James Horner on Film Music

I was sad to hear that James Horner died this week in an aviation accident. His music has been an inspiration to me. I was browsing YouTube listening to his old scores when I found this interview he gave a few years back. Several parts of it stood out to me.


First, you can see the kindness and gentleness that some of the eulogies mentioned. Being an artist almost demands having strong opinions, and that pressure breeds arrogance and cynicism. That Horner could maintain his generosity is special. His fellow film-scoring legend John Williams is like that, too.

You can see some of that generosity in how he talks about his peers. I always thought it was neat how much musical training he received before moving into the film world. Many film composers don’t have bachelor’s degrees, let alone master’s and doctoral work in music (as he mentions at 10’19), but throughout the interview he makes room for other film composers regardless of their training. “I’m very cautious to make talent judgments,” he says just before the 11-minute mark.

Trends in Film Scoring

Second, I appreciated his comments about film scoring style. As a teenager and young composer, I listened to a lot of film scores. I collected the special edition soundtracks for the original three Star Wars films, and when the new soundtracks were released, it was interesting to note how John Williams’s style had shifted in the intervening twenty years. The orchestral palette is a lot darker. The style is more 20th-century and less late-Romantic. Overall, the textures and melodies are more subtle and subdued.

I also noticed that Williams wasn’t the only composer to trend that direction, so hearing Horner’s comments about that shift was interesting. At 13’53, Horner notes that “the style of writing has changed.” Although that shift comes somewhat from composers, Horner ascribes “a lot of it” to “the composers’ employers.”

“They’re not looking at hollywoods golden years and looking for a score that’s full of melodic gift. Those kind of things are very rare,” he explains. “Most composers are looking for action-oriented, pulse-oriented, rhythm-oriented scores that propel the movie. The whole thing is about propulsion. As an afterthought, there’s love and there’s emotion and there’s other things but the main thing is pure adrenaline.”

Freedom to Compose

For Horner, the shift from classical composer to film composer occurred both because of the musical freedom that film scoring offered him and because of the unique power of film and music in combination.

“The marriage of the two (music and film), to me, is what makes it magic,” he says. “That’s a special sort of relationship, and that had a much more profound effect on me” than hearing music by itself in a concert hall.

In addition to the power of that combination, Horner was also attracted to film scoring for how it freed him from the expectations then prevalent in academia. At 31’40, Horner explains:

Once I had written my first piece against picture, I sort of fell in love with it. It was like lightening hit me. I found that I could write anything I wanted to write, and there wouldn’t be a label attached to it. I was no longer considered conservative, avant-garde, or any values in between. I was just writing to a project, and as long as it was appropriate to the project, it was valid. And I found it very liberating.

This quote raises an interesting question: What makes a piece of music valid?

Horner’s valuing of appropriateness over labels is an answer that resonates with me. I picked it up while studying editing at BYU. There I learned then that word choice is often not a matter of “grammatical correctness” but situation. Academic papers, magazine articles, public speeches, and informal conversations all have different needs and conventions.

Likewise, when I compose, I try to base my aesthetic choices on the performer’s needs and the performance situation. All the labels and the techniques they represent are just tools to be recombined and used toward that end. At a concert, people want to be entertained and are willing to hear more outlandish sounds, so the music should be more engaging. Over headphones or in the car, the music needs to be more stable. And many worship settings require music to be even more modest.

Meeting such situational needs is for me a more direct artistic path then envisioning an artwork then trying to find a venue for it. I think both approaches are valid, but I tend to find more inspiration from the first than from the second. I appreciated that Horner was a kindred spirit in this attitude.


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2 thoughts on “James Horner on Film Music

  1. Dylan Findley - 9 July 2015

    There are some very interesting ideas from James Horner. First, with the shift to 20th century influences in film music, it is interesting to note that both John Williams and James Horner are perhaps the best two composers to keep melodies throughout their works while giving the music a 20th century flare. Something that amazed me about watching Jurassic Park (not Jurassic World) is that John Williams always had a melody in the music, even in the velociraptor chase scene. His use of melody to create and complement the pacing of anticipation and continuation of plot elements is awesome. Sadly, the adrenaline trend (like in Jurassic World) is dumbing down the impact that movies have on the individual, so I look forward to a shift in a different direction soon.

    As for being free to write music how he desires, I think it’s funny how in academia I often hear them talk about film composers being restricted. Perhaps James Horner worked in healthy, collaborative relationships with his directors, or we’ve had the picture painted wrongly. But Samuel Adler talked about what he saw as the future of music regarding careers while at the Beijing Modern Music Festival last year. He said that he sees musicians moving towards the pre-Romantic atmosphere, and he advised the composers to be willing to write for the people that would hire him. The past century had a large academic upholding, but now we have a lot of new avenues for our music as audiences begin to appreciate the up and coming chamber groups who are making a name for themselves as entrepreneurs. And we should be happy to write for a varying number of people and audiences as such.

    A major topic going along with your comments was also spoken of at this festival. They talked about the idea of expressing an essence. We can all write in numerous styles and should, but a good composer will learn that inevitably behind all their style there is an essence. Perhaps it is what makes music such a unique communication; even though a billion different performers interpret the work, our essence will stay intact. Once a composer knows how to be bold and focus his or her work on what is most important, this essence will be apparent. And as my (our) former teacher Dr. Neil Thornock told me one time, composers need to focus on building their personal character; a large part of music has to do with the experiences that we live through, which I also learned from Dr. Michael Hicks when I asked him about aesthetics and he told me about the depth of feeling that a certain chord gave him. So along with you, I admit that music is a means to an end, and that’s okay. Because if we continue to strengthen our technique and our resolve to good music, the essence of our character will be embedded into our work, regardless of the style. I think we are personally attracted to the styles that most resonate with us, but as we see in this life, there is a multiplicity of styles and concepts to match different atmospheres and emotional/spiritual ideas.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Joseph Sowa - 13 July 2015

      Glad you enjoyed it!

      We’ll see what direction film scoring may change, but I doubt it’ll come soon. Big media is just too intent on being noisy rather than substantive — not just film soundtracks, but also the audio mixes for TV shows (Food Network, History Channel, . . .) and the tenor of cable news generally.

      I don’t think Horner’s freedom to write as he pleases is unique in film scoring, but it’s a different kind of freedom than academic composers prize. Instead of cultivating a single, esoteric style and following the dictates of a purely musical logic, Horner got to write across a much wider variety of styles than academics do. Indeed, many of them would feel their street cred threatened by venturing out of the normal boxes. Horner’s freedom was also instrumental: music is freed to mean more than itself and to connect more explicitly to human experiences. True, temp tracks often tie composers’ hands, but even that restriction provides a kind of freedom (à la Stravinsky).

      That festival in China sounds like it was a fantastic experience. I try to stay true, as you said, to the music, the art, and the ideas that resonate with me — to dig for musical insight into these things, to hone my musical articulations of them, to enliven my soul and to delight my listeners. I try to avoid falling into Babbitt’s notion of composer as specialist or the cult-of-Beethoven composer as artist-prophet. I like Horner’s attitude, because I think competition is not a healthy approach to music. After a certain standard of craftsmanship, there is no such thing as best, only better to a particular situation. A world with only Bach would still be an impoverished world. I think that’s one of Mormonism’s beautiful ideas: “Worlds without end” God has created, and every single one, every single portion of them, every single individual, is precious to him. Such boundless generosity is something I may fail at but do aspire to. Even a portion of it is life-giving, as the Horner interview demonstrates.

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