The Sound of the Cinema | Hans Zimmer and composing in the digital age

The Sound of the Cinema is a biweekly blog about music and sound design in films.

By Alec Cassidy, Staff Writer

Contemporary film composers are digging into what it means to write music in the digital age. With digital audio workstations, analog and electronic synthesizers as well as sample libraries at their disposal, an increasing number of composers are experimenting with sound.

Composers are refining the idea of what a film score should sound like. One of the most prolific film composers currently in Hollywood is taking major steps in this period of redefinition — Hans Zimmer.

The 12-time Oscar-nominated composer is perhaps best known for his scores for the Christopher Nolan films “Inception,” “Interstellar,” “Dunkirk,” and of course the “The Dark Knight“ trilogy. Zimmer’s two Best Original Score Academy Award wins are thanks to his scores for “The Lion King” and “Dune.”

What makes Zimmer such a profound composer in Hollywood is his unorthodox style. Zimmer’s scores morph for every film he takes part in, and he constantly attempts to find new ways to use the orchestra and digital capabilities. For example, Zimmer’s score for “Interstellar includes a ticking sound to mimic the passing of time, used to great effect in the cue “No Time for Caution.”

To achieve this effect, violin players hit pencils against the strings of their instruments. “It was just figuring out what you can do with these beautiful violins and those beautiful woodwinds that you weren’t supposed to do,” Zimmer said in a conversation about the score. Doing what people don’t expect or anticipate is a theme across Zimmer’s music.

Zimmer’s ingenuity shined in “Inception,” too. To get the punchy and thunderous sound the film is known for, brass players played into the strings of a piano with a brick on the sustain pedal. With this inventiveness, Zimmer shows again that he’s doing what you’re not supposed to do. The cue “Mombasa” brings out the best of this beautifully outrageous use of brass and piano. This sound has become incredibly popular, especially in trailer music. This is just one example of Zimmer’s gigantic impact on the sound of modern film scores.

If you’ve watched a film with Zimmer’s music, you may have noticed his emphasis on rhythm. His scores can bring incredible tension to films and can elevate emotional responses to actions. One of Zimmer’s most famous cues is “Time” from “Inception.” With a rhythm rooted in piano, the cue slowly builds to a pounding climax that then winds back down to its simple piano core. The rhythm carries this piece’s heart. The repetition and constant layering of melodies build our expectations.

This is a musical concept that other composers have taken after. For example, look at the similarities between “Time” and Henry Jackman’s cue “Safe Now” from the film “Captain Phillips.”

As Jackman’s cue proves, the new sound Zimmer introduced to Hollywood has influenced and inspired many composers. An emphasis on rhythm and simple melody layering has become popular in contemporary feature films. Excellent examples of this include Steven Price’s cue “Gravity” for the film “Gravity” and Ludwig Goransson’s cue “FOILS” for the film “Tenet.”

Zimmer’s influence has reached further than musical structure, though. Zimmer’s music has popularized the concept of using sounds that match the film. More and more composers have shifted away from using a traditional orchestra, although many, like the great John Williams, still do. Bernard Herrmann first introduced this concept to Hollywood films starting in the 1940s. Herrmann’s scores for Alfred Hitchcock films such as “Psycho” bent the orchestra in ways no composer had done before. Herrmann’s music worked to great effect, especially in the infamous shower scene from “Psycho.”

There are many contemporary examples of film scores that attempt to match the story of the film without the use of a traditional-sounding orchestra. Cliff Martinez’s score for “Drive,” Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score for “Arrival” and Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score for “Joker” are just a few scores that stray away from the orchestral sound. Of course, there are composers that stick to the orchestra and produce exhilarating scores. Williams, who composed “Star Wars and “Harry Potter,” is the most notable contemporary composer that gets amazing sounds from the orchestra, but others such as “How to Train Your Dragon” by composer John Powell and “Jurassic World” by composer Michael Giacchino do too.

Zimmer’s music has opened the gates to an entirely new world of music. Composing has shifted gears and is bringing in new, exciting sounds every year. There are no bounds to what is possible with film music. What makes a score work is whether it fits with the narrative a film is telling. It can even be argued that composers are turning into sound designers, but that’s a discussion for a different time. It’s certainly true that scores and sound design intermingle with one another. The film score is changing, and Zimmer has influenced Hollywood for the better.

Alec Cassidy is a film production and music composition double major who writes about film scores. You can reach them at [email protected].