The Exorcist

9 Most Terrifying Words in Film Music

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Even a four-year-old knows that’s bullshit. Words do have the power to hurt. Even in the isolated world of film music fandom, words can hurt. Forget the constantly plagued carping on the message boards. I’m talking about those elements of film music that send a chill up your spine or cause you untold amounts of agita whenever you think about them. Some of them are valid, others not so much. That’s a personal choice. Here are nine terrifying words and phrases that, depending on your biological makeup, just might send you running for your equivalent of film music Valium.

9. Golden Age film music

For all intents and purposes, the Golden Age of Hollywood, and thereby of film scoring, ended roughly in the early 1960s with the decline of the studio system. That harmonically rich, orchestral sound that so many people bemoan the lack of today is a hallmark of the Golden Age film score. Yet there is a film music ageism that afflicts film music fans who denigrate scores from this period. But will the Korngolds, Steiners and Newmans of yesterday turn into the Goldsmiths, Horners and Williams of tomorrow? There will come a time when the generations of today, brought up on the music of Zimmer, Reznor and Ross and others, will thumbs their nose at the quaintness of an acoustic score by Williams or Bernard Herrmann. (One of the few actual Golden Age composers who gets a fairly consistent level of respect across all generations.) It’s already happening. “They don’t write scores like Williams (or Goldsmith or who have you) anymore.” No, they don’t. And they never will again. And why should they? I don’t want another Goldsmith, Williams, Korngold, Steiner, Newman or Zimmer. One was enough. Why would you want a carbon copy? I don’t want to hear the Goldsmithisms, Zimmerisms or Hornerisms in anyone but their original occupant. So before you denigrate the Golden Age of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, realize that that history gave you your particular Golden Age, whatever that may be. We learn from the past…if we’re lucky.

8. Mickey Mousing

It’s oh-so-cute when it underscores the manic actions of Mickey, Tom, Jerry or Bugs. At other times, particularly in live-action films, not so much. You know what I mean, when the music mimics every move, every flicker, every beat—emotional and physical—that you see, hear and feel onscreen. And yet is this type of “animated” scoring really such a bad thing? I read comments online about how film music today is lacking emotion, yet we don’t want to be “told” how to feel by the music. We want to have the music underscore the emotion of the moment but not telegraph it. One man’s telegraph is another’s emotional highpoint. Sometimes the Mickey Mousing is a valid choice, at other times it’s the result of a limited composer or an insecure director who needs busyness to cover up the flaws in his film. There’s no consistently right or wrong answer here. Not everything that is labeled Mickey Mousing is music vermin. I smell a rat.

7. Wall-to-Wall

For the general public, any recognition of music in a film automatically makes it suspect. The accusation that you can actually hear the music means that it must be wall-to-wall, or else why would you have heard it in the first place? If you heard it in one spot, then it must have always been there. Or so says that illogical fallacy. What is even stranger, especially in the film music community, is the belittling of too much music. Considering how much of our community is geared toward soundtracks and not how the music functions within the film, what difference does it make? It’s wall-to-wall in the CD listening experience anyway. Still, a well-spotted film is a beautiful thing. It shows care and craft on behalf of the director and the composer. What may work for carpets does not necessarily work for music.

6. Wallpaper

Once a decorative addition to any room has now become the equivalent of film music Muzak. Sure, it can pretty. It can also be pretty bland. Most of the time it’s just sloppy, sticky and oh so messy. Particularly common in rom-coms, wallpaper music is a generic—though often tuneful—sort of ear candy. Bubble gum for the ears that you automatically chew longer after the flavor is gone. It tastes good for the first couple of minutes until your jaw starts to ache, your mouth gets full of cavities, and you grow sluggish and fat from the empty calories. Wallpaper music may look pretty at first glance. But the longer you sit with it, the more it clashes with your decor.

5. Ambient

Call it what you will—tone, drone, sound design—ambient music is not the same as wallpaper music. Hell, many film music fans don’t even consider ambient music music. For whatever reasons (and there are way too many to enumerate here for the 100th time), film scores today are not melody-based for the most part. Instead, they’re based on repetitive harmonic, rhythmic and melodic fragments for the most part. Some fans like the trend, some don’t. It works in some movies and not others. It often works better in the context of the film than as a standalone listening experience. But just because the score is not compositionally complex (and even that phrase has its drawbacks) doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have value. Ambient music that captures the mood and atmosphere of a film or scene can be just as powerful as a score based on traditional 8-bar phrases.

4. Rock Musician

It may be hard to believe now, but in the mid-1980s when Danny Elfman stepped out of his Oingo Boingo moniker and first made his mark as a film composer, he was castigated for even attempting to enter the hallowed halls of the likes of Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams. No one took him seriously. Thirty years later, John Williams is still alive, Elfman is now part of the old guard, and rock musicians are being crucified within film music fandom for attempting to pollute our sonic waters. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and Gustavo Santaolalla would probably have been blips on the radar had they not won their Oscars. Now they’re El Diablo (or maybe Tim Curry in LEGEND…the Goldsmith version, not the Tangerine Dream version). Speaking of Tangerine Dream… Jonny Greenwood missed out on a good deal of hate because his score accompanied an overrated, pretentious piece of tripe like THERE WILL BE BLOOD. Currently percolating for your critical displeasure is the LONE RANGER score by White Stripes frontman Jack White. To paraphrase a well-worn (and more than a little sacrilegious) phrase: “Jack, put your feet together. We only brought three nails.”

3. Mono

Pity the poor film score not recorded in stereo. Whether or not the score has any merit, for a large portion of film music fans it might as well be one of those records you cut out of the back of the cereal box back when you were a kid. (Well, when I was a kid.) Forget that Korngold, Newman or Steiner, or, hell, even Mancini, Williams or Goldsmith wrote it. If it ain’t in stereo, it ain’t worth listening to. Or so say some. If you’re passionate about film music, then be passionate about the music, not just the film it accompanies or the way it makes you feel when you’re vacuuming up dog hair, though these are all valid instances in which to enjoy it. Far be it from me to tell you how to enjoy your music. But by ignoring mono you’re thumbing your nose at a huge chunk of film music history. And God forbid you release a stereo soundtrack in mono. According to the unwritten rules of film music fandom, that requires you to be pilloried in the town square and pummeled with danger motifs. Speaking of which…

2. Danger Motif

Call it what you will—James Horner’s trademark, his signature, his calling card. That four-note chromatic motif has been signaling doom and gloom for over thirty years—in the same key, in the same triplet rhythm, and usually in the same trumpet orchestration. From BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS to his STAR TREK scores, TITANIC, AVATAR and beyond, the motif refuses to be hidebound by period or genre. Instead, Horner now sees fit to simply cut and paste the damn thing wherever and whenever he gets writer’s block. At a loss for what to say? Rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat. Even in his most recent score for FOR GREATER GLORY, in the midst of all the Catholic posturing, Horner forsakes all attempts at local verisimilitude and pummels the ear with the motif every two beats, as if Khan was hot on the Cristiada’s heels instead of Mexican President Calles’s murdering army. I’m not sure what Horner will ever do if the ⌘, C and V keys ever break on his keyboard.

1. Remote Control

One of the greatest inventions of the 20th century has become one of the scourges of 21st film music, at least according to many fans. The House That Hans Built is now the human equivalent of the tritone. Zimmer & Co. have been denigrated for their factory approach to film music and their “Zimmer clone” lack of musical distinctiveness, both of which are true to some extent. In many corners of film music fandom, the composers who have passed through the Media Ventures/RC machine might as well be branded for life with a scarlet Z. But what is often overlooked are the positive aspects of the company. And perhaps therein lies the primary issue at stake—”company”. RC turned film music into a business, teaching composers the skills necessary and offering them scoring opportunities on an unprecedented scale. It also gave them credits (or lack thereof in many cases, wherein I guess you should just be happy for the “experience”) that they may not have otherwise received freelancing on their own. That today’s filmmakers and audiences have embraced the RC sound is not the fault of the composers. Nor is the fact that they score a large portion of the biggest moneymakers. Imagine you’re a young composer. You’ve got an offer to join the RC team. To make money, learn your craft, AND put food on the table. You’d probably jump at the chance. On the flip side, the RC alum and RC sound will never match that of its Grand Poobah, Hans Zimmer. Like him or hate him, Zimmer has that indefinable spark and readily identifiable sound that is uniquely his, no matter how many other composers are cast in his mold on the assembly line or attempt to copy it (through their choice or not). If you don’t like the sound of today’s RC-scored landscape, you do have a choice—grab the clicker and change the channel.

  1. The reason why Greenwood was spared the criticism from migrating from rock and roll wasn’t because of the “overrated piece of tripe” your refer to (There Will be Blood) but because he was formally trained in orchestral music and is the composer in residence at the BBC. Do your homework before you make insipid comments like this sir.

    And TWBB is probably the closest thing to cinematic genius North American cinema has seen in the past 20 years.

  2. TWBB is amazing on mute. its one of the few movies in my recent memory that actually has a score that completely enhances the experience and is memorable in its own right. Youre opinion is yours to ewxpreas, but the juvenille manner in which you did so, especially for a film with as much critical acclaim, is the real tripe.

  3. Man, I almost fell out of my chair when you listed the danger motif! ;) It has almost become a game, to hear a new JH score and wait for that motif to pop up! Great article Jim, as always!!

  4. You make some terrific points, and it’s all very interesting! The one that made me smile was mono. I do tend to let out a loud sigh when stereo masters don’t survive, and I hate to say it, but monaural recordings just don’t get the rotation time I give to stereo. Of course, monaural certainly isn’t a dealbreaker when I want the music. THE BIG COUNTRY was the score that made monaural moot for me.

    By the way, I’m a big fan of THERE WILL BE BLOOD (not so much the score), but all my friends just can’t get into the picture either.

  5. JH didn’t write the danger motif, its the opening to Rachmanioff symphony no. 1.

    1. Wow, I completely missed that all these years, which in itself is embarrassing. Thanks for the heads up. While in some composers I’d say it was just coincidence, given that it’s a motif more than an extended melody, Horner’s lifting from Prokofiev and others makes this even more ridiculous.

      1. Sure, I think your point is even stronger. Especially considering Horner’s use of copy/paste is even more flagrant than Rachmanioff’s.

  6. So true. This makes me listen to some of my favorites with a different ear.

  7. Santaolalla is not just a rock musician. He has a band called Bajofondo which mixes tango and synths, including other lots of stuff.

  8. The Danger Motif is not included anywhere in Horner’s Black Gold, Karate Kid and The Amazing Spider-Man.

    Anyway, I found ridiculous the complains with it, because like it’s called, Horner uses to identify danger

    1. Agreed. I like Horner, and it saddens me that people can assume he steals. We have ALL been inspired by some music in the past, and film composers have a challenge in creating a emotional response through music…MUSIC that has a limited emotional vocabulary based on the audience hearing the material. Truly, want to create tension?, use diminished chords…our bodies and make up respond naturally to certain sounds. Horner knows what will hit the emotional button.

  9. A fantastic article IMO. Although I am a massive fan of Zimmer, I agree that everyone tries to sound like him and fails miserably, and as a result, everyone blames him. Your arguments were really well balanced, and I wish there were more music critics like yourself.

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