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An Ode to Soundtracks

“Duh-nuh.” The beat of a string instrument. A pause.   

“Duh-nuh.” Another beat. Another pause. 

“Duh-nuh duh-nuh duh-nuh duh-nuh…”

Few sounds are more recognizable than the iconic opening strings segment of the Jaws theme, and nothing can universally evoke a sense of dread as effectively. The art of the soundtrack is arguably what can truly make or break a film, what can launch it into timelessness or damn it to obscurity. Despite this impact, however, the soundtrack remains one of the most wrongfully overlooked facets of cinema. 

There are many angles a filmmaker or showrunner could take in their soundtrack selection. Almost every movie or series has some  orchestral backing throughout its runtime, notes that set the tone or accentuate the drama. Sometimes, a production will partner with one artist to produce a series of songs. Other times, the filmmaker will reach out to a series of artists to have a soundtrack full of original numbers. Lastly, the film or show may simply create a soundtrack like one would create a playlist: collecting songs that have already been released in order to take the audience on a familiar musical journey. 

The theme from Jaws is only one example of a much larger sample size of movies whose main melodies have embedded themselves into popular culture. Another popular score is that of John Carpenter’s Halloween, whose theme contains an eerie piano tune undercut by a soft-clicking that seems to match the beat of a sprinkler. Ghostbusters as well seems to maintain an iconic ghoulish tone while also featuring some more upbeat, quintessential 80’s instrumentals, this time accompanied by lyrics that have the public screaming to this day “I ain’t afraid of no ghost.” 

For fans of adventure, one can look to the swelling orchestra within the Star Wars theme, or the mystical chimes of Harry Potter. For aspiring action stars, one cannot help but think of the theme from Mission Impossible. Comedies too, such as Austin Powers with its groovy riff, have a theme that sticks in the viewers’ minds and forces its way into public attention. These musical pieces become so popular, in fact, that whether one has seen the movies or not, chances are they know the theme. These movies permeate through the mainstream quite directly because of their undeniably catchy soundtracks, transforming them from decent film to iconic media.

Then, of course, there are the moments where a soundtrack is not composed of original songs, but rather is a collage of established pieces. Yet here too, one can observe the way in which some songs are irreparably associated with the films they are featured in. One cannot hear the piano interlude of Eric Clapton’s “Layla” without also hearing Ray Liotta’s narration from Goodfellas, as Scorsese shows the viewer the gruesome game of mafia men one dead body at a time. This effect is not just a result of violent scenes, as “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” has also had its independence stripped away from it by the image of Judd Nelson’s Bender raising his fist to the sky after leaving detention. Even AC/DC is not immune to the curse of movie-association, with “It’s a Long Way to the Top” reminding everyone of the sea of rocker school-children being taught by a  misguided musician Jack Black in School of Rock. Less predictable still was the way in which the Spanish drama series Money Heist was able to effectively turn the Italian protest folk song “Bella Ciao” into a bank-robbery anthem. This phenomenon is perhaps the best indicator of a truly immersive cinematic experience, where the song is chosen so perfectly and the scene is written and choreographed so well, that one can no longer see where the music ends and the film begins. 

There are also a few original songs and soundtracks that are so acclaimed, their fame exists outside of their corresponding films or shows. Perhaps the most recent example of this can be seen in the soundtrack to Black Panther, which came out in 2018. Features like “All the Stars,” “X,” “King’s Dead,” and “Pray For Me,” all received massive recognition and entered popular culture on their own merit. Not only that, but the soundtrack earned a Grammy for Best Score in 2019. Another hugely famous track is from the film 8 Mile. In fact, Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” is Eminem’s most popular song according to the streaming platform Spotify, an impressive title for someone with such a legendary music career. One of the most popular soundtracks of this past year has been singer Labrinth’s soundtrack to the hit HBO show Euphoria, with “Still Don’t Know My Name,” gaining popularity thanks to social media like TikTok and Instagram, with users often editing the song alongside some of the shows visuals. The music becomes so famous because of the experience the viewer consciously or unconsciously associates with its accompanying media. It reminds the listener of a journey, once again eliciting all of the emotions one initially felt upon their first watch. 

For all of the examples that have been listed, one must keep in mind that neither film nor song carries the weight of the other. Only when they are matched together do we see the brilliant cinematic, musical experience that is so iconic and evocative. When they work in tandem, they create an undeniably potent mixture of sensory stimulation and raw emotional strength. There are the themes that we never forget, the scenes that we cannot unsee, and the songs that we hope will live on. A quality soundtrack is always, and will always be, the only way media can leave a permanent mark on its viewers, a mark that will last for generations to come. 

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