Since the days of silent films, music has played an essential role in cinema. Originally played by phonography or improvised by live musicians, music accompanied the narrative of a film in theatres. As technology progressed and the ability to synchronize sound to celluloid developed, the role of the film composer became integral and music was tailored to every frame of a film. Thus the film score was born.

As cinema progressed and dialogue and cinematography became the heavy lifters of a film’s narrative, music unfortunately started to become an afterthought in the filmmaking process. However, the most memorable, emotional, and engaging films in cinema history have proven that understanding and utilizing the power of a film score inherently elevates the film. How does it do this? Let’s find out.

What is a film score

Overview of movie scores

While there are many elements of sound in a film, each one is defined differently. Sound design, soundtracks, and film scores all compose the audio scape of a film in symphony, but do so in their own unique way. Let’s define specifically what a film score is and how it differs from a film’s soundtrack.


What is a film score?

A film score is an original piece of music that is written and tailored for a specific film. Film scores are composed to enhance a film’s story and emotion. Film score composers create the music for a film based on the direction given from the director. The composer often meets with the director to “spot” a film and determine where music should be present.

Film scores are different from a film’s soundtrack. The score of a film is tailored specifically for what is happening in the film on screen. A soundtrack, on the other hand, may contain songs that are independent from the movie itself that were not made solely for the film.

What is a film score used for?

  • Tone
  • Mood
  • Tempo 
  • Emotion
  • Atmosphere

musical score for film

Establish the atmosphere

The atmosphere of a film can be heavily determined by the world and time in which it takes place. Visual elements such as production design techniques, wardrobe, and mise-en scène contribute to establishing this world. The score of a film can often be the missing component in creating a convincing atmosphere that draws the audience in. 

To establish the atmosphere of a film, the director and composer must first address the geography of the film. The most macro determinant could be if the story takes place on earth or in outer space. Some of the best science fiction films utilize scores that complement the expansiveness and awe of outer space while the score of a Spaghetti Western is reminiscent of the lawlessness of the Old West.

Beyond geography, film scores can also establish the time of a movie’s atmosphere. The musical score of a period piece is often reminiscent of the music that was produced during the time period in which the film takes place. Film score composers also utilize specific instruments that can create the atmosphere of a film. 

What is a film score used for

Create the mood

There is no doubt that music can elicit emotion. When that function is utilized within the context of a film, composers have the unique ability to accentuate the emotions of what is seen on screen to create a mood.

First, let’s clarify the difference between mood and tone. The mood of a scene conveys how the characters within the film’s world are feeling. Tone, on the other hand, is how we as the audience should feel about the scene given our unique perspective as a spectator into this world.

A film score can be used to create a romantic mood in a scene between two lovers or a sorrowful mood in a scene of loss and death. Or a mood of disconnect and bleakness as found in the jazz score by Miles Davis in the film Elevator to the Gallows. Check out Cinefix’s breakdown of this score and why it ranked as number ten on their list of best film scores of all time.

Best film scores

Miles Davis echoes the emotions and mood of the film’s characters through his use of jazz and the musical language. Even without the visuals, listening to Davis’ score makes us as the audience feel as the characters do.

Another way scores can elicit emotion other than to create a mood is by setting a tone. Whereas mood plays off of the emotions of a film’s characters, the tone determines how we as the audience emotionally feel about the film.

What is a film score used for

Set the tone

Tone can often be found in some of cinema’s most memorable thematic songs and melodies. Think of all of the James Bond movies, Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, and The Godfather. Without playing the score of each film, a specific tune may play in your head when hearing their title. These thematic numbers set the tone for what the director wants the audience to feel. This may be a feeling of epic-ness as in Pirates of the Caribbean and in Star Wars or a sense of power and tradition as found in the score for The Godfather

One composer that masterfully utilizes leitmotifs within a score is John Williams. Williams uses motifs at specific moments in film almost as a Pavlovian emotional response to a certain melody.

Check out some of the other techniques Williams uses in his scoring to elevate a film’s narrative in our video breakdown.

Mastering move scores  •  John Williams

What happens when movie scores fail to set a tone or elicit an emotional response? It can become easily forgettable and ineffective. Unfortunately, scores, even in blockbuster films, can find themselves lacking effectiveness for various reasons. Every Frame a Painting breaks down this problem within the Marvel Cinematic Universe in this video and covers how much music really affects our cinematic experience.

Iconic film scores  •  The Marvel Symphonic Universe

Marvel fixes this in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame with the franchise's most memorable and emotional film scores. Just take a look at this scene and note how as the tone of the scene transitions from dread to hope, so does the score.

Avengers Assemble  •  Best film scores

Pretty emotional right? It’s hard to imagine this scene without the score. This is a great example of how a film score can set the tone of a film or scene even as the tone of the scene changes. It also shows how music accentuates the emotions of a scene through sound.

What is a film score used for

Elicit psychological responses

Some of the best composers in cinema utilize a score for more than just matching the emotional mood and tone of a film. Sometimes, the score itself can be a point of response for an audience, similar to a sound effect or sound design. 

Segments of a film score may aim to elicit a psychological response from an audience which is most predominant in the genre of thrillers and horror films. The best example of this can be found in one of the best thriller movies of all time, none other than Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

To really understand how much of a difference the score makes in Psycho’s famous shower scene, it is important to watch the scene with and without the music. Check out this video from Now You See It in which they breakdown the psychology behind a film score by analyzing Psycho’s shower scene.

How Movie Scores Play with Our Brains

The dissonance and psychological reaction that the Psycho score elicits is necessary for many of the moments of horror and fear to work. The reason being, music addresses a sense that the visuals of a film cannot. When both work together to elicit the same psychological response of fear, the result is extremely effective.

In the case of Psycho,  the score in this scene helped rank the film among Alfred Hitchcock’s best films of all time. For more tips on how to build suspense through a film score, take a look at our video analysis of how some of the best film composers in cinema create suspense through music.

Mastering Movie Scores: How to Build Suspense  •  Subscribe on YouTube

While cinema is regarded as a predominantly visual artistic medium, there is no doubt that the use of music in film has elevated its ability to elicit emotion in an audience. Understanding how movie scores work and learning how the world’s best composers use music to complement the narrative of a film will help you become a better filmmaker.

It also may help you discover the missing piece to a scene. Next time you watch a film, be aware and take note of the moments where music affects you as nearly much as the picture. 


How to Use Suspenseful Music in Film

Understanding the basics of how a film score works will help you use music to enhance your next project. To dig even deeper, learning about how iconic film scores work within a specific genre can be the factor that makes or breaks your project especially when it comes to the genre of horror and thrillers. Learn how to use suspenseful music in your project in this next article.

Up Next: Suspenseful Music in Film →
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