A Complete Beginners Guide to Cinematic Music

I vividly recall the first time I cried at a film. I was twelve but I possessed the emotional composure of someone triple my age, someone who had dealt with things far more scarring and traumatic than the boy at school who didn’t respond to my homemade Valentines Card. I was on a school trip to York – a rite of passage for all primary sevens – and Titanic was the movie of choice on the bus for the journey home. I assume you can see where this is going.

Once claims of an onion-infused air conditioning system had been euthanised – like my dreams of ever finding love on a boat – at the end of the movie, I realised that I was weeping for fictional causes for the first time which made the whole ordeal that little more mortifying. But it was that bloody flute’s whimsical refrain that turned out to be the painful leitmotif for everything that hurt my head and my heart in life. Watch the video below at your own peril.

A decade on, I am still addicted to the metamorphic powers of audio, particularly that of the cinematic variety. Listening to scores takes me from my present situation to a moment in seconds. For example, to the climax of Titanic where the whistle’s haunting tune narrates the conclusion of Jack and Rose’s epic love story as she submits his frozen corpse to the depths of the North Atlantic. I willingly relive the heartache in remembering his cadaver slipping into those oceanic depths because the combination of James Cameron’s heartbreaking visuals and a perfectly suited musical backdrop, make me feel something I can’t really explain without blubbering.

The creator of the Titanic soundtrack James Horner created the score to be every bit as herculean, unwavering and melancholic as Jack’s infatuation with Rose had been right till the very end *sobs*. And, quite frankly, I’d go as far as saying that the movie would not be the epic motion picture that it is today without its prolific cinematic score – most notably without the distinguishing anacrusis at the beginning of ‘Rose’. (If you’ve ever done ‘My Heart Will Go On’ on karaoke, you’ll know the one.)


Horner isn’t the only one of his kind. Cinematic music is definitely an under-rated source of audio pleasure, which is why I’ve have devised this guide of composers and some of their best work to help you cover the important grounds should you decide to break into it. Being no musical expert myself, this should feel completely accessible to anyone! So, go forth and enjoy!

  • Hans Zimmer Check out: ‘Now We Are Free’ – Gladiator, ‘He’s a Pirate’ – Pirates of the Caribbean and ‘Tennessee’ – Pearl Harbour

Zimmer is a master of epics and able to communicate a plethora of emotions to even the least impressionable audiences. He is featured in the Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar and The Lion King soundtracks to name but a tiny part of his repertoire. From the invincible excitement found in Pirates to the melancholic vibes of Pearl Harbour, and the stunning, unmistakable hope that drives the Gladiator score: Hans Zimmer’s portfolio is prolific and cements him as one of the most respected composers and conductors in the world.

  • John Williams Check out: Themes from Jaws and Schindler’s List 

Being the second most decorated Academy Award Winner (only after Walt Disney of all people) doesn’t happen to just anyone, and when you begin trying fathom John Williams’ portfolio you see why. Much of Williams’ magic is creating the themes for which movies become associated with, the ones you are likely to hum along to during the opening credits. A great portion of his success was prior to the millennium; we’re talking Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, E.T., Hook… just about every good film that gives you those coveted feels, Willams likely had his input. His portfolio also includes devising the Harry Potter melody we all know and love and, of course, the unmistakable, chilling theme tune from Jaws.

James Horner Check out: ‘Hymn to the Sea’ – Titanic and ‘The Gift of a Thistle’ – Braveheart 

I spoke previously about this composers emotionally manipulative hold over me (just briefly, don’t think I said too much about it…). All in all, Horner composed, quite literally, one of the most iconic and heart breaking soundtracks of our time with Titanic in 1997, but it contains elements that are reminiscent of his earlier work in Braveheart. His style typically features traditional orchestration (there are a lot of pipes), flutes and female vocals that will warm you, and haunt you, for no less than 84 years.

  • Brad Fiedle Check out: ‘Trust Me’ – Terminator II 

A large-scale composer. Fiedle – whose work was at large particularly between the early 70s and late 90s – is known for his work in the Terminator series. The track ‘Trust Me’ from the second Terminator movie ‘Judgement Day’ is a favourite among fans and described as providing motivation to those in need of a kick. Luckily for fans, Fiedle was never given the chance to record and sequence his technically demanding score on a record until just last year. So he’ll be back, and very soon so to speak.

  • Henry Jackman Check out: ‘Flying Home’ – Kick-Ass and ‘Hit-Girl’s Farewell’ – Kick-Ass 2 

Jackman’s work on the Kick Ass movies soundtracks is riveting and a solid starting ground for those just breaking into the cinematic music scene due to its pop-rock vibe which focuses heavily on big drum beats and electric guitar. The best way to anticipate these soundtracks is to imagine orchestral power teamed with an exciting rock and roll veil. Much of Jackman’s score is an improvisation of Adagio in D Minor, so the chord progressions are pleasant and uplifting – perfect for your anti-hero movie.


See also: Danny Elfman (Edward Scissorhands) & James Newton Howard (Peter Pan, 2003)

Originally published in The Student Advertiser.


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