Movie soundtracks do more than just accompany the action

October 27, 2017 — by Ryan Kim

Although movies win Oscars or other accolades for their plots and character development, their soundtracks often become their most iconic feature.

There are the serious, brooding themes of “Inception” and “Interstellar” that make the audience question the world around them. There are also more light-hearted, catchy tunes like Moana’s “You’re Welcome,” but even these movie soundtracks have merit beyond pop culture.

Even light-hearted movies like Disney’s “Hercules” have many songs focused on self-realization and courage, like “I Can Go the Distance,” that inspire even the most unfeeling movie-goer.

Perhaps the epitome of great movie soundtracks is Howard Shore’s “Lord of the Rings” soundtrack, a masterful blend of total serenity in the Hobbit theme and the jarring, exciting and frightening theme of Orcs. The triumphant fanfares of victory juxtaposed with the heart-tugging gentle swell of hope and determination through the perils of Mount Doom only further emphasize the sense of balance and emotional upheaval conveyed through the music.

As the musical score soars, the audience feels like charging down the field with the Rohirrim, flying on the backs of the Eagles or sitting comfortably in a small cozy living room, reading a tale and eating second breakfast next to the gentle fireplace.

Mystery and magic and horrible suffering; wonder and beauty and ephemeral peace; inspirational charges and gruesome last stands: all of these emotions are are driven home with emotional gut-punch music.

Imagine watching iconic films like “Star Wars” without the John Williams’ soundtrack. The experience would be terrible. There would be no ambience, no concrete grasp on thought or feelings — just monotonous dialogue and awkward choreography among the actors.

Consider “Lord of the Rings” again: If there were no inspirational trumpet fanfare as the heroes march across Middle-Earth to save the world, most of the movie would be like a silent film or documentary of people hiking across fields and mountains.

But add in the soundtrack, and suddenly the monotonous trudging is an epic quest to persevere through the treacherous storms and hordes of orcs to protect all that is good. The noble journey through the perils of Middle-Earth is only accentuated and truly conveyed through the music.

When Samwise Gamgee, a loyal Hobbit friend of the protagonist, Frodo, wonders why they, simple farmers, embarked on this quest, he eventually comes to the conclusion that, despite the hardships of life, the good of the world is worth fighting for; the music accompanies his flow of ideas and emotions, slowly swelling from dull rumblings to a crescendo of hope and courage.

It describes the emotions of the characters, moving from sullen and exhausted to brave and re-invigorated to protect the people they love. And this simply would not exist without the soundtrack guiding the emotions and thoughts of both the audience and the characters.

Decades-long movie series are no exception. For example, when Rogue One’s composer Michael Giacchino paid homage to Williams’s original “Star Wars” theme, the audience in my theater went wild, giving a standing ovation as many tears rolled down their cheeks and nostalgia washed over them. Even though the first Star Wars movie was released 39 years before “Rogue One,” fans young and old alike could enjoy the swelling emotion flowing through the theater.

To this day, the most memorable aspect of the greatest movies is so often their soundtracks; people hum the tunes as they live their lives, subconsciously keeping the spirit, not just the plot, of the movies alive.

Soundtracks are the fundamental backbone of emotion in movies. They bring inspiration, hope, tension, sorrow, horror, joy and peace to the audience. They are the foundation of the impact of movies. They are the punchline.


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