Good Vs. Recognizable: Movie Music

Lately, I have been trying to immerse myself into the world of film once again, so as to stay on top of news and inspiration, and boy has it paid off! I came across this post over at Hypable, and of course I had to check out the entire story. I am blown away. A student, who goes by the name of Chad, conducted a survey looking into the recognizability of movie themes. You can imagine, I was hooked. I had never thought of doing any research into this area myself, but I can’t help myself, it sounds so exciting (because, you know, it definitely is my thang)! So, if I ever were to do some original research, this topic will definitely be on the top of the “to consider”-pile. That said, this study did leave me with some questions (some of them similar to Chad’s):

  • This survey was conducted at an American university, so I can’t help but wonder if similar results would pop up in a different cultural setting. Then again, I have no idea about the cultural composition of the three classes he visited.
  • The range of soundtracks chosen for this survey is also problematic of course. I’m not saying my choices would be better (because believe you me, they definitely would not), but I do wonder what the criteria of a selection panel should be. Because if you’re applying criteria in your selection process, doesn’t that indirectly mean that you’re assuming what the results will tell you? Are you so maybe even influencing the results? I have no idea, I am not a Stats major (I have only followed one course in Stats actually. Yes, shame on me), and I haven’t read up on the existing scholarly literature related this topic (a fault I will try to remedy right after the publishing of this post!). I’m just throwing my thoughts out there!
  • Related to this, is the range of unrecognizable movie themes. According to Chad, all of the themes included are recognizable in some manner, while clearly there were those who disagreed. So should a panel only include themes they believe recognizable, and then see how many disagree? Or should it be a mix of the two, in order to see more clearly filter out the actual factors influencing the recognizability?
  • Which leads me to the factors of influence as identified in this survey: year of release and box office gross. To me, it seems unimaginable that the recognizability of a movie theme would mostly be related to these two factors. I understand the logic behind these correlations (because the correlation is clear), but it seems to me that there must be musical factors as well. Maybe they are just different from the categories coined by Chad.
  • Now that we’re all a bit more familiar (hopefully) with the material presented by Chad, we are left with one more question I hope to address some time: does a soundtrack have to be good in order to be recognizable? This question ties in with the influence music can have on the success of a movie, as I discussed here. It is an aspect Chad’s survey does not directly address, and I am really curious what the answer to this question would be.
  • Finally, the number of composers. The list compiled by Chad consists of 41 themes, created by 17 different composers. The three composers with the most representations are John Williams (11), Hans Zimmer (5), and John Powell (4). More about them below. My point here is that, with 11 representations, it would statistically be more likely for Williams to end up in the “most recognizable”-list. On the other hand, he is an amazing composer, so I honestly don’t know how to deal with this issue, or whether I should even see it as an issue.

Now, for some more of my personal thoughts about the actual results and such. I was thrilled to see that John Williams claims the three top spots! That right there shows me, that if not all, at least some is right in the world again. On the other hand, my most played score is composed by Hans Zimmer, and I am still not sure how that reflects on me. Yes, his music is very entertaining. However, and I don’t mean to sound denigrating (which I will anyway), it also sounds simple. Chad explains the top positions for these two composers very clearly:

I have always argued that John Williams’ music is recognizable because he has a distinct sound, whereas Zimmer’s music is recognizable because all of his themes sound the same.

That may be cutting it a little too extreme, but I must say I can see where he’s coming from, and I definitely agree with the gist of the statement. Lastly, I only actually own one soundtrack composed by John Powell, but dude is it amazing. His music could be presented as the sole reason to go and watch How To Train Your Dragon, if it were not for the fact that it’s just an amazing movie on its own.

This survey opened my eyes to some of the possibilities out there, which is why I am grateful to Chad for posting his research online. Now it’s just waiting for an opportunity to come along for me :)

2 thoughts on “Good Vs. Recognizable: Movie Music

  1. Wow, I’m glad you enjoyed reading about this so much!

    You bring up a lot of interesting questions, especially on the “good vs. recognizable” front. The problem with that, though, is that everyone has their own opinion of what is “good” versus what is “not good,” so it wouldn’t be easy to study.

    You mention musical considerations as well, which is what I tried to touch on with the category rankings in my study, but I think they were a bit too limiting. Had I had more time in preparing for the presentation of this project for my class (the post on my site is pretty much exactly what I turned in to my teacher for a grade), I would have delved into the actual music, i.e. major/minor modes, intervals, etc. In other words, how the music was composed. It would have been fascinating to see if there were musical correlations between the most/least recognizable film themes in addition to those found with the box office gross and release year. I certainly don’t think I’m done with this study just yet, though…I found all of this analysis to be quite rewarding and definitely see myself returning to it in the future. I’ll take the more detailed musical analysis into consideration, and someone over at Hypable mentioned in the comments that looking into the sales of the soundtracks themselves might yield interesting results as well.

    Oh, and one disclaimer: though I like to hate on Zimmer’s scores, the fact is that he does a great job of pleasing his listeners, whether his music sounds the same or not. I personally have 14 of his scores, second only to the 18 Williams scores I own. His work’s not my favorite, but he gets the job done, and they’re often lots of fun, so I try not to hate on him too much. I’m actually really excited/anxious for his score to Man of Steel…I’ll be pretty upset if I hear Pirates of the Caribbean in my Superman film, especially considering the fact that he’s following in Williams’ footsteps.

    Anyway, again, thanks for reading, and I’m glad you enjoyed it!


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