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Music in Films: Composers, Soundtracks and Themes Essay

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Updated: May 12th, 2021


Music is an essential part of any film. The art progressed from the piano accompaniment of silent films to massive orchestral soundtracks which become as iconic as their respective movies. Music in a modern film can have many elements and serve many purposes to aid filmmakers in telling the story. Being such an integral part of movies, music and composers are recognized and awarded equally with the actors and directors. Elements of music from various composers and soundtracks are analyzed to understand their meaningful impact on the film.


Film composers are known for the music they create for various motion pictures. Soundtracks are recognized not only as an iconic part of the movie but also as independent compositions that people listen to in their leisure time. Perhaps the man that revolutionized the art of scoring films and gave future composers creative freedom is Henry Mancini active from 1946 to his death in 1994. His most iconic works include the instantly recognized themes for Pink Panther and Peter Gunn as well as “Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Meanwhile, a musical genius, Hans Zimmer is considered one of the best film composers of modern cinema. He was behind the soundtracks to major blockbusters such as Interstellar, Inception, The Pirates of the Caribbean series, The Dark Knight series, and many others.

Great film composers do not simply write music to accompany a film; they write music to amalgamate the feelings and message. Skilled modern composers often write based on the concept of a film and reflect on the themes before production even starts. Frequently music is written to offer the security of tradition while being abstract and original. Mancini used both non-diegetic motifs and diegetic songs in his film soundtracks often with authentic jazz instrumentation. For example, in “The Pink Panther Theme” the mood is mysterious while dramatic and playful. The dynamics of the catchy tune suggest the character’s evasiveness and whimsicality.

Zimmer masterfully combines real instruments and synth-sampled sounds, but several parts may be duplicated. Several dramatic themes in one film can have a similar melody, but differing rhythms give it enough variance. The genesis of Zimmer’s approach in many of his films to production is based on non-diegetic leitmotifs and the use of textures. His compositions are instantly recognized because Zimmer vividly communicates the film’s emotion and writes mainly for the message, not the superficial content (Morrell 10-11).

Songs from Soundtracks

Often songs are inserted in cinema, either in the background to ongoing actions (but without interrupting dialogue) or sung by characters themselves. Two well-known compositions are “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by Judy Garland from 1939 The Wizard of Oz and “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel from 1967 The Graduate. Both are lyrical compositions with deeply emotional verses reflecting the themes of the inner struggles that the characters in either movie are experiencing. While “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is considered a perfect example of the AABA 32-bar song form, “Mrs. Robinson” is more unorthodox, continuously repeating the structure of chorus followed by the verse.

Judy Garland’s rendition is a traditional pop ballad, with a strong focus on vocal tenacity. An orchestral track is subtly noticed in the background with piano accompaniment. The song has a slow rhythm, which was thought to be too slow for the film, at first. However, it is the vocal focus that makes the melody very defining of the character experiencing hope.

This is known as the contour of the melody, which is evident in this melody. It is followed by a high C note on the rising octave representing Dorothy’s mental image of a dream home and slowly drops off to a low C in a step-like shape on the scale to eventually bring the girl to reality. The magic of this composition is the ability to authentically portray the sense of yearning in its lyrical substance that is connected with the message of the film and related to the turbulent times of the economic depression and war going on in the world (“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”).

The composition “Mrs. Robinson” was written specifically for the film The Graduate, lyrically speaking out the feelings of the characters that were closed off emotionally. It is a folk-rock genre with a 4/4-time signature with an 8-beat rhythm combined with folk harmony. There is the use of acoustic guitars, tambourines, shakers, and possibly bongos. The song has much instrumental improvisation such as using the minor key on a blues scale and playing chords over chords in short riffs. There are vocal harmonies in the chorus and the emphasis on certain lines in the lyrics. The song became a chart-topping success outside the film, but it essentially was a hymn to America’s lost idealism. (“Simon & Garfunkel”).

Personal Theme

In a film that is personal to me, I would be a protagonist that is undergoing an emotional journey. At some point, the character would experience a desperately low point, but through some medium or person experience hope again. Following, there would begin the challenging work of finding oneself and achieving success in some possible endeavor until the protagonist can find peace within himself. A similar trajectory can be followed in the theme, emotionally filled with gentle poignancy but having elements of hope.

Melodically the theme can be divided into motifs with bars that rise and then gently fall, with each time the notes rising a bit higher on the scale. A contour of struggle in the first motifs is created as the note after the rise, suddenly drops off as if there is a barrier. Over the course of the theme, the motifs build-up to the climax until the high note rises to about an octave above the first note and from there the fall is gentler, emphasizing a newfound purpose.

To achieve such a stirring thematic composition, soft lyrical instruments such as winds or horns can be used with the accompaniment of strings. Flutes are essential to creating perplexing high pitch sounds. For added mystery and effect, chimes and celeste are helpful. Overall the theme should be harmonious and create a sense of a character struggling to rediscover hope.


When watching a film, music is an essential part of the experience. It creates atmosphere, defines characters, and sets certain tempos or moods to practically every scene in a motion picture. A composer’s job is challenging; he must create a soundtrack that is original and serves as a contour to the plot in each movie. Each musician brings their unique styles and combinations of arrangements to create these pieces of music. Soundtracks can also have songs that serve as themes to the film through the lyrics and melody. Music helps to convey the very emotion and soul of a motion picture, and if successful, it becomes an iconic part of cinema history.

Works Cited

Morrell, Bryan. . Vol.1, Self-Published, 2013. Web.

YouTube, uploaded by SimonGarfunkelVevo. 2013. Web.

YouTube, uploaded by Movieclips. 2011. Web.

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