What constitutes a masterpiece? Edvard Munch -Scream

What Constitutes a Masterpiece?

Masterpiece, like genius, is an often overused word, especially in the arts. Merriam-Webster defines a masterpiece as “a work done with extraordinary skill; especially: a supreme intellectual or artistic achievement.” So how does that apply to film music?

If you look at the first part of that definition, pretty much every film score qualifies as a masterpiece in my book. I certainly don’t have the skills to compose a score. I have certain compositional skills (lame though they are), but the craft, technical and otherwise, that is required to compose for film is beyond me. I consider these extraordinary skills that I believe every film composer has, even if I’m not particularly fond of their music. But the second half of that definition is the more common understanding of the word (hence, MW‘s italics, I suppose), and yet it seemingly negates what comes before it.


The intellectual portion of the equation poses a problem. I can’t see into someone else’s brain. And even if I could, I wouldn’t know how to judge what was there. Because of my education and training, I might be able to understand some of the more complex musical elements from an intellectual standpoint, but complexity doesn’t necessarily equal quality. There are plenty of complex musical pieces, in film and elsewhere, that have all the emotional resonance of a computer manual.

Artistic definitely calls for subjectivity. What is artistic? My personal definition fluctuates with my mood. There are certain things I consider artistic that many people wouldn’t understand. And there are plenty of generally accepted artistic things that I can’t comprehend. Bach comes across as musical math and I can stare at some of the “greatest” paintings until my eyes cross and still shrug my shoulders at their worth.

Achievement is the ultimate aim of the definition, I believe. And yet, what level of achievement is needed? MW says “supreme,” but what is “supreme”? For some, just finishing a score is a supreme achievement that has utilized every bit of a composer’s intellectual and artistic capabilities. Or does that not enter into the picture? And whose achievement are we talking about—personal from the viewpoint of the composer or public recognition? Is it simply left up to us to decide?

If so, then let me ask again, “What defines a masterpiece in film music?” Is it based solely on the quality of the music, or does its role within the film play a part in the consideration as well?


Many film score fans consider Jerry Goldsmith’s STAR TREK THE MOTION PICTURE to be a masterpiece. I too think it’s great score. I’ve yet to meet many people who care for the film. Thirty years later, fans seem to be much more forgiving than they were in 1979, but I think the general consensus is that the film is lacking in most areas. Does the score’s association with such a lumbering dead-weight film lower it a few notches? Or does Goldsmith’s ability to rise above what the picture deserves, perhaps even giving it a score for what might (and should) have been, push it beyond the “normal” film score?

What about John Williams’ STAR WARS? Here’s another generally accepted film music masterpiece, written for a far better film than STTMP. Sure, the score was lauded upon its release and it is one of the few soundtracks to cross over to non-film music fans. Is it truly a masterpiece, or do fond memories of a beloved film come into play here?

Sometimes “major” titles in a composer’s canon that have not been released get labeled masterpieces, perhaps out of nostalgia or a simple desire to have a particular score finally see the light of day. It certainly happened with Alan Silvestri’s BACK TO THE FUTURE, a score I still don’t get what the fuss is all about. Now, because the full score has finally been released and all the hubbub has died down, that particular label seems to have waned a bit. Fans still clamor for Bruce Broughton’s YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES, another score that is often labeled a masterpiece. Will that change when/if it’s released? Time will tell.

Perhaps that is the ultimate factor in determining a masterpiece. Time. Maybe it takes time and a historical perspective, a comparison of one score against many others. Or perhaps we’re so seemingly starved for decent film music these days that any personal Holy Grail that gets released or any new score that is a step above sonic wallpaper is automatically labeled a masterpiece. A beautiful violin solo and a couple of themes do not necessarily equate great film music.


Is all of this splitting hairs? Perhaps. I hesitate to call any film score (or any work of art, for that matter) a masterpiece, though I often fall into lockstep as well. But usually the choice is too internal, too personal. Whenever possible, I’d rather judge a score on its own terms without the baggage of opinion and nomenclature. One person’s masterpiece is another’s “WTF?!”. Then again, maybe personal is enough.

  1. Not another one who can’t hear the brilliance of Alan Silvestri’s Back To The Future, which is an extraordinary, supremely intellectual, artistically superior masterpiece.

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