King Kong – Max Steiner
There’s a reason that some people refer to Max Steiner as ‘the father of film music’. Back in the early days of Hollywood, he was one of the first composers to turn his hand to film scoring, benefitting enormously from the lack of any pre-existing templates to follow. Today, new technologies and programs for composing music have reduced the number of actual musicians required to create an orchestral film score, but in Steiner’s day it was a process that involved the work of hundreds of performers, instrumentalists and technicians – and the full force of every single one of them can be heard throughout his epic, dramatic scores.
King Kong may well be his masterpiece – it’s as loud and wildly bombastic as they come, setting the template of epic blockbuster filmmaking for decades to come. The film’s effects may seem charmingly ropey by today’s standards, but Steiner’s score still towers.
Psycho – Bernard Herrmann
Hermann and Hitchcock were one of cinema’s all-time great director and composer teams, working together on countless influential projects that pushed the boundaries of what a film score could sound like. With all due respect to Vertigo and North by Northwest, both of which have excellent scores and may make for more traditional, family friendly Christmas viewing, it’s hard to beat Herrmann’s work on Psycho.
Unusually for its time, Herrmann’s score features no wind, no brass, no percussion – nothing at all except for the eerie, unsettling strings that creep along quietly before leaping into violent action. Often the sign of a great score is how deeply it has worked its way into the public consciousness, and even people who’ve never seen a Hitchcock movie in their life will be likely to recognise this one.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – Ennio Morricone
One way of deciding if a film score is truly great, is to ask a simple question – would the film itself be half as enjoyable and as entertaining if you took its music away and replaced it with something else? In the case of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the music is so integral that it’s hard to imagine the film even existing without its score.
Morricone’s sound is so distinctive, and so utterly unique, that he created an entirely new sub-genre of film score that many have attempted to parody, pastiche, and even outright rip-off, but that nobody has ever managed to recreate properly. It’s the perfect accompaniment to this epic, incomprehensible, nearly three-hour parade of gloriously ridiculous western clichés. Turkey dinners may be the more traditional Christmas fare, but when it comes to our westerns it’s spaghetti all the way.
Blade Runner – Vangelis
As creators of music notation software, we are always looking to the future for inspiration – so it would be a little remiss of us not to celebrate the film scores that have looked far ahead and broken new technological ground. Vangelis’ acclaimed score for Blade Runner wasn’t the first to introduce electronic elements into the mix, but it combined cutting-edge synthesisers with traditional orchestral flourishes in a way that no one had ever heard before – and that other film composers have been struggling to match, let alone surpass, ever since. It’s one of the great marriages of music and cinema, with Vangelis’ music creating a fully immersive sound-world to complement the film’s incredible futuristic visuals.
Requiem for a Dream – Clint Mansell
Admittedly, the tragic tale of the wasted lives of people variously addicted to heroin, unattainable ideals of beauty and the elusive hope of a better tomorrow may not be the most festive viewing on this list, but it’s hard to argue with the power of that score. It put Clint Mansell, the former lead singer of confrontational 90s rock band Pop Will Eat Itself, firmly on the map as the creator of intelligent, innovative film scores that combined modern techniques with minimalist touches. The score’s key track, Lux Aeterna, has proved so influential that it’s had a long and varied life beyond its source – for many years it seemed to feature in every single film trailer under the sun, and it’s been remixed and remade for multiple genres.
From the early days of Hollywood to the new world of cutting-edge technology and composing software, the greatest film composers have always been the ones who made the sound inseparable from the image. That’s what makes them essential viewing – seeing, and hearing, something that you’ve never experienced before.