother demanded to watch Duel of the Fates every day for weeks (on DVD). Joe admired the sequence so much, he decided to dedicate his life to film-making and storytelling. He has a degree in Cinema and Media Studies from York University. Joe loves DC superheroes (especially Superman), the first six Star Wars movies, and arguing about media with anyone who will listen.


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