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Home / Film Score

Oscars Prep: The Five Functions of a Film Score

John Williams and George Lucas

According to udiscovermusic.com the number one film score of all time is still John Williams’ beloved main title score from “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.” We hear that song everywhere and know it as the ‘Star Wars Song.” It is clearly iconic. But in order to dive into the details, we have to ask the seemingly obvious, what is a film score?

Let’s start with some history, in the 1930s and 1940s, films were silent. By the 1950s, movies would use live orchestras to play music for films. This has continued to innovate, eventually becoming dialogue and film scores. According to Quora , by definition, a film score is the music composed for a movie to enhance the story. This can be done in 5 ways:

The first way music is used as a tool is by connecting the music to certain characters. In action movies like “Guardians Of The Galaxy”, there is certain background music that plays when the villain comes on or when the heroes appear. This is called a leitmotif. It is often used to underscore plot and associate a music piece with an idea or a person.

The second way music is used is by creating an atmosphere. The music can set the tone and mood of the plot before or while the movie is happening. This is also a way in which a person can tell the genre of a movie. An example of this is in the recent movie “Bird Box,” mainly in the introduction of the film.

The third way music is used is by using it to portray emotions in a scene for the characters. This is considered an important function to enhance a scene. For example, in the movie “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” there is a certain film score that plays when ET is saying goodbye to his human companion Elliott. The music in the background enhances the emotion the character feels during the goodbye. This isn’t always used in a sad way, but it gives viewers a deeper understanding into how the character feels.

The fourth way music is used is to connect scenes together. This could be a montage where no dialogue is happening, but the characters are seen doing things over the course of hours or days. A comical example of this is the montage scene in “Silver Linings Playbook” as main characters Tiffany and Pat try to get their dance routine together before the big dance competition.


The fifth way music is used is to help the audience see character development. Music can be heard as a character goes through some sort of struggle and, eventually, the outcome of that struggle. This character may go through a change and the music provides some build up for this transformation. An example of this is in the movie “Toy Story 2” when Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl’s backstory is revealed.

As you prep for Oscars season, or maybe the next time you sit don to watch a movie, pay attention to the magic of the movie score. You already knew that music had more function than background noise, but now you know why. The music connects the audience to the film, if used correctly, and overall enhances the work as a whole.

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