In researching for A New Score Strikes Back, I evaluated three of Hans Zimmer’s science fiction films, Inception (2010), Interstellar (2014), and Blade Runner 2049 (2017), with the purpose of discovering qualities and scoring techniques that are common among his films in the genre. This study allowed for an imitation of his scoring style to be applied to the third act of The Empire Strikes Back (1980), a film originally scored by John Williams. Given Zimmer’s drastically different scoring method from Williams, the end result should create a much different viewing experience of the film, modernizing the 1980 classic and perhaps eliciting different moods and emotions from the viewers.
Hans Zimmer’s score for Inception was his third collaboration with director Christopher Nolan. This film is groundbreaking in its introduction of several Zimmer trademarks which have already become widely used, imitated and even parodied. The ending theme of the film, hinted at throughout, is a four note chord progression which starts softly, builds to a deafening volume, and then ends soft and contemplative. This outline for a piece of music is one that appeared in much of Zimmer’s later work. Inception’s score is the pinnacle of Zimmer’s hybrid orchestra technique, combining orchestral instruments with synthesizers, electric guitars, and even a few sound effects. He collaborated with guitarist and former member of The Smiths (a British rock band), Johnny Marr, whose guitar work is prevalent in the film’s score.
Zimmer’s loud “burst” of sound is one of his most recognizable trademarks and was first introduced in Inception, which he referred to as the “crazy low brass section.” Often labeled as sounding like “braaahhmmm” or as the “horns of doom,” Zimmer claims to have achieved the technique when trying to create a sound Nolan’s screenplay described as “massive, low-end musical tones, sounding like distant horns.” His method for creating the burst of sound was quite inventive. He placed “a piano in the middle of a church and I put a book on the pedal, and these brass players would basically play into the resonance of the piano. And then I added a bit of electronic nonsense.”
The score’s weakness is in its processed sound, which is a turn-off for many. Zimmer puts even traditional instruments through guitar amps and filters, which creates a unique sound, but a processed, electronic, and very loud blend. Inception’s score is bombastic, and not for the faint of heart (or the faint of ears).
The strength of Zimmer’s score lies in the many groundbreaking features that are still implemented in Hollywood film music. This score truly marked a new era in film music, and almost any action film music in the years following Inception beared some semblance to Zimmer’s. His use of electric guitars, drum sets, catchy four-chord progressions, and the burst of sound all found their way into later films and trailers, which has unfortunately diminished Inception’s value as an important film score. Many now consider the score to be cliche and overused; however, any score that has garnered so many imitators must be significant and should hold a place as one of the most influential and significant film scores of all time.
Hans Zimmer wrote the score for Interstellar completely alone - his first film without ghostwriters or orchestrators (a common trend not only for Zimmer, but for any composer). Given this unique situation, Zimmer’s trademarks are easy to identify, often in their rawest form. One of the main themes in Interstellar is a four note ostinato, mainly on piano. As the intensity builds onscreen, strings and a pipe organ are added to increase the sense of drama.
Although light on synthesizers for the most part, Zimmer is known for either a) creating instruments for a score, or b) using an instrument rarely used in film scores. In this instance, he chose to do the latter, using a four-manual Harrison & Harrison organ as the primary instrument for much of the score. This, combined with the strange combination of 34 strings, 24 woodwinds, and 60 choir singers, made for a film score unlike any other.
Zimmer’s loud “burst” of sound gets quite the chance to shine in this film, perhaps more than some people would have liked. A hot topic upon the film’s release were the countless tweets saying his music overpowered the dialogue, and in San Francisco even broke the speakers in an Imax theater. While this may seem excessive or unnecessary, Zimmer and Nolan have both stated their goal for the film was to make the music a main character, “speaking” in a sense more powerfully than even the actors could.
The score’s weakness is in its repetitive cues. The music is clearly built around three pieces, “Day One,” “Stay,” and “Day One Dark.” Nearly any cue found in the film is based on one of these three, with hardly any variance. While a certain degree of familiarity is good to make audiences connect the music to the events onscreen, it was clear that very little change had been made and oftentimes cues even appeared to be copied from one scene to another.
The strength of Zimmer’s film score is its unique nature. Listeners have surely never heard this combination of instruments, especially not a prominently featured organ (other than in a parody horror film). Zimmer alters the sound of the traditional instruments and uses pop chord progressions to make the music more relevant to a modern film. Though controversial, as a music lover, I greatly appreciated Nolan’s choice to elevate music to the same level as a character. It conveyed emotion in a way that dialogue is often incapable of. As the old adage goes, “Where words fail, music speaks.”
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch created the score to Blade Runner 2049, and Zimmer’s fingerprints lie all over the score, containing many of his trademarks especially from recent years. A four note piano theme is present here, which has been so common for Zimmer in recent years (Inception, 12 Years a Slave, The Lone Ranger, Interstellar). The concept behind using a four note theme is the ability to slowly build the theme in intensity as the emotions in the film build - the repetitiveness creates emotion in the listener.
Zimmer’s loud “bursts” of sound makes an appearance yet again, this time in horns, percussion, or distorted synths. In Blade Runner 2049 the sound burst is used for scene changes, surprising moments, and intense segments of action. Another Zimmer trademark is the use of synthesizers. Using Zimmer as the film’s composer seems like the perfect fit since the world of Blade Runner is known for the heavy use of synths. Zimmer was one of the first composers to consistently integrate synthesizers into film music, while still maintaining the “classical” style that film music is known for. Previous composers such as Vangelis, Tangerine Dream, Brad Fiedel, or Giorgio Moroder had relied on synthesizers in scores, but used synths that have since become dated. It remains to be seen whether Zimmer’s synths will sound dated in future years, but he has never been content using popular synths - he always creates his own synth sounds, which may help his scores survive the test of time.
In regards to the music, Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch create a true masterpiece that is worthy of following Vangelis’ iconic score to the original film, although a few music cues lose “focus” and are just noise. This is the main weakness of the score - its occasional venture into the world of sound design. The music becomes nearly unlistenable as notes, chords, and melodies are no longer present, just noises. This is a common modern trend in chaotic or troublesome film scenes, but it seems to be a cheap way out of writing music to represent the scene.
The strengths of the score are in its instrument design (largely constructed using old synthesizers from his days with the Buggles) and its melodic content. Though the themes and melodies are simple, they leave a lasting impression and are clearly placed and distinguishable within the film. A haunting four note theme representing the “secret” in the film is used the most, but other themes such as Joi’s theme, an action theme, and a theme for the city are present frequently.
Trademarks between Films
Based on the evaluation, Hans Zimmer’s music clearly has trends and commonalities that consistently appear in the films he scores. Two of the main trademarks that are easily identifiable are his four note themes (often on piano) and his loud bursts of sound. These two features played an important part in the scores for all three evaluated films.
There are also several factors that may be less obvious, but that are trademarks nonetheless. Zimmer’s instrument choices are unique to him, particularly his combination of synthesizers and orchestral instruments. Additionally, he often creates his own instrument sounds - each analyzed score had at least one instrument that was unique solely to that specific film. Every one of these factors plays an important role in mimicking Zimmer’s scoring style on a film. Identifying, analyzing, and implementing trademarks all assist in making a score sound like a Hans Zimmer score, and are therefore crucial in attempting to recreate his well-known “brand” into a film.