Know the score

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 April, 2011, 12:00am


Film music is the subject of some discussion among composers of classical music. Conventional wisdom states that a score should unfold almost unnoticed in the background, bolstering the film's storyline. It has to be bland music that, if taken away from the images that it augments, can't really stand on its own. But there have been notable exceptions, such as legendary Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu. Takemitsu's soundtracks sit nicely alongside his orchestral work and sound like complete works in their own right.

An interesting forum at the Vienna Symphonic Library ( discusses the artistic pros and cons of writing soundtracks in detail.

Some composers have made their names writing film scores. The most famous of these is John Williams (, an American who spent his early years playing piano in a jazz band but has composed film scores since 1958.

Williams is the go-to guy for all the big Hollywood films, having been the composer for Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws and a host of other big-budget Hollywood movies. Some of Williams' music can be heard for free at

German-born Hans Zimmer ( is another prolific film score composer, having composed for 100 movies including The Lion King, Gladiator, The Dark Knight and the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Zimmer's work is loud and undemanding, a requirement for big-budget films. Early soundtracks for movies such as Rain Main, which has an occasional Latin American flavour, are slightly more subtle.

Those with more progressive musical tastes might compare Zimmer's Batman score with the ominous theme that Danny Elfman (, below) wrote for Tim Burton's 1989 Batman. Elfman - a rock musician turned composer - produced a more intriguing score. He has composed the music for most of Burton's films. An article at describes their collaborations as 'insanity': 'Alfred Hitchcock may have had Bernard Herrmann. Francois Truffaut was in tune with Georges Delerue. But perhaps none can boast of the inspirational insanity that's possessed the 13 feature films and 25 years that Danny Elfman and Tim Burton have fed off each other's fine madness.'

The film music composer's composer harks not from Hollywood or Europe but from Japan. Takemitsu, who scored classics such as Woman of the Dunes and Akira Kurosawa's Ran, broke all of the rules of soundtrack composition to marvellous effect. He was also an accomplished composer for guitar, various Japanese instruments, and orchestra. Some of Takemitsu's work can be heard at

Soundtrack writers sometimes complain that they are not taken seriously as composers. But at least they have their own Oscars. Belgium's charming Ghent Film Festival ( hosts the World Soundtrack Awards and features classic film music concerts.