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  • Writer's pictureKelsey Le Roux

Behind the Music: How Film Scores Work

Updated: Mar 23, 2023

Movies can transport us to different times and places, elicit emotions we didn't know we had, and tell us stories we may never have experienced otherwise. And while the visual aspect of filmmaking is undoubtedly crucial, it's the audio component that genuinely cements the emotional impact of a film. Specifically, it's the film score – the musical accompaniment that plays in the background of a movie – that is often the unsung hero of the film industry.

Cellists smiling during a Cinemagic Scoring recording session.
Cellists during a Cinemagic Scoring recording session.

Typically, the process starts with a director or producer reaching out to a composer or music supervisor to discuss the needs of the film. This might include considerations like the tone and style of the movie, the pacing and rhythm of individual scenes, and the emotional beats that need to be hit throughout the story. From there, the composer will begin working on the music, often collaborating with the director.

One of the most important aspects of a film score is its ability to support and enhance the film's emotional content. For example, a sad scene might accompany a mournful, minor-key melody, while an action sequence might be scored with fast-paced, intense music to build tension and excitement. The score can also provide a sense of continuity throughout the movie, tying together scenes and helping to establish an overall mood or tone.

A good film score needs to be carefully crafted to fit the specific needs of the movie, which means that composers need to be skilled in various musical styles and techniques.

The Elements


A film score might be composed for a full orchestra or use smaller ensembles like string quartets or jazz bands. Depending on the orchestra's size and makeup, the composer must carefully balance and blend the different instruments to create a cohesive sound.


A strong melody is at the heart of any good film score – a memorable, singable tune that captures the movie's spirit. The melody might be introduced in the opening credits and then reprised throughout the film in different variations to match the changing emotions of the story. Think of Michael Kamen's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and his use of the main melody in different iterations throughout the score.


The harmony of a film score refers to the way that different musical parts interact with each other. This might involve creating tension and release using dissonant chords or building up to a climax with a series of rising harmonies.


The rhythm of a film score can be used to create a sense of urgency or excitement during action scenes or to slow things down during moments of reflection or contemplation.


The texture of a film score refers to the music's overall sound and can be influenced by factors like the tempo, the use of different instruments, and the layering of other musical parts.

Sound design

In addition to traditional musical elements, a film score will incorporate sound effects or unconventional instruments to create unique soundscapes.

These are the elements that make up the content of the film score. Below, we will discuss the steps in creating.

The Steps


The first step in composing music for a film is to analyze the script and work closely with the director to understand their vision for the project. The composer must consider the film's tone, the story's pacing and structure, and the character's emotional arc. Based on this analysis, the composer will develop musical ideas and themes that will help enhance the story.


The next step is to create a mock-up of a few ideas, to present to the director and get their feedback. This process may involve a back-and-forth exchange of ideas until the composer and director clearly understand how the music will be used in the film.

Orchestration, Recording, Mixing and Mastering

Once the music has been approved, the cues will be orchestrated and prepared for recording. This process can be complex, as the composer must carefully balance the different instruments to create a cohesive sound.

Once orchestrated, the music will be sent to a recording orchestra to be recorded. To find out more about the recording process, click here.

Film music must work in tandem with the visuals to create a seamless and immersive experience for the audience. The score should not overpower the visuals but rather complement and elevate them. This delicate balance is achieved through careful collaboration between the composer and the director and the ability to read the scene and the emotions it conveys. Some famous composers who consistently accomplish this include:

John Williams

John Williams is known for his ability to create instantly recognizable themes that perfectly capture the essence of the movies they accompany. With a career spanning six decades, Williams has composed the music for many beloved films, including Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Jurassic Park. His work earned him five Academy Awards, making him one of the most successful film composers ever.

Hans Zimmer

Hans Zimmer is another highly influential composer who has created music for hundreds of movies, including The Lion King, Gladiator, Dune, and The Dark Knight trilogy. Zimmer is known for his innovative use of electronic and orchestral elements and his willingness to experiment with different genres and styles. His music has become so iconic that it is instantly recognizable to audiences worldwide.

Rachel Portman

Rachel Portman is a British composer who has significantly impacted the film industry, particularly around scoring for romantic comedies. She was the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Musical or Comedy Score for her work on Emma in 1996. Since then, she has composed the music for many films, including The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, and The Duchess.

Hildur Guðnadóttir

Hildur Guðnadóttir is an Icelandic composer who has made a significant impact on the film industry in recent years. She won an Academy Award for Best Original Score for her work on Joker in 2020, making her the first woman to win the award on her own. She has also composed the music for many other films and television series, including Chernobyl and Sicario: Day of the Soldado.

Composing music for the film is a highly skilled and nuanced craft that requires a deep understanding of music, storytelling, and collaboration. While many factors contribute to the success of a film score, the quality of the recording and production can significantly impact the final product.

This is where Cinemagic Scoring comes in. As a world-class recording studio in Cape Town, South Africa, Cinemagic Scoring provides film composers with a state-of-the-art recording environment, top-notch musicians, and a team of experienced engineers and producers dedicated to helping them bring their music to life.

With an extensive range of recording services, from full orchestral sessions to customizable shared sessions, Cinemagic Scoring can handle any project, regardless of size or complexity.

Recording their music with Cinemagic Scoring is a wise choice for composers looking to take their film scoring to the next level. Contact us through our booking form to get a quote.

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