The Sounds on Screen

If you are as old as me or relatively close, you were probably raised on a steady diet of movies and tv shows that you consumed with reverence whenever possible. Ideally at the movie theatre, but more realistically at home. Mine was the VCR generation and I grew up surrounded by VHS and betamax tapes; every inch of precious celluloid ribbon filled end to end with pirated movies our family taped whenever something good could be found on the old boob-tube. TV Guide was essential reading material. It was the only way you could know when to set the timer on your VCR to record a movie without missing anything. That’s assuming you could figure out how to set the time on your machine in the first place and get rid of that dreaded blinking “12:00 AM”. This was how I filled my days in between trips to the movie theatre; savoring every bit of saturday evening cinema I could stay awake long enough to take in.

If the movie theatre was my church, the VCR was my at-home bible study. I was hooked, and would watch and rewatch every tape ad nauseum. I knew the dialogue inside and out without knowing the real meaning or subtext. I would replay my favorite scenes over and over until the tracking on the tape became so bad I had to resort to playing it out in my head. I’m pretty sure over the broad term of my childhood I re-enacted every major lightsaber battle, every showdown or dogfight, every crack of Indy’s whip, every steely exchange with a villain and every quip from an unlikely hero. If there was any way to immerse myself deeper into these compelling worlds and stories, I found it. And long after all of those tapes faded into dust and static, I discovered my favorite way to revel in the resonance of all those fabulous adventures, something I hadn’t really noticed but was there all along.

It dawned on me one day when I was thirteen-ish, bumbling around a music store in the early days of CDs (MDs and Laserdiscs were also widely available). That day I found myself with money burning a hole in my pocket, anxious to find something to play in my new DISCMAN (I couldn’t afford the one with 5-second skip protection), with very little idea of what kind of music I actually liked. I floated around awkwardly, as any pimply, pudgy 13 year old you can imagine would, until I wound up in the ‘Soundtracks’ section. And lo, shining like the shimmery cheezball effects of so many B-movies, stood an obelisk of musical adventure. It was the original boxed anthology set of the original score recordings of the Star Wars Trilogy. I picked it up and took it home, where I listened to it well into the next day, trying to place each musical cue with where they belonged in the movies I remembered from my childhood. It was one of the first CDs I ever purchased and one of the few I still have lying around.

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As an adult, I listen to a lot of different kinds of music. And as I thumb through genre after genre, popular and unpopular, decade after decade, I always find myself returning to movie scores. Perhaps it is because the music is so closely tied to a story and experience. It feels like an invocation of sorts. A call back to the stories that can spark moods or summon the characters that left indelible marks on my childhood. It’s a way to revisit and re-examine; to mine for undiscovered facets and new interpretations of the themes and mythos that I still think about to this day. In many ways I feel like that’s something that we are hurtling away from as a society – depth of understanding. And that’s not to say there are profound human truths to be found in your 87th viewing of Die Hard. But there is a profound loss of revelry in art of all forms. We’ve become a society of scrollers, grazing through content with a consumerist mentality of thrift and breadth; fearful of missing out on what’s new and cool by sifting endlessly through the noise. It’s all about ‘What’s next?’ instead of “Let’s play it again.” Next, instead of Rewind.

Movie scores are meant for “play[ing] it again, Sam,” and taking a deep dive into the real soul of a story, often to places you didn’t know you would be going. They’re about extracting an idea and playing with it in the abstract to find new meaning. They are written to enhance, accompany or challenge the visual story. Music adds depth and weight through the use of tone and rhythm, drawing another of your essential senses into the story. This make you feel more enveloped by the experience, sometimes in a sneaky way. Have you ever been in a horror movie and heard the unmistakable sound of a heartbeat, not realizing at first if it was from the movie’s soundtrack or from your own chest? Ever noticed the swells of music as a hero hastens to join the fight, summons their strength or finally turns the tide? Did you notice how a particular note or theme is tied to a character or idea?

Movie scores and soundtracks are often so finely ingrained and enmeshed with your favorite movies so as to make them inseparable. You cannot think of Star Wars without hearing the opening theme blasting in your head. Would Jaws even be the same movie without the menacing ‘daa – dum..daa -dum’ that *spoiler?* preceded every shark attack? Can you picture a dusty old western town without whistling from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly? A lot of these songs have taken on a life long outside of the movies that bore them into public consciousness. I mean honestly, how many people today have actually seen Jaws? How many more know the theme? These are the pop songs of movie soundtracks; memorable and exciting. But film scores are everywhere, and are as varied as movies themselves. Some are purely adrenaline-pumping soundscapes and others are at times rich, dense, light and whimsical works of art.

I guess at the end of the day I just wanted to write this to turn some of you on to movie scores so that I could share some of the joy I get out of them. One of the great things about scores is they capture such a broad spectrum of expression and mood. You can find a movie score to play in the background at work, while you are reading, in the car or just unwinding. Try a pulse-pounding score from Hans Zimmer for your work-out (Inception, Interstellar, The Dark Knight). Get your creative juices flowing with a Danny Elfman soundtrack (Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare before Christmas). Get lost in the adventures of James Horner (Braveheart, Aliens, Star Trek). Create a spotify playlist of John Williams – I guarantee you will recognize every single song, and listening to that music again will take you right back to that dark movie theatre. Or that pile of pillows on the floor in front of your family’s 20-inch cable-ready Magnavox on Saturday night. Or wherever you first got sucked into those great stories.

Happy listening.

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