Listening to Oscar: The Musical Components of the 9 Best Picture Nominees

A still from Spike Jonze's "Her"

The scores from three of the nine best picture Oscar nominees received nominations for their composers. Each of the films has its own distinct musical character and in several cases, impressive soundtracks. Here's a look at the musical content of the nominees for Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards.

"12 Years a Slave"
Nicholas Britell is the secret weapon in the music of "12 Years a Slave." His research and adaptations of mid-19th century fiddle tunes give the film its character and the lead character a role in upstate New York society. Hans Zimmer's cues are not numerous but they are dramatic and contrast with the fiddle tunes that populate the film. Sony's soundtrack, overseen by John Legend, is a superb accompaniment to the film with stellar performances from Alabama Shakes and Laura Mvula.

"American Hustle"
Like most of David O. Russell's films, pop music plays a central role throughout the "American Hustle" with a killer placement of Elton John's "Goodbye the Yellow Brick Road" and Jennifer Lawrence belting out Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die." In a sea of '70s rock and disco -- and a reminder that Jeff Lynne made ELO records sound like no one else's in the era -- the film's cornerstone is Duke Ellington's "Jeep's Blues." Sue Jacobs, who handled Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook," was music supervisor; Sony Legacy issued the soundtrack.

"Captain Phillips"
Henry Jackman's score is the least emotional of the batch in the category and the one that, by and large, is the least noticeable. Minimalist with a fair amount of cello, Jackman steers clear of themes that suggest heroicism, danger or ethnicity. Varese Sarabande has released the score album.

"Dallas Buyers Club"
What ELO is to "American Hustle," T. Rex is to "Dallas Buyers Club." Superb uses of several T. Rex songs provide emotional lifts in the film and the devotion Jared Leto's character shows toward Marc Bolan is an added bonus. The glam rock is a smart contrast to the barely heard country music playing in the locales populated by the Texas good ol' boys. Relativity has issued an "inspired by" album with cuts from Fitz and the Tantrums, Cold War Kids and Leto's Thirty Seconds to Mars.

"Gravity"
Steven Price, a music editor until he wound up scoring Alfonso Cuaron's tale of two lost astronauts, had the unenviable task of creating a score away from Earth's surface and amidst the banging of bodies and spacecraft parts. Price's score is a layered blend that segues between emotional, pulsating and the feeling of terror without pushing the viewer too far in any one direction. WaterTower Music has released Price's score.

"Her"
One of the score nominees, Arcade Fire's William Butler and Owen Pallett, who uses the name Final Fantasy, fill Spike Jonze's slightly in-the-future film with bolts of melodic sonic sketches. Arcade Fire recorded the score at the same time it was working on "Reflektor" and instrumental tweaks of the songs “Porno” and “Supersymmetry” show up in the film. When "Her" was released, Butler and Arcade Fire rejected participating in promotion of the film and the idea of having the score released as an album.

"Nebraska"
As colorful and vibrant a palette as Arcade Fire had to work with on "Her," Mark Orton had the exact opposite in "Nebraska": Barren, cold, black and white, severe and depressed. Yet the multi-instrumentalist from Tin Hat delivered similar jolts of music, cues rich in Americana with fiddle and acoustic guitar. In many ways, Orton's music was the film's sunshine, the lone color in many scenes. Milan has released the score.

"Philomena"
Alexandre Desplat had to avoid time and place in his music as "Philomena" bounded from the 1950s to the 2000s, England to Ireland to Washington, D.C. He favors waltzes and whimsy to capture Judi Dench's lead character and he told Billboard he approached the film much as he did "Girl With a Pearl Earring," through character rather than action. It's one of those scores that marries elegantly with the picture and Decca has released the soundtrack.

"The Wolf of Wall Street"
As he did with Louis Prima's recordings in "Casino," Martin Scorsese went out of the film's time frame and used blues and soul- jazz from a different era to drive this '90s-set greed-sex-drugs crime tale. Elmore James' "Dust My Brown," Cannonball Adderley's version of Joe Zawinul's "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" and Bo Diddley's "Road Runner" give a funkiness and grit to a soundtrack that revels in the taste of the Band's Robbie Robertson, who served as music supervisor. Virgin has the soundtrack.