Cinema sound | Moving away from orchestral film music

The Sound of the Cinema is a biweekly blog about music and sound design in movies.

When you think of what music for film or television sounds like, what comes to mind? Probably an orchestra, right? The orchestra is, after all, the standard form of film music. However, film music is unique because film composers can use whatever sounds they want. Ultimately, the score’s job is to create the aural environment the film needs, which can require composers to think outside the box and get creative with their musical sound.

An increasingly common form of cinematic composition is to use a hybrid orchestra. A hybrid orchestra consists of the standard orchestral instruments of strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion as well as electronic instruments. These instruments can be anything, including synthesizers, an electric guitar and – in the case of Nicholas Britell’s score for HBO’s “Succession” TV show – a 808 and a hip-hop beat.

The 13-time Emmy award-winning drama follows the Roys, an extremely wealthy family who own the media company Waystar Royco. Britell’s score for the show is a mix between orchestra and hip-hop, an unusual combination that accompanies the show well. This combination of styles manifests itself from the start with “Succession (Main Title Theme).” The opening credits introduce us to the mix of genres with a catchy piano line, an 808 and a beat. The strings then take over and it suddenly becomes a dramatic orchestral piece. The rhythm and the piano then return to close the tail. Britell’s main theme brings out the contemporary class the show inspires.

Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score for “Arrival” is another example of a hybrid orchestra creating the right sound for his film. “Arrival” follows professional linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) as she tries to uncover the language of unknown aliens, known as heptapods, who have landed on Earth. Jóhannsson uses strings and horns in his score, but also includes strange organic sounds to mimic the non-terrestrial nature of aliens.

Jóhannsson’s collection of these organic sampled recordings shines brightly in his cue”Heptapod B.” A singing woman is at the forefront of the line and behind her waves of synthesizers and percussive hits keep the line going. Jóhannsson’s score introduces an atmosphere that elevates the slightly creepy but intriguing perspective aliens have brought with them to Earth. Jóhannsson’s line “First Encounter” does a great job of emphasizing this particular scare and plot.

Some film scores move completely away from the use of the orchestra and use sound recordings to create instruments in what is called “sampling”. A notable example of this is the music from the “Blade Runner” films. Vangelis’ score for the original “Blade Runner” movie is made up entirely of synthesizers, and Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score for “Blade Runner 2049” works off of that original sound. However, the score for “Blade Runner 2049” also incorporates sounds recorded in some of the hitpoints.

Tail of Zimmer and Wallfisch”Flight to LAPDbegins with the classic synthesizer sound associated with the dystopian Earth in which “Blade Runner” is set. The cue follows Officer K (Ryan Gosling) as he travels through the city of Los Angeles towards the LAPD building. The tail brings an abnormal sound halfway Zimmer and Wallfisch mix the sound of a moving vehicle into the mix This is an unorthodox choice that allows the signal to build as K approaches the building In the world of film scores, it’s not often that you hear the sound of a running engine.

Vehicle noises are definitely unusual, but what about monkey noises? HBO’s Emmy-winning show “White Lotus” uses them. The particular show is about the Hawaiian resort White Lotus and a variety of wealthy people who come to stay there. Cristobal Tapia De Veer’s music for the show uses a variety of recorded chants and yes, monkey sounds, to create a score like no other. The opening credits of the show “Oh! – Main title theme” is strange to listen to at first, but it’s extremely catchy. De Veer’s music, like the music of “Blade Runner 2049”, moves away from typical orchestral instruments and uses Hawaiian instruments and sounds to its advantage. The result is a score that perfectly imitates the place and the strangeness of the show. It may seem strange to use monkeys in the score of an HBO show, but it really works.

With the recording and editing capabilities available to composers today with audio software, any sound can be used to create a score. The importance of a film score is to capture the essence of the film, and whether recordings of vehicle engines or monkey noises (or even mouse clicks) achieve this, then the score has done its job. The composers have been moving away from typical orchestral sound film scores since their inception and experimenting with mixing any sound they can get their hands on.

Alec Cassidy is a film production and music composition double major who writes about film scores. You can reach them at [email protected]