Soundtrack Themes Disappearing?

During a q & a last week with LACMA’s Elvis Mitchell, Phil Spector director-writer David Mamet said that over the last few years hummable motion picture soundtrack themes have either disappeared or are being heard a lot less. This hadn’t occured to me but maybe Mamet is right. It used to be that almost every significant or ambitious film had a musical theme as well as themes assigned to major characters.

I’m not saying that Gustavo Santaolalla‘s Brokeback Mountain score was the last Oscar-winner that had a simple hummable theme, but it’s the last one I recall. Did Mychael Danna‘s Life of Pi score, which won the Oscar last month, have a hummable theme or a character theme? Not that I remember. Were there any hummable themes in Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross‘s Social Network score? I don’t recall any but then it wasn’t that kind of movie. A hummable theme was built into John WilliamsWar Horse score, but my mind has expelled all memories of it. I certainly remembered the two themes that Williams composed for his 20 year-old Jurassic Park score when I saw the 3D version last week, but that was another time.

I don’t accept Mamet’s observation that movie themes are nearly extinct, but they’re certainly becoming more scarce. I think that’s fair to say at this point.

  • I was thinking about this exact subject yesterday. The last John Williams score I can easily recall was Catch Me If You Can, although it was built into that terrific credit sequence.

  • DuluozGray

    What do you mean you don’t accept it? Great movie scores are a thing of the past. It’s all background music now. I mean, we’re in the apex of superhero movies right now and NOT ONE of them has an actual theme for the heroes. How does Avengers not have a theme you can hum while walking out of the theater? Iron Man? Thor? Green Lantern? None of them have a good theme.

    Michael Kamen is dead. Jerry Goldsmith is dead. Bernard Herrmann is dead. John Barry is dead. Hans Zimmer may as well be dead as he used to make great scores for shit like Black Rain and True Romance, with great memorable themes, now he just bangs out forgettable shit. John Williams is old and either doesn’t want to work or people have forgotten about him.

    Great movie scores are nearly dead and buried. There’s no respect for what a score brings. Some still slip through, like Soderbergh’s Solaris, but they are too few and far between.

    • moviewatcher

      Hans Zimmer just wrote one of his best scores a couple of years ago with Inception…

      And this year we had The Master and Cloud Atlas’s scores.

      But yeah, there aren’t many great new scores.

      • DuluozGray

        Inception score was not good. A friend gave it to me, I listened to it, at no point did I go back to my computer cause something stood out. It was forgettable background music. Zimmer was the man in the late 80’s and early 90’s. He’s been garbage since, which is probably why he is so popular now.

        Master score was okay, worked for the film. Didn’t see Cloud Atlas.

        • Markus Ponto

          I do think it was a good film score, because it worked magnificently in the movie (at least for me) – though you’re probably right that it’s not a good album to listen to.

          I love film scores that work as “music” on their own and I think composers should aspire that goal but to be “good” filmmusic the score just has to supoort and enhance the film.

          • DuluozGray

            Agreed on the second paragraph.

            But to be honest, when I saw Inception, the music did not stand out either. But that’s just me, I guess…

        • Morricone

          Holy shit – Early 90’s Zimmer was amazing. Days Of Thunder, Green Card, Pacific Heights, Rain fucking Man, Lion King, Crimson Tide, Broken Arrow – these were outstanding scores. After Thin Red Line something happened to him (or it might have been before) that made him change. He got fucking Bruckhimered and that was the beginning of his downfall. Rango had it’s moments, as did Dark Knight Rises (that nasty Bane choral chant cue was incredible.)

          • DuluozGray

            Agreed on the Bane theme, but yeah, he’s sucked for at least 15 years now. Don’t forget Drop Zone or K2, two underrated Zimmer scores.

        • Raising_Kaned

          Inception was “forgettable background music?” What on Earth are you TALKING about?

          They even worked it into the actual plot of the movie (what with the Piaf cue, and whatnot).

          It’s one thing if you think it’s too overbearing or overblown, I SUPPOSE, but I really don’t understand how you watch that film and don’t notice it at all.

          • DuluozGray

            It helps that the movie itself was not good. That kinda makes the whole thing forgettable.

            • Raising_Kaned

              Well, I don’t agree with that. But that’s not really the point.

              Like any aspect of filmmaking, it’s possible to isolate great music from the subpar nature of the rest of the movie (like Tron: Legacy, for example).

  • cyanic

    The percussive theme for The Master was excellent and the accompanying music for the rest of the picture was filled with string and wind instruments.

  • SOCIAL NETWORK: sure- the music from the rowing race. Well, its rearrangement. Which kind of proves the point.

    • TheAngryInternet

      I wouldn’t call it hummable, but I’d say The Social Network has a clear and memorable theme. Off the top of my head I can recall three songs incorporating it (“Hand Covers Bruise,” “In Motion,” “Intriguing Possibilities” — okay, I had to look up the titles, but I remember the songs pretty clearly). There are probably others.

      In the same “memorable but unhummable” category I’d include The Grandmaster, though of course Wells will never know this firsthand and will proudly remind us of that fact over and over again.

  • Mechanical Shark

    I think Michael Giacchino has made a number of hummable scores. Up, The Incredibles, and Star Trek all had pretty memorable themes. And, well, the Pirates of the Caribbean theme is instantly recognizable for most people. But for the most part, yes, Mamet is right.

    • DuluozGray

      Giacchino is the second most overrated composer working today, after Hans Zimmer that is.

  • Eloi Wrath

    There’s a big difference between “hummable themes” and “great movie scores”. There are still plenty of great scores being composed every year, but there probably are less instantly recognizable themes than 20 years ago. But part of that is due to the wider decline in soundtrack album sales and fewer genuine cultural phenomenon blockbusters.

    It is odd that Marvel has failed to find a single recognizable theme for all of their superheroes. I disagree with DG on Hans Zimmer, though – play his Dark Knight theme to a group of people on the street and they’ll probably recognize it. A look at the number of YouTube views for the big Zimmer themes also speaks to his mainstream popularity.

    Zimmer’s problem is his factory of soundalikes that he keeps under the Remote Control banner, so after he puts out a great score like Inception there’ll be four other Zimmer clones borrowing bits and pieces from it until the sound isn’t fresh anymore.

    Giacchino is always good for a strong theme. Managed to create a brand new memorable Star Trek theme in a franchise stuffed full of them.

    • Circumvrent

      Yeah, Marvel’s score are shockily shitty. I think I remember McWeeny bringing up what a shame it was that each hero didn’t have their own themes that could be woven into a big Avengers score. And the craziest thing about that to me is that the Avengers was scored by the guy who wrote the Back to the Future theme, which I think is just as good as Star Wars or Indiana Jones.

      But you’re totally right that there are still great scores. Thomas Newman’s work on Side Effects is really great to have on in the background while you work.

      • Eloi Wrath

        Yeah, Silvestri’s score for The Avengers wasn’t good at all. His Captain America stuff was better, but still weak. Agreed that the patchwork approach would have been great, but I think even between Iron Man 1 and 2 they switched composers so they clearly weren’t interested in continuity.

        Silvestri’s BTTF score is magnificent. I read a story about how Spielberg assumed it was a temp track when Zemeckis first played it to him because he felt he’d heard it before, it was so instantly memorable.

      • Raising_Kaned

        Yeah, good call on Side Effects.

        The music in Soderbergh films (if there’s any at all!) is generally pretty strong. I thought the score/audio motifs in Contagion was/were really interesting (although not exactly “hummable,” sure).

        • Circumvrent

          Contagion, Side Effects, Traffic, Oceans, Solaris… the Soderbergh scores are consistently great.

    • budbrigmanbackontheair

      Zimmer’s score for Inception was a classic. Don’t understand the Giacchino love though, I thought his Trek score was dire, especially put up against the Trek themes by Goldsmith and Horner. I think the problem is we grew up during a classic age for film scoring, John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, John Barry, Basil Poledouris. They’re all dead now, except Williams, and nobody has stepped up to fill their (admittedly very large) shoes…

      • punkedup

        Thomas Newman performed a small miracle with his SKYFALL score – the best Bond score since Barry

        • Morricone

          Thomas Newman is the American Ennio Morricone. His score for Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is infinitely better than that Life Of Pi go nowhere score.

  • George Prager

    If you can’t make up lyrics to it, you can’t hum it:

    “At Jurassic Park,
    At Jurassic Park,
    You will meet some dinosaurs…”

    • Eloi Wrath

      On YouTube there’s a video that goes:

      “Holy fucking shit,
      It’s a dinosaur,
      Jesus Christ,
      What the fuck…”

  • Howard Shore writes memorable themes (LORD OF THE RINGS, etc.). Danny Elfman for Tim Burton. And Thomas Newman; the couple in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD have separate themes. I can’t immediately recall music of much note in any of Mamet’s films.

    • DuluozGray

      good point about Lord of the Rings, though there are rumblings that Shore outright stole some of the themes he used from other composers.

      • Markus Ponto

        Oh these plagiarism claims never get old. James Horner get’s whipped for it by fanboys every day. Most of the time people confuse similarity with plagiarism. But this thing is a box of worms.

        It’s mostly the producers/music editors/directors that urge composers to make the score sound more like that other score (that was so FANTASTIC!!!!!) or like the temptrack.

        In Father of the Bride II Alan Silvestri had to compose a track that structurally and musically was a rip off of his own Forrest Gump Feathertheme. Temptracks are a pathway to hell. I think good old Bernard Herrmann would have chopped of the head of a director if he had to spot a movie with an added temptrack. I heard a story when he went nuts on Paul Hirsch/Brian De Palma while working on Obsession because it had a temptrack featuring his own Hitchcock scores.

        • DuluozGray

          Agreed on all counts.

        • Markus Ponto

          Just a few links to make this problem a bit more visible.

          Star Trek III: The Search for Spock., James Horner

          Track “Stealing the Enterprise” on the CD:

          This track is a knock-off/rip-off of Prokofievs ballet “Romeo and Juliet” (begins at exactily 7:00 minutes)

          In the final movie they got rid of the violins (starting at 0:16) so you just can’t hear the origins of the music that well

          We’ll never know if this was an inside joke by Horner, a forced temptrack-ripoff or if he outright “stole” that section from Prokofiev.

          • punkedup

            It still doesn’t have that Horner melody in there but clearly all good composers should have great influences. Prokofiev was of course also one of the greatest film composers.

    • Circumvrent

      I could hum you the Spartan theme, and U haven’t seen the movie in a few years.

  • Gabe_Toro

    It’s because of “immersion,” the whole idea that people aren’t watching the movies, but they have to be IN the movies. The characters have to be relateable (i.e. inarticulate assholes) instead of awe-inspiring, classy types we should aim to be. It’s stereo sound to make us into monkeys riding a roller coaster.

    And it’s scores dedicated to creating soundscapes, droning bwaaaarrrsssss and wop-wop-wops. Even when someone like Giacchino comes around (a hummer who doesn’t even write his own music) he doesn’t use melodies as much as he overdoses on arpeggios.

    The best composers today either create soundscapes (which can be interesting) or they invent half-melodies, quarter hooks looped and repeated as motifs. But most of them are from the Zimmer school, a bunch of Jablonskys and Beltramis just whaling on keyboards and bludgeoning the viewers with repetitive three note progressions.

    It kills me that we might never get to see “Escape From Tomorrow.” The score for that leaked, and it’s from Abel Korzeniowski, and it’s fucking amazing. Original, elaborate themes and gorgeous melodies. Unfortunately, I guess the only way you can get to do that sort of thing is if you are doing a parody of something, as the themes sound like mocking old-school Disney soundalikes.

    • Markus Ponto

      “Even when someone like Giacchino comes around (a hummer who doesn’t even write his own music) he doesn’t use melodies as much as he overdoses on arpeggios.”

      Wow, wow, wow – stop! You really think Giacchino is just a Chaplinlike hummer? You mean, when he went to Julliard he just hummed at his teachers?

      This sounds rather ridiculous. Just like in the 80’s when people said Danny Elfman was a fraud. Or can you backup your claim?

      • DuluozGray

        except Danny Elfman composed some great scores in his day. Same can’t be said for Giacchino, who basically makes background music.

        And background music doesn’t have to be bad. A good example of great background music is John Williams’ score for Presumed Innocent, as well as James Horner’s score for Unlawful Entry. I should add, though, that both of those films have hummable themes. Another great score with hummable themes is Grand Canyon by Thomas Newton Howard.

        And some classic Zimmer while we’re at it.

        • Markus Ponto

          You’re right on everything, except for your opinion on Giacchino. 😉

          • DuluozGray

            Agree to disagree!

        • Morricone

          Grand Canyon is a masterpiece of contemporary film scoring. This ranks up there with The Fugitive as Howard’s crowning achievements.

          • DuluozGray

            Yes! Love for the Grand Canyon score!

      • Gabe_Toro

        I was under the impression he was very open about being a hummer.

        • Markus Ponto

          I did a quick online search. This seems to be an unjustified rumor that was passed around the time when he was the conductor for the oscarshow. It’s gossip. A conductor that cannot read or write music. Yeah, right.

    • Matthew Lucas

      ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW has a great score, but it didn’t leak. It’s readily available on Amazon and iTunes.

  • Marty Melville

    Movie music has never been worse. There are rare exceptions like Zimmer’s Inception which was gloomy and grand. And Alexandre Desplat’s Fantastic Mr. Fox was in perfect sync with its director, unpredictable, eccentric and alive.

  • Ray Quick

    I don’t know, it took six weeks to un-drill the CLOUD ATLAS SEXTET from my head, a piece of music so beautiful and devastatingly depressing that when the trailer would come on it was like watching a funeral. Day or two after I saw the movie I had actually will it out of my skull and will do my damndest to never think of it or hear it again, it’s that memorable and haunting/upsetting.

  • DiscoNap

    Nick Cave & Warren Ellis’ Assassination of Jesse James score is probably one of the best ever written. That was only five years ago. We’re doing alright.

    • DuluozGray

      Agreed that it was great, but 5 years ago is “doing alright” by you? Gimme a break.

  • This will fall on Jeff’s deaf television averse ears, but look to television for amazing scores from Murray Gold (Doctor Who) and Bear McCreary (BSG, Walking Dead) where characters have their own themes and weave together beautifully. McCreary is a wunderkind.

  • Markus Ponto

    The biggest challenge for a composer today is to keep up with the editing of the picture. It’s insane how late in the game the final cut of a movie gets handed over to the composers. How do you want to match your hummable theme with several beats/cuts in the picture when the editing changes and changes and changes…

    I guess its easier for a composer if you just have a drumpattern/rhythmbased score, because you can better accomodate the score to each new version of the movie.

    Blessed are composers who have a knack for memorable short motives that can merge into a whole theme now and then (like Danny Elfman).

    John Williams gets enough time from Spielberg. James Horner got enough time on Avatar and Titanic (the themes were not too much original but at least hummable).

    Howard Shore had months of preperationtime for LOTR (though the final cuts came incredibly late too, I guess).

    Give the composers more time and you’ll probably get more hummable themes.

    • DuluozGray

      A hummable theme is independent of the timeframe or final cut coming in late. Just do a dope main titles theme and then you can weave it in as necessary and sync it up.

      • Markus Ponto

        Of course, but how often does a composer today get the chance to present his complete main title.

        Remember the days when Mike Post had almost 2 minutes for his L.A. LAW Theme on tv at the beginning of an episode. Today it’s more like a 3 second LOST “whoooosh”. It’s the same in cinema. No Main Tiles (which is a shame). Just: “Let’s get right into the action”….

        • DuluozGray

          I use the term main titles as a shorthand for the main theme. One can compose the main theme for a film before the picture is locked.

  • The soundtrack of a movie merely needs to “fix” the holes when the action and tension lags. it’s no longer about selling records or even tickets. If you want something to hum, you should stick to the Journey/REOSpeedwagon/Styx nostalgia tracks loaded up on the soundtrack by Judd Apatow and Adam Sandler.

    You want an era of great hummable scores/soundtracks, dig into the work done by artists given black action films in the early ’70s. Pick apart Bobby Womack, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and others that made those films sound more expensive than the budget.

  • Markus Ponto

    Oh, btw. Absolutely great filmscores don’t have to be hummable to be memorable. Most of the time i don’t like modern classic music in concert but I love modern music in movies…

    James Horner, Brainstorm:

    Jerry Goldsmith, Planet of the Apes:

    Don Davis, The Matrix:

  • Morricone

    John Williams’ Tintin had at least 5 hummable themes throughout the score. I think the last time he composed a score with that many unique themes was Temple Of Doom.

  • Trimmer


    There has not been a hummable theme since John Travolta burned the screen in Broken Arrow.


  • Paco R.

    Hans Zimmer gets a lot of flack, but let’s not forget Gladiator had the best score of the last 15 years. Amazing, potent stuff.

    • DuluozGray

      Uh… no.

  • Raising_Kaned

    Hmmm…is it possible that the scores themselves have actually gotten better, whereas the main themes/hooks have gotten less hummable/catchy? ‘Cuz I think that’s pretty much where I’m at with this.

    Surprised nobody mentioned Clint Mansell (at least that I can see) in this thread yet. “Death is the Road to Awe” from The Fountain is a truly amazing piece of film music in its own right; very emotional progressions.

    Not to mention Tron: Legacy by Daft Punk, Hanna (Chem Brothers are underrated), Inception, Contagion, Black Swan, The American, The Social Network, Planet of the Apes, The Master, Cloud Atlas. I seem to recall kinda digging the music in the X-Men prequel, too, although I don’t exactly remember any of it.

    Plus soundtracks made up of music from various artists like Django, 127 Hours, Drive.

    The reports of the death of good music in movies have been greatly exaggerated…

    • TimDG

      Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman’s score for Ravenous rules them all.

      • Raising_Kaned

        That cannibal movie? I have to be honest — I don’t remember any of the music in that AT ALL. But it’s been a long, long time — perhaps I should revisit it soon.

        • joeybot

          Their score is amazing.

      • Markus Ponto

        Oh I forgot about that one. Great, great score

    • DuluozGray

      Good call on The Fountain. GREAT score, especially the track you mention.

      Unfortunately, your excellent taste ends there.

      Tron Legacy had a few good tracks, but it was not a great score, and I am a huge Daft Punk fan going back to Homework. It was a letdown.

      Hanna was also a pretty big disappointment from The Chemical Brothers. Just not good. Nothing grabs you really.

      The rest of the ones you list are forgettable (didn’t see Cloud Atlas). X-Men First Class music was interesting in spots, at least for an action movie. But each character needs their own motif, and that was sorely lacking. Composers today just can’t hack it. Think of Basil Poledouris’s theme for Robocop. AMAZING. Not many today are even capable of such heights. One of the reasons Superman with Christopher Reeve was so great was cause of the music. Music can add so much to films of that nature, and the superhero scores of today are uniformly terrible. There has not been one memorable theme from any comic book film since Batman ’89.

      • Raising_Kaned

        Again, it’s hard for me to dispute the “memorable theme” argument because I kinda agree (although maybe it’s just that we’re getting older, and less impressionable? Not sure).

        But is “memorable theme” really the same thing as a “great score?” In the isolated examples you cited (Robocop and Batman are incredible), yes, but I’m uncertain that this is always the case.

        I guess I’m kinda on the fence here.

        • DuluozGray

          You can have a good score without having a major theme. But the topic is themes, and they are woefully absent these days.

  • Mathew Meyerotto

    For me a great score works separate from the movie. Most Williams, Goldsmith and Horner scores are very listenable as just music. Some scores are actually better than the films (Daft Punk’s Tron Legacy). My personal gripe is with the scores to films by Christopher Nolan or just about any modern superhero movie. Monotonous and overbearing. A lot of that is because modern superhero movies are dark, monotonous and overbearing so the music is fitting. Just not something I want to listen to (or watch for that matter) regardless if there is a theme somewhere in the mix.

  • arisp

    No discussion is complete with Zimmer’s Thin Red Line – for me the best soundtrack of the last 20 years. Also Howard’s Shawshank Redemption is brilliant. End of story.

  • Rev. Slappy

    If we’re talking hummable and memorable, John Williams’ Harry Potter theme comes to mind. You recognize it when you hear it.

  • sfcrab

    I miss the TV show themes that used to be so good that you’d hear them on the radio. Circa 70s and 80s

  • I know this has been 15 years or so, but what about Michael Nyman’s scores from the 90’s, specifically “Gattaca” and any of Michael Winterbottom’s films? Someone mentioned Cave and Miller…. yes! Finally, I encourage everyone to check out the scores from Max Richter…. just one of the great instrumentalists working today whose music is lush and beautiful, especially matched with “Perfect Sense”, “Walk With Bazhir” and “Shutter island”. Instantly “hummable”.

  • Mechanical Shark

    oh man, Hanna’s score is just…amazing. There’s just nothing like the track Container Park for recent fist-pumpingly awesome film music.

  • Bob Loefflad

    I know I’m late to the game here, but I just have to say all of David Lynch’s soundtracks are awesome, memorable and hummable, particularly Mullholland Dr., and Lost Highway.