5 Film Scores That Changed the Way We Hear Movies, From 'Score' Director Matt Schrader & Composer Bear McCreary

Late director Garry Marshall, seated center, and composer John Debney, second from right, in a scene from Score.
Courtesy Photo

Late director Garry Marshall, seated center, and composer John Debney, second from right, in a scene from Score.

"We can make you feel anything we want you to feel," Quincy Jones says in the film.

Score, a documentary about the world of movie composing, opens Friday in New York. Helmed by first-time director Matt Schrader, the film features such notable composers as John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, Howard Shore and Trent Reznor, as well as directors like James Cameron and the late Garry Marshall, revealing the creative process behind some of the world’s most beloved scores and movie music's ability to sway emotions.

"We can make you feel anything we want you to feel," Quincy Jones says. 

Schrader shot the film over a 2 1/2-year period, raising more than $160,000 through two crowd-funding campaigns. “I’ve always been a big fan of movie music, and as I realized a lot of people love film scores, I knew there would be an audience for this film,” he says.

Following New York, the film opens in Los Angeles on June 23, and distributor Gravitas Ventures will roll Score out into 30 to 40 markets in coming weeks before the documentary -- which counts former Fox president of music Robert Kraft among its producers -- comes to video on demand and home video.

As the art of film music developed, there were a number of movies whose scores expanded the craft. Below are five films and composers that altered the template for music’s role in movies. Schrader and composer Bear McCreary (10 Cloverfield Lane, The Walking Dead, Battlestar Galactica) highlight these landmark scores and the composers who changed the way we see -- and hear -- movies.

King Kong (1933), Max Steiner

“This film changed the way film scores were done forever in terms of switching from piano to orchestra and being recorded instead of a pianist playing live,” Schrader says. “The music is the only thing that made [King Kong] a hit, and I think that stood out to a lot of people in Hollywood. They realized that you could have way more emotion if you had an orchestral score that goes with the movie instead of relying on whatever the theater has when you ship the print.”

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Alex North

“After orchestras become the norm,  there was a shift into more experimental kinds of scores. Alex North has this idea to write a score using jazz music,” Schrader says. “Without A Streetcar Named Desire, the famous jazz band sound of James Bond might never have been invented and The Pink Panther and several other examples. It was groundbreaking because it showed that a score didn’t necessarily have to be an orchestra and it opened the box to a lot of other composers.

Psycho (1960), Bernard Herrmann

Psycho illustrated that music didn’t have to follow the rules. Sometimes film music can be grating on the ears because that’s part of the story,” Schrader says. “Sometimes you actually want the audience to be repulsed and shocked by the music, so what Bernard Herrmann did with Psycho is something that a lot of composers still admire today. He wasn’t afraid to break the rules and, of course, Alfred Hitchcock allowed him that experimentation.”

“When I did 10 Cloverfield Lane with [director] J.J. Abrams, Bernard Herrmann was a touchstone in our conversation about that score,” McCreary says. “Up to [Psycho], strings had been used in a very romantic, classical kind of sound. Herrmann started using all these cutting-edge techniques. It was epic. One of the things he put into the lexicon was that strings can create vast, panicked urgency. 10 Cloverfield Lane and The Walking Dead definitely drew from that well. His techniques that were scaring audiences in the ‘50s and ‘60s can still function in a television show today. It’s hard to emphasize how rare that is.”

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), John Williams

“I don’t know if Close Encounters itself changed film music, but it’s a perfect representation of a motif-driven score,” Schrader says. “The five-note theme is actually a part of the story, and John Williams  turned that into a huge sweeping score that made you really feel that experience.” 

“Close Encounters really showed the world what can be accomplished when a filmmaker and composer are cooperating closely,” McCreary says. “One of the things that really stood out about this score was the way it incorporated musical information into the narrative into the film itself. We’d had musicals before, but this was a drama in which the combination of notes plays an important role in the narrative. It did double duty: It informed the audience, but it was also something the characters were tracking. I’d never seen a score flown into the narrative like that before.”

American Beauty (1999), Thomas Newman

“There’s no composer who is emulated as much as Thomas Newman is. Instead of building a a score around a theme, he found a way to build a soundscape that opens an audience up to feel an emotion in a more cerebral way,” Schrader says. “In American Beauty’s case, that film made everyone realize that music could be structured in a more experimental way and still pull emotion out of us.”