The Importance of Movie Soundtracks

The Importance of Movie Soundtracks

Movie soundtracks can sometimes feel like the soundtracks to our lives. We can all point to a song or a score that has resonated in our very soul, forming the backdrop to our personal stories and reminding us of our movie-watching experiences. From early 20th century silent films to the sweeping orchestral suites of today, the best movie soundtracks provide a connection to the characters and stories that we love.

The history of film scores parallels the chronology of cinema as a medium, and musicians can tap into the rich and diverse world of visual narrative with movie soundtrack sheet music. Musicians and composers interested in the film industry or who want to broaden their musical horizons should learn the history and value of the genre.

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Origins of Movie Soundtracks

At the turn of the century, a new form of entertainment took the world by storm: The photoplay. Since the era of ancient Greek drama, music has played an integral role in setting the tone and punctuating the emotion of theatrical performances. Even Shakespeare included incidental music in his plays, usually improvised on stage.

Silent films, lacking dialogue to describe emotions to establish tension, used music to elevate the storytelling to hide the noise from the loud film projectors of the day. French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, famous for “Danse Macabre” and “Carnival des Animaux,” wrote the first original silent film score for the 15-minute film L’assassinat du Duc de Guise in 1908.

Filmmakers added music and sound effects when talkies took to the screen in the 1920s. In 1933, Max Steiner composed the first full-length score for the historical film King Kong, and the genre of movie soundtracks was officially born.

Some of the best movie soundtracks appeared in the 1940s and 1950s and captured a range of narrative and emotional contexts. From the tender sentimentality of It’s a Wonderful Life to the drama and violence of Ben Hur to the creepy fright of Psycho, these early composers leveraged our human response to instrumentation to bring stories to life.

Later, composers like Ennio Morricone and John Williams harnessed the power of orchestral classical music and the energy of pop to craft nuanced and triumphant movie soundtracks. The score punctuates emotional moments and establishes characters, even as the motifs and rhythms propel the story forward:

The Emotional Weight of Movie Soundtracks

Modern films use musical themes to set the narrative’s tone, pacing and framing. Integral to the storytelling, the music shapes our interaction with the plot and our relationships with the characters. You understand so much more about the film because of the presence of its score.

For example, you understand Yoda’s mystical nature and gentle humor with “Yoda’s& Theme” in The Empire Strikes Back. Similarly, you experience the supernatural teamwork of the Avengers as the “Avengers Theme” roars in the background.

The “The Battle of Pelennor Fields” in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King signifies the high medieval fantasy of a violent battle for the world’s fate, with threads of melancholy and despair followed by moving triumphal blasts as hope returns again.

The “Theme from Schindler’s List” is heartbreaking and quiet, a single violin perfectly and paradoxically voicing the enormous pain of the six million souls lost in the Holocaust. The music from Schindler’s List is beautiful and grief-filled, so the soundtrack completely brings the audience into the narrative.

How Movie Soundtracks Hold a Film Together

Soundtracks are the “soul of the movie,” revealing all of the components of the narrative, even when the dialogue and action may not be as obvious. For instance, so much of the power of the horror genre rests on the harsh, gritty and often discordant musical accompaniment.

Try to imagine one of these scenes without its coordinating music, and you’ll immediately grasp the significance of the score on the completeness of the film:

Without the background of piping pastoral music, the hobbits would seem disconnected from the land of the Shire. The soundtrack of Baby Driver propels the movie headlong as the tension and the action increase, while the mystical Force threads through the spiritual melody of “Jedi Steps.”

Why Musicians Should Learn To Play Movie Soundtracks

Even before Saint-Saëns composed his original score in 1908, classical music heightened the storytelling of the earliest photoplays. Modern movie soundtracks can still point to classical music as their origins, which means that your practice in this genre is also a way to learn variations on classical themes and styles.

For example, composers like John Williams were significantly inspired by Tchaikovsky and Chopin, and you can hear Chopin’s “Funeral March” in his “Vader’s Theme.” Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” feature prominently and appropriately throughout the Star Wars franchise, and Wagner, Korngold, Stravinsky and Orff also inspire many of Williams’s scores.

As a musician, you have the creative chops to find a serious career as a film composer. It also bears mentioning that, though not as revered because of their popularity, film soundtracks can be just as beautiful as classical compositions.

Examples of the Best Movie Soundtracks To Learn Using Sheet Music

To stretch your melodic muscles on any instrument or in a musical ensemble, some of the most popular and iconic movie soundtrack sheet music should be a part of your repertoire. Some are delightfully fun, while others are profoundly moving. All are worth the effort; you and your audience will be swept back into the stories you love.

The Best Movie Soundtracks Are More Than Background Music

Learning to play the vast array of musical styles in the movie soundtrack genre can elevate your skills and deepen your repertoire. Whether you’re a vocal artist, an ensemble member, or an aspiring composer of any type, movie soundtrack sheet music helps you become a better, more well-rounded musician.

Musicnotes has thousands of arrangements of the most popular movie soundtracks, including movie soundtrack piano sheet music, and sheets for brass and woodwinds. Find the movie soundtrack that sings to you, and then play your heart out.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Are the Top 10 Soundtracks?

In 2005, the American Film Institute released its list of all-time top 25 film scores. According to the AFI scores, these are the top 10 movie soundtracks at the time:

  1. Star Wars (John Williams)
  2. Gone With the Wind (Max Steiner)
  3. Lawrence of Arabia (Maurice Jarre)
  4. Psycho (Bernard Hermann)
  5. The Godfather (Nino Rota)
  6. Jaws (John Williams)
  7. Laura (David Raksin)
  8. The Magnificent Seven (Elmer Bernstein)
  9. Chinatown (Jerry Goldsmith)
  10. High Noon (Dimitri Tiomkin)

If you also include ratings by audiences and films released after 2005, the most popular movie soundtracks include:

  • Lord of the Rings (Howard Shore)
  • Pirates of the Caribbean (Hans Zimmer and others)
  • Gladiator (Hans Zimmer)
  • Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (Tan Dun)
  • The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (Ennio Morricone)
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark (John Williams)
  • The Dark Knight (Hans Zimmer)
  • The Lion King (Hans Zimmer)

What Are the Top 10 Selling Soundtracks of All Time?

Before streaming music completely changed the music industry, physical album sales determined the soundtrack releases’ popularity. According to this metric, these are the top 10 best selling albums of all time, with the number of copies sold:

  1. The Bodyguard (17 million)
  2. Saturday Night Fever (15 million)
  3. Purple Rain (13 million)
  4. Forrest Gump (12 million)
  5. Dirty Dancing (11 million)
  6. Titanic (11 million)
  7. Grease (8 million)
  8. Waiting to Exhale (7 million)
  9. Space Jam (6 million)
  10. Flashdance (6 million)

As for most-streamed or downloaded film scores, counted by the number of streams, the clear winner is 2015’s Furious 7, with 4.9 billion. The remaining top nine are:

  1. The Greatest Showman (4 billion)
  2. Frozen (3.1 billion)
  3. Moana (2.5 billion)
  4. Suicide Squad (2.5 billion)
  5. Fifty Shades of Grey (2.4 billion)
  6. A Star is Born (2018) (4.3 billion)
  7. Trolls (1.7 billion)
  8. Tiger Zinda Hai (1.6 billion)
  9. Bohemian Rhapsody (1.6 billion)

What Movie Has the Most Iconic Soundtrack?

With its classical inspiration and character-driven musical motifs, John Williams’s score for the original Star Wars trilogy strikes a chord (pun intended!) with almost anyone who hears it. Distinctive and potent, the score is recognizable within a few bars and established the baseline for grand space western music for all time.

What Is the Most Played Movie Song?

The most downloaded single from a film soundtrack, according to Spotify counts, is “Sunflower,” from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, by Post Malone, streamed over 2.4 billion times as of 2021.

What Is the Most Used Song in Movies and Television?

Excluding instrumental scores, the surprising standout for the most-used song in film is MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This,” which you can hear in at least 15 films. Queen’s “Under Pressure” comes in at a close second place, sounding out in 14 movies.

Who Is the Most Successful Film Composer of all Time?

The answer to this question depends upon your definition of success. Hanz Zimmer’s music resonates through the scores of 106 films, making him prolific. Many of his movies are blockbuster smashes and have grossed a total of over $31.4 billion worldwide.

You can hear the music of John Williams, on the other hand, in 76 movies, which have cumulatively earned $25.5 billion at the worldwide box office. Although technically in second place, John Williams’s compositions, like “Star Wars,” are among the most-played orchestral pieces in cinema. His scores are instantly recognizable, and the films he worked on are some of the highest-grossing in history.

What Type of Schooling Is Needed To Become a Film Composer?

Although Nine Inch Nails’ lead singer Trent Reznor upended the classical expectations for film composers with his excellent and innovative scoring of The Social Network, most composers have a significant level of musical training in the field of composition. A bachelor’s degree in musical composition is the baseline, with a graduate degree required for additional advancement.

Most composers get their musical start early, obtaining training in childhood through lessons and camps. Since composing is a highly competitive field, internships with composers and orchestras offer musicians a chance to gain experience and build relationships in the industry.

Do Composers Get Royalties?

The compensation structure for musicians and composers is complex. Royalties are based on the possession of the music’s copyrights and the form of the distribution: print, public performance, synchronization with visual media and mechanical.

A fair compensation package states that the composer collects 100% of the backend royalties through GMR, SESAC, BMI or ASCAP. The composer agrees to sell the music copyright to the production company in exchange for those royalties.

How Do I Get Into Film Music?

First, get an education. Since filmmaking is a large and competitive industry, the more training you have, the more likely you are to develop the necessary skills at a high level. Find teachers who will push you to greater musical heights, and look for internships in the industry. Find mentors already in the industry and learn, learn, learn.

Next, get composing! Craft a showreel and a CV, and create an online presence to establish your musical identity. Stay abreast of the latest trends in movie soundtracks, and practice composing orchestral mock-ups to take to face-to-face meetings.

Finally, get out there and meet people in the industry. Make connections on smaller film sets, and don’t be shy about asking for recommendations. Back up your requests with a reputation for hard work, excellent skills and good communication.


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