A Complete Guide to the Movie Score


Music has the power to convey the unseen and take a viewer one step further into a movie’s world. Here’s a complete guide to a movie score.

The movie score can be one of the most important aspects of a movie. Scores convey mood, pace and add tension (to name a few magical things they provide, we will dive deeper.) Without a score—the story would be missing one of its most critical elements.

All of those things are essential elements of storytelling on screen. Music has the power to change a viewer’s mindset. To set the scene. To make the world of a film come to life. Here’s a complete guide to the movie score and the many aspects that make it an indispensable part of filmmaking.

What is a Movie Score?

With every film that exists today, the music we hear is called the Movie Score. This is original music that accompanies the on-screen action. A composer or several composers would be hired to write music for the film, and it serves to heighten emotion, providing a sound world specific to the scene and the movie.

Origins go back to silent movies. These were moving pictures with no audible dialogue, but the only element we heard was music. At that point in film history, having no music would make the work seem empty. The presence of the music emphasizes the story. In the theatre, a musician improvises the music on the piano or organ. In the silent era, music was the driving force, thus the birth of film music.

To really deep dive into this topic, I highly recommend this documentary. It’s an incredible view into the world of film scoring with some all-time greats.

Movie scores have used various instrumentations, the most popular being a symphony orchestra. This would be recorded in a studio, and sound engineers would ensure that the recording is high quality and synced up to the film. Many movie scores today are produced electronically, so recording a whole orchestra isn’t necessary with virtual instruments found on Digital Audio Workstations.

What is a Movie Score used for?

The art form of music can express unseen emotions to the viewer, significantly creating a much more immersive experience. A movie score has particular moments that are timed to what’s happening in the film (these are called cues), which essentially lifts the narrative and the film’s emotion. The composer and director collaborate closely to ensure the timing is effective and brings out the best of the on-screen action.

What is the difference between a movie score and a movie soundtrack?

Have you ever wondered whether a movie score and soundtrack meant the same thing? Or whether they have different purposes. Well, they do have other functions!

The score is the music that accompanies a specific scene or moment within the movie. This is mainly composed by one or more composers and would work closely with the film, tailoring their original instrumental material with what’s happening on screen.

The soundtrack features songs, or rather music with vocals. These could be tracks from a band or an individual artist.  

Both are very similar and can be interchangeable. But the significant difference is that the score is original music that is specific to the film. In contrast, a soundtrack is a collection of carefully chosen songs to be included in the movie.

What makes a good movie score?

For the movie to have a convincing reality, the music also contributes to this. The movie needs to match the overall atmosphere of the film. If the film is set in outer space with the vastness and the heavy advancement of technology, the music should reflect this atmosphere. The composer’s role is to find musical ways to match specific geography and atmosphere. Whether soothing strings or futuristic synths, it can make all the difference.

Diving into more specific moments, a heartbreaking moment could occur between characters. Having uplifting and highly rhythmic music at this moment would be inappropriate and wouldn’t feel convincing to the viewer.

As we have discussed, music is essential, but it’s even more imperative that it doesn’t overshadow the dialogue. The music should sit on the surface and not be too invasive, save the loud and impactful parts for those wide shots! This could fall under a mixing issue. However, it’s good to have music that isn’t too distracting.

Timing is not to be forgotten about. In music, phrasing can be described as putting music into sentences. The beginning of a phrase tends to be at the start of a bar (what music is divided into). Matching an impactful moment on screen with the beginning of a phrase can add satisfaction and that extra punch.

How is it created?

The creation of a movie can be split up into four categories. Although every composer is different and will have different approaches to writing, these are the key moments that occur in the process.


The initial conversation between the director and composer is where the first ideas develop. Gauging the general storyline and where and when it is placed can give the composer a good starting point. Slowly developing from one idea to the next can generate many musical elements. A small melodic cell can become the core of the entire film. The composer may write by hand and start with a short score (a piano reduction of the film score before it is expanded into the correct instrumentation), or without the use of recording, musicians dive straight into the sound world on their DAW.


This is a crucial step for composers who may write for an orchestra. A composer may not necessarily dive straight into composing for a 100-piece orchestra but instead may start small. The expansion of ideas and the careful decisions on specific instruments playing certain sections are all left to the orchestrator.

Image via Kitreel.

They must be very knowledgeable in the orchestral instruments, knowing their ranges and the different timbres (sound quality) they harbor to assign parts to each instrument. A composer may write a passage that may work better on a different instrument, a course that is rhythmically difficult to read, or a part that requires a diverse group of instruments to play to achieve the correct texture. The process of orchestration takes care of these tasks to achieve a complimentary film score.


The recording process will have a complete written score from the composer. The orchestrator will have made the necessary changes to the forces, and then an orchestra or a group of musicians will be hired to record the film score. The conductor will make sure the score is played in time musically, as well as in time with the film. The conductor will also work closely with the composer to make sure the correct dynamics, shaping, and general mood is captured. The director may also be present when recording to provide any further guidance.


This is where the music syncs to the dramatic events of the film. The composer may receive the film and compose alongside that. Depending on whether the composer is writing electronically in a studio (using electronic instruments or recording their material), the software they use can allow them to compose in sync with what is happening on screen and use SMPTE timecode for syncing.

When working with an orchestra, the syncing process is slightly different. The orchestra will follow a conductor when recording a film score in a studio session. The conductor follows a written score which may have a stopwatch to use for accurate timing. They would also conduct alongside the film shown on a screen along to specific timings.

Further advanced editing may be needed to ensure the music correlates with the action. There may be a soundtrack that needs to enter at a specific moment. Therefore the editor would be responsible for ensuring the soundtrack comes in and fades out at the correct time.

Elements and Structure

An essential component of a film score is the atmosphere. The technical term for this is underscoring: music that adds to the mood of a scene. The composer needs to know the geography, whether on earth or in outer space, as this can determine the artistic choices in the compositional process. The time period can also determine the general mood, futuristic films tend to be more experimental, or period films tend to have a score from that time.

Another common element in film scores is Leitmotifs. This is a reoccurring musical idea that appears throughout that is usually associated with a particular character or place. Leitmotifs can come at any length. They could be a long lyrical melody or a concise yet distinct cell. Composers can change the character of the leitmotif depending on the scene’s mood. If something sinister was occurring, the leitmotif of that specific character could become musically more threatening too.

This can be achieved by adjusting musical elements such as harmony, texture, dynamics, and rhythm. The leitmotif could become fragmented (made shorter) or develop into something longer. John Williams uses leitmotifs in his film scores, the most famous being Jaws, Star Wars and Indiana Jones. When you think of these films, do you associate a specific theme with them? Maybe the Force Theme? Well, that right there is a Leitmotif!

Sound Design is more tailored to composers who write electronically or use DAWs primarily in their compositional process. Having good sound design provides a much more realistic experience. Not only is the musical material and how it’s handled a key element, but they also think about the sense of space they want to create. The film score may include sound effects generated by acoustic or digital instruments.

Advancements in music technology have allowed composers to experiment with the stereo field. Having the soundtrack or sound, in general, come out on both left and proper channels in equal balance is great. But to heighten it further, the composer can add movement to the track by panning a certain idea from left to right (or vice versa). It gives that extra depth and gives a sense of space to the viewer.

The music in a movie score doesn’t always necessarily have to be melodic but can imitate certain sound effects. Horror scores tend to do this. For example, in Psycho the sharp repetitive and accented violins literally sound like stabbings. The use of dissonance also creates a much more raw-sounding atmosphere which can create more tension, as well as bring even more life to the visual movements.

It’s impossible not to hear the score when you see this image. Some scores can be so impactful they are baked in your audience’s minds for decades to come. Image via Universal Studios.

The musical themes (or leitmotifs) throughout also contribute to the structure of the film score. This lies in the context of storytelling. If the theme works well, the advancement of character development as well as the storyline provides a grounded structure. Like a book, it has different chapters.

The same goes for films. In terms of musical structure, the opening is the most impactful as it allows the audience to understand the mood and atmosphere as efficiently as possible. The progression of a theme or just the musical material should ideally reflect the on-screen action. A general structure point is that films will have a climatic moment with emotional highs (or lows) and the music too would reflect this.

Thematic Structure

Looking specifically into the structure of film music, let’s explore thematic structures. A common structure is AAA. This is where the music contains a repeating theme. Developments of the theme can happen with each repetition, however, the foundation of the theme is still present.

AABA structure consists of two themes. The second theme can provide a different mood. This adds some contrast but also allows the music as a whole to develop and grow. Having a different musical idea deepens the overall arch of the soundtrack. It adds shape and almost a new perspective. Having the first theme repeated makes the entrance of the second theme more impactful. Returning to the first theme gives a sense of a full-circle moment and a sense of coherency.

Another structure is ABAC which includes three musical ideas. You can have a different ending, that’s totally okay! This could be the element of surprise to further push those boundaries. This structure can also be used to reflect the storyline.

Best Movie Score Composers

Now that we have explored how the film score works and its different elements to it, here are a few successful and talented film composers to mention.

John Williams

John Williams and George Lucas collaborate together often. Image via Featureflash Photo Agency.

John Williams is one of the great legends of orchestral film composition and has firmly established his style, as well as his popularity. Williams has scored more than a hundred films and is a worldwide critically-acclaimed composer winning many awards during his career. His distinct motifs and power in his writing have made his works some of the most memorable.

Ennio Morricone

Ennio Marricone conducting an orchestra. Image via praszkiewicz.

Ennio Morricone is another great legend of symphonic film composition. He is highly recognized in his western works from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, A Fistful of Dollars, and Once Upon A Time In The West. He was able to capture that dry and deserted landscape of the American West in his music through his great use of spacing, as well as his impeccable writing for his desired instrumentation.

Hans Zimmer

Hans Zimmer has made a great impact in the film score scene, with his notable dense, deep, and aggressive sound. Zimmer’s works have electronic elements to them, rather than solely being orchestral, he is certainly a key composer in the development of film composition. Notable works include Inception, Interstellar, and The Dark Knight.

Other Incredible Composers

Other great film composers to note are Bernard Hermann, known for his sinister and dissonant score for Psycho. Howard Shore and his epic orchestral work on The Lord of the Rings, filled with heart-wrenching and triumphant melodies, is certainly one to listen to. Alfred Newman is known for composing the ever so iconic theme for Twentieth Century Films, but also scores for Wuthering Heights and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Best Movie Scores

As we have mentioned some great film composers and some of their works, here are a few some of the best movie scores. Ranging from orchestral to more futuristic material, they all greatly complement their given storylines.


Going back to the late 50s, Miklós Rózsa’s score for Ben-Hur greatly captured the authentic sound of Greek and Roman music. His extensive research and ability to apply this to his musical material won him an Academy Award for this film score.

King Kong (2005)

Amazingly, James Newton Howard’s score for the 2005 remake of King Kong was only composed in a mere five weeks due to a last-minute change in composer. Using a large-scale orchestra, and choir in addition to ethnic instruments, the time pressure certainly worked in his favor. The score was a success, laid with complexity, grandness, and a variety of styles throughout.

Planet of the Apes (1968)

Jerry Goldsmith’s Planet Of The Apes pushed boundaries and is typically not laid with memorable melodic motifs. Goldsmith wanted to portray the primal aspect of this film and abandon classical traditions, instead going for a more avant-garde sound world, a nod to both Igor Stravinsky and Béla Bartók. He also experimented with echo effects, as well as non-traditional instruments which greatly complimented the primal environment of the film.

Black Panther

Black Panther was written by Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson, another composer who extensively researched for the desired sound to fit the film’s atmosphere. Traveling to Senegal to immerse himself within the culture, Göransson successfully captured the symphonic atmosphere, as well as having a brilliantly diverse style throughout.

Jurassic Park

Returning to John Williams, his score for Jurassic Park was stellar. His powerful use of the leitmotif method as well as the general creation of melody and texture will remain forever memorable. Williams really captures the terror and grandness of the dinosaurs through various use of textures, tonalities, and instrumentation.


Not to forget James Cameron’s adaption of Titanic, in addition to the on-screen action providing a heart-wrenching performance, James Horner’s film score had immense success. This score led him to win his first Oscar.

He also composed the world-renowned song “My Heart Will Go On.” The distant yet serene vocals that soar across the score became a staple for this film, reflecting the heartbreak, tragedy, and romance Titanic explores.

The Social Network

The curiosity behind experimental music, fused with rock was all the rage with Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor’s score for The Social Network. It won nine major awards for its considerable use of intertwined digital sounds to convey the technological aspect of the film. Additionally, it was well received due to its successful choice of already existing songs. An example of one is their adaption of Grieg’s “In The Hall Of The Mountain King” which transformed into a much darker and modern take on a classical great.

Doctor Zhivago

Maurice Jarre’s film composition for Doctor Zhivago is another classic that gained deserved recognition. Coming after his work on Lawrence in Arabia, director David Lean only had Maurice Jarre in mind for Doctor Zhivago.

Like James Newton Howard, the tight deadlines only lead him to success. Jarre heavily studied Russian music to achieve that particular flavor. The presence of balalaikas, in combination with lush string textures and a romantic melodic line, generated “Lara’s Theme.” This leitmotif is the core of this film and aids the fateful and romantic storyline between the two protagonists.

Once Upon a Time in the West

Ennio Morricone’s Once Upon A Time In The West is one of his most successful film compositions. Laced with western influences, Morricone’s ability to combine this within the orchestral force became his specialty.

Collaborating with director Sergio Leone, Morricone became one of the finest of cinema, composing only from the screenplay. Having the music already in place had Leone adapting his cinematography to the music.

The use of the harmonica gave that western feel (and also in relation to the character “Harmonica,” it worked perfectly), and the use of electric guitar and dissonant strings added a menacing nature. He also includes some playfulness by using thinner textures as well as the presence of a banjo and wood block. A timeless classic for sure!

Terminator 2: Judgement Day

For a more futuristic feel, Terminator 2: Judgement Day is an example of using music technology to manipulate raw acoustic sound. Brad Fiedel’s composition has many interesting aspects not only musically but within his use of sound design. Using the stereo field to his advantage adds movement to the sound to further propel the action on screen. The punchiness of the percussion and the metallic effects on the instruments give a nod to the futuristic setting.

A movie score is just as huge and requires an awful lot of thought in order for it to match the visuals. Film composers can be regarded as filmmakers themselves, the only difference is that their specialty lies in the realm of music. Communicating the visual emotion as well as painting the on-screen environment takes involves a whole load of musical elements, research, and artistic communication between themselves and the director.

For more on music, check out these articles:


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