I’ve always loved movie soundtracks and theme songs. I have been more interested in this type of music than whatever is popular on the radio. It’s amazing how one particular song can stand out, and allows you to be drawn back to the same excitement, the same feeling that you had the first time that you heard in the theatre.
It’s incredible how much of an effect that music can have, in some ways even more than the trailers, star interviews and heavy promotion. Music has become such an important element of the movie watching experience that it even became its own genre!
A great theme song withstands the test of time. You can hear it years later, and your mind goes back to the movie.
How many of you saw “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”? When the lights darkened in the theatre before anything came up on the screen, did you have John Williams already in your head? There is something in the music that invokes an emotion, even beyond the visuals or the dialogue. Music does that to us. It gives us that emotional connection to something. We don’t need to be musically inclined to appreciate it. We don’t need to understand what notes are played, we don’t even need to remember all of the lyrics to the song to have that connection.
It’s a gut reaction. We can watch something sad for example, we can see the visuals, we can hear the dialogue, and we can still keep ourselves in check. Suddenly, the music comes in, even if it’s in the background and you are not fully aware of it, and suddenly, you are in tears. Or you are watching a horror. You add the music to what you see, and suddenly your heart is racing a little faster and the goosebumps appear on your arms.
Any good movie has to have a good story, acting, visuals, but for me, it’s the music that elevates it. When you are concentrating on the dialogue of a movie, you are focusing on what is being said, you are analyzing it, but music is more instinctive. You hear it and you react to it without thinking. Music can show the heart and soul of a movie. I’m not diminishing the acting, visual effects or storyline, but for me, music brings out something that can’t be done by these elements alone.
That is how I view the theme song (and by extension, the soundtrack) of a movie. If you listen to John Williams’ Star Wars theme, your mind immediately goes to images of star destroyers, Jedi and Sith. A very different song, but one that for me has as much of an impact, was Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” from The Breakfast Club. You hear that tune on the radio and you are brought back to that detention room in the 80s, and everything that happened in that movie comes back to you in an instant. Even hearing the “theme song” in Jaws, that orchestral motion, brings to mind the image of the great white.
So what makes that one song in the collection a great movie theme song? A number of factors. The talent of the composer? The emotion that they are trying to convey, or the “hook” that draws you in, whether it’s the sound of the orchestra, or the first few words of the song? It’s really a combination of these and more. It doesn’t matter whether it is an instrumental piece or if lyrics are involved.
Let’s go back to the Star Wars theme. No one would argue that John Williams is a brilliant composer. So what did he do that made this opening theme work? He could have easily created a different piece that wouldn’t have had the same impact. I think that, in this particular case, it was the opening notes. It immediately got your attention, got you excited, got your heart racing, even before the visuals came up on the screen.
What about the Jaws theme? As a theme, it is very simple, almost quiet, but it builds tension. The delay between the notes is uncomfortable, like something creeping along. Couple it with the image of the fin sticking out of the water, and it scares you. You never forget it.
What about “Don’t You (Forget About Me)?” What was it about that song that ties into The Breakfast Club? For me, the song was able it sum up everything that the movie was about in just a few minutes. It is the quintessential 80s song. Simple as that.
There are many great examples of songs that work besides the three that I mentioned. One that I have a fondness for is from the Lord of the Rings franchise. “The Last Goodbye” was sung by Billy Boyd, Pippin himself, as the closing credits for “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” soundtrack. It was special because it was a chance for him and his co-collaborators, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens, to say goodbye on behalf of everyone involved, the entire cast and crew and even the fans of the series. It’s one of the few movie songs that I’ve heard that I cried.
The trick to creating a movie theme song is knowing your movie. You need to know what you are trying to say, and how you want to the audience to react. You want it to have timelessness to it, even if it’s in a particular style (like “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”). Music is also very subjective, and you, as the creator, are trying to appeal to as many people as possible, which is no small feat. That said, when it works it really works, and brings the movie experience to a whole new level.
The visual effects of a movie feeds the eyes. The dialogue and storyline feeds the mind. However, the music feeds the soul, and in doing so brings everything together in one perfect union.
Text © Written In Geek blog (2016) All rights reserved