Honouring The Power Of Scores Following DUNKIRK
The real power of scores is the intensity of feeling, the nostalgia of remembering, and (above all) the way it cements a film's legacy.
The competitive rivalry between movies and music is a tale as old as time. But when we combine the two, that’s when the real magic happens.
Whilst it’s not exactly breaking news that film scores make for an impressive viewing, it is arguable that some cinematic experiences are made more effective than others because of them.
It’s no secret that music, sound effects and orchestrated compositions can dramatically impact how a movie is rated, and exploring the reasons for this can prove particularly interesting in more ways than one. It could be said that with the wrong music – or no music at all – audiences would be less capable of capturing the emotion and depth needed to appreciate the story. Not only that, but sometimes a score can be the difference between a huge success and a forgettable fail. Ultimately, the goal for composers is to create a score that stays with an audience long after the credits roll; and in many notable cases, they’ve absolutely mastered this.
After recently watching Christopher Nolan‘s hugely anticipated war-epic, Dunkirk, I was immediately compelled to observe just how much influence a score can have on the overall ranking of a movie. Although Dunkirk hasn’t quite managed to hit our screens without its fair share of criticism, there is one area that it has undoubtedly excelled in: the score.
This is something that doesn’t come as a big surprise to most cinema enthusiasts because at the helm of it all was the universally worshiped composer Hans Zimmer – and like much of his previous work, the aural experience whilst watching Dunkirk was nothing short of spectacular.
Proving the Prominence of Sound
To put it simply, every fragment of sound is a story that has the potential to delve even deeper than that of a script or any form of visual production. Even the most basic form of instrumental music can tell its listeners something crucial: a slow, weeping song of two star-crossed lovers for example, or a cymbal-filled pulse-racing scene of a great battle between two ferocious enemies. It’s virtually impossible to have a song that doesn’t give its listeners some sort of message, or evoke a particular wave of emotion. Maybe that’s why we as humans have a tendency to listen to music so often. This is no different when it comes to the cinematic experience.
Scores can be the primary catalyst to providing this emotional strength to the films we watch, and gives them an added narrative as well as something beyond acting for viewers to make a memorable connection with. Basically, the score adds an essential extra dimension to a movie. Instead of just appealing to viewers’ visual senses, it allows films to appeal to the auditory senses, thus creating a secondary element of edge and originality.
Using music to create tension is exactly what we can see in Dunkirk, as well as in plenty of other films of its kind. The use of a consistent clock ticking sound to quicken viewers’ heart rates and intensity levels, with the rare artistic moments of silence to leave the audience in cruel anticipation, is what makes Dunkirk so immensely unforgettable. Of course, the atypical crescendos of monumental glorified moments are not lost here either, but the real beauty is truly in the way Hans Zimmer has used a plethora of auditory effects to innovate such a powerful score.
The vastly used technique, the ‘Shepard Tone Illusion,’ is achieved by layering several ascending tones separated by an octave, then decreasing the volume of the highest pitch while you raise the volume of the lowest. The result is an ascending scale that keeps climbing and climbing but never seems to reach its highest point. It is maddening to our ears and our senses, which is why most of us likely felt very uneasy and strained whilst watching – an intentionally genius move by an outstanding composer. Without it, I’d wager that Dunkirk wouldn’t have flourished quite as much as it has since its release in July.
Honouring the Greats
Of course, this isn’t the first time that a score has created a tsunami of sentiment for an audience. There are thousands of definitive pictures out there in which composers have accomplished something of a similar nature, but in most cases, the ones that stand out to each of us individually will always contrast and differ.
Widely-admired benchmark scores like the ones John Williams created for movies such as Star Wars, Home Alone and the Harry Potter franchise are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his capabilities as a composer. Because, as most of us are already aware, he is also responsible for the everlastingly moving E.T music, and was the front-runner in proving the ingenious notion that two simple notes can make the world of difference. How do we know this? Jaws.
His other works of art include Hook, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, War Horse and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Mix all of this with the striking scores from Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List and you’ve got a man with one heck of a CV.
Joining him in the hierarchy of greats is Ennio Morricone, who made his mark in the universe of scores with the likes of Django Unchained, The Good The Bad And The Ugly and Cinema Paradiso – all of which can be identified by the majority of cinema goers with just one musical note. That – ultimately – is the sole purpose of assembling a tailored score for a film.
The film score hall of fame doesn’t stop there though, with headliners like Danny Elfman, Bernard Hermann, Howard Shore, James Horner and Jerry Goldsmith proving their distinctions to the world of film with a plethora of classic titles under their belts.
But what makes scores so fundamental to the outcome of a film?
Final Musings On Scores
Directors and filmmakers are looking to a composer for enlightenment – someone who has the ability to bring a piece of film to another level. Scores are not there purely for decoration or an added element of flamboyance. In most cases, they’re the complete opposite of this. They are put in place so that the narrative is lifted and becomes capable of striking a chord in us as an audience. Hearing a familiar score can instantly allow us to associate it with our previous impressions that we had upon first watching the film it derives from all over again. The real power of a score is just that. It is remembering how we felt in that initial moment and feeling nostalgic whenever we hear it afterwards. It’s what turns a generic movie into an all time classic.
For instance, I will never forget the first time I saw Inception – forgive me for bringing this full circle back to Hans Zimmer, but the man can do no wrong in my eyes.
His resonating anthem ‘Time’ from the Christopher Nolan epic will forever be etched in my mind as the most powerful and most prominent film score I’ve ever heard. It’s been used many times since in a variety of other ways, and is truly goose-bump worthy regardless of how often you hear it. I can safely say that it has contributed massively to Inception being my favourite film yet.
For those reasons, the Dunkirk score had a similar impact on me, as I’m sure it did with a lot of others who went to see it. I can guarantee that there will be a lot of second-time ticket buyers standing in line for a follow-up viewing of Dunkirk. I certainly will be.
Star Wars may have gone down in history as the best score of all time, but what’s your personal favourite? Let us know in the comments!
Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.