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Music from the Movies

Epic Film Scores Through The Ages

What makes a theme “epic”? Tune in this weekend to find out.

Epic Themes CD cover
CD artwork courtesy of Silva America.

The term “epic” is thrown around so much that the word has almost lost its meaning. What it means to today’s film audiences is something completely different than what it meant to audiences just a few decades ago. But why?

Movies are classified as “epic” for many reasons. The term means something very different with regard to film than it does when talking about literature. In either case, though, an epic takes us somewhere else; it changes us.

The epic films of today are movies like Pirates of the Carribean, Gladiator, and 300  films that depend on a large scale look requiring tons of computer graphics. Sometimes composers are asked to “help” such films to make them seem bigger. With this directive and the fact that composers are sometimes given only a few weeks to provide a finished work, these film scores are often less about substance and more about effect. For example, compare the first Pirates of the Carribean score to the score for the sequel: In the score for the first film, Klaus Badelt only had a few weeks to compose the music since Alan Silvestri’s score was rejected. Badalt wrote some simple ryhthmic themes with no more that two part contrapuntal movement, and very little substance. However, in the score for the second film, Hans Zimmer had more time to develop the themes; the music became a whole different kind of instrument, complementing the film with much more musical substance. 

What has the term “epic” meant in other eras? Does the core of an epic film depend upon the story, or can the musical theme itself that makes the film epic? Is epic-ness found in blasting brass and repetitive strings, or in something else entirely? Can soft music be epic? These are questions we’ll try to answer, or at least demonstrate, this weekend when we explore epic themes through the eras. We’ll feature composers like Basil Poledouris and Enest Gold who have written some of the most memorable epic music for films.

Tune in to Music from the Movies this Saturday at 7pm or Sunday at 5pm on Classical 91.7.