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Sound Signatures of Soundtrack Composers

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Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of movie soundtracks, and I’ve noticed something: not only can you tell songs that connect per movie, but per composer – just like you can identify a book both by the series it is part of and the author who wrote it. So today I’ve been having fun trying to guess the composer of soundtracks I’ve never heard before by listening for the ‘sound signature’ of the composer.

For the purpose of this post, I did a quick run-through of soundtracks by Hans Zimmer, John Williams, and Randy Newman.

For Hans Zimmer, I listened to selections from Inception, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Sherlock Holmes, The Da Vinci Code, Black Hawk Down, and Gladiator. I noticed that he uses stringed instruments to set the tone (be it violin, cello, or guitar), features one or two instruments as the ‘voice’ of the song, and throws in deep horns and drums almost like punctuation marks to convey action. His music easily conveys the mood and action of the scene along with the emotions of the characters, making the music feel more personal.

For John Williams, I listened to songs from Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Catch Me If You Can, and Saving Private Ryan. The first thing I noticed was his use of a full symphony orchestra. Sweeping violins, bold brass, light flutes, everything is put to work in order to set the scene just so, with truly grand results.

For Randy Newman, I chose songs from Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Monster’s Inc., Seabiscuit, Forrest Gump, and Leatherheads. Again, the first thing I noticed was the use of a full orchestra, although instead of grand and formal I picked up more of a vintage theme reminiscent of the big band and jazz eras. The relaxed feel of the music contributes more to establishing time and place than action and character development, I think.

But there is one soundtrack which really stumps me: ‘North and South’, composed by Martin Phipps. In the main theme, I was sure I heard an undercurrent of mystery very close to that found in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl’, so I thought Klaus Badelt. Then I concentrated on the violin motif and was reminded of the more melancholy songs in ‘Little Women’, composed by Thomas Newman. In any case, it’s something fun to mull over in the back of my mind.

Quote of the post: “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.” – Victor Hugo

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2 thoughts on “Sound Signatures of Soundtrack Composers

  1. Firstly, great post! I really enjoyed it, especially the “mystery” you happened upon with the North and South score by Martin Phipps.

    Also, I recently stumbled upon someone else that you may consider comparing to your current list, or possibly a future one: James Horner. He has composed scores for numerous films, such as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Cocoon, Aliens, Field of Dreams, Glory, Patriot Games, Jumanji, Apollo 13, Braveheart, and Titanic. He received awards for his work for Titanic (a Golden Globe, a Grammy, and an Oscar) and was BAFTA nominee.

    Looking forward to other posts!

    • Thanks for suggesting I listen to James Horner; I went through a sampling of his music from A Beautiful Mind, Avatar, Aliens, Apollo 13, Braveheart, Field of Dreams, Glory, Legends of the Fall, Star Trek II, The Mask of Zorro, Titanic, and Troy. What I heard: Use of ‘lighter’ instruments (soft strings and wind instruments dominating) and occassional vocal accompaniment combined in creating strong themes of emotion. In Horner’s music, the emphasis is not on the external, but internal condition of the characters – instead of simply stating what is happening, the music is telling the listener the character’s view of what is going on and how it is affecting them.

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