song to song

the case for movie scores

I get a fair share of funny looks when I say my favorite song of all time is “Test Drive” from the How To Train Your Dragon score. It’s a far cry from the genres typically associated with one’s favorite music, but something about this John Powell masterpiece struck me the first time I heard it, and the 2,000 times I have listened to it since. It encapsulates every aspect of human emotion: anticipation, fear, triumph, relief, happiness, and everything in-between. Simply put, it is a perfect song, with a key-change that has made me cry more times than I care to admit.

My love affair with this song began about two years ago. While perusing 8tracks, I stumbled upon a study playlist composed of random instrumental songs, one of which was the introductory song, “This Is Berk,” from HTTYD. It was mesmerizing and enticing – wholly unlike any other instrumental songs I listened to. Being an avid playlist maker myself, I decided to make a compilation of songs from animated movies, just for the hell of it.

Upon discovering the How To Train Your Dragon score, and frankly the whole world of movie scores, my entire motive for listening to music changed. I stopped listening to music because of its objective worth, but instead I listened for a certain emotion. When I needed my sadness reflected, “Reunion of Friends” by John Williams from the second Harry Potter film comforted me. If I was entering a difficult test, the triumphant tone of “Battle Finale” by Brian Tyler from Iron Man 3 encouraged me. And when I felt in love, completely content with life, “Romantic Flight” from How To Train Your Dragon played in my head instantaneously. I had discovered a soundtrack for my life, and I wanted nothing more than to share it with people.

With my newfound love of movie scores fully formed, I began to wonder: What was it that caused this rift between the general public and music from movies? I was the only person I knew who listened to movie soundtracks recreationally, and even I had only stumbled upon it by accident. Even classical music, while not mainstream, had its niche corner of the music world. So why did that corner not exist for movie scores (except when students have a test to cram for and just play whatever 9 hour YouTube compilation they can find)?

While I have no concrete answers, I do have a theory, and that is that movie soundtracks, as a whole, do not have enough variety. Modern movie scores tend to be recycled and clichéd, often times doing nothing other than lending themselves to the background. Many filmmakers want the music to go unnoticed, as an enhancement of the visuals as opposed to a purely creative aspect itself. This is a disservice to the art, to the composers, and to the audience, who are missing out on what could have otherwise been a real musical experience. What struck me about HTTYD was that it was unlike anything I had ever heard. It had that Viking flair, the hint of bagpipes, and the complexities of both classical music and of the human range of emotion. It felt new and fresh and exciting, but not all movie scores are like that.

A phenomenon that has been hurting movie scoring (or helping, depending on how you look at it,) is the technique of using temp music. This is when a director and editor use another composer’s song to underscore a scene in the first stages of editing, so the team can get a feel for what the scene will end up sounding like. Often times, directors become so attached to the temp music that they ask a composer for something extremely similar, bordering on identical.

I didn’t know the name for this at the time, but I knew this was happening the second I saw Big Hero 6 for the first time. In the scene where Hero and Baymax have their first flight together, a song aptly named “First Flight” underlays the action. It felt eerily familiar, like I had heard it before. After a quick Google search, I discovered that it was being compared to “Test Drive” in YouTube comments, and suddenly everything made sense. This song follows almost all the exact same beats, had the exact same vibe, and has almost an identical moment of orchestral struggle.

While I cannot say for certain that “Test Drive” was used as a temp song for this scene, I can say that many movies nowadays do this. An excellent YouTube video called “The Marvel Symphonic Universe” discusses this topic at length, and why music from Marvel movies in particular is so unmemorable. There is a lowest common denominator – an expected set of musical moments that do not challenge the mind. Sad moments have high pitched orchestra notes, moments of triumph have large crescendos, and if there’s a chase scene, I’d be willing to bet you there is a fierce drum rhythm backing it. Because we have heard these clichés so often, the mind doesn’t even recognize them.

Any aspect of film can go unnoticed. Most modern movies have effective but uninteresting lighting, a not-thought-out color scheme and, of course, music that exists solely in the background. But sometimes a movie hits you, challenging everything you know about the technical aspects of film. Wes Anderson makes sure you notice his pastel color schemes. The dark and colorful tone of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is so palpable you can almost feel it. And John Powell makes his music a key player in the How to Train Your Dragon series. In the moments when I listen to his music on the sidewalk in-between classes, I can’t help but feel what the characters felt in the moment: invincibility, happiness, and love.