Importance of Signature Sound

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Creating a Unique Sound World and Sound Palette

Lessons we can learn from recent film scores

In recent times film scores have often relied on textures and unique sound pallets more than the traditional leitmotif of earlier scores. This article will explore unique sound worlds that make scores stand out by studying two of the most exciting and distinctive composers of today. Ludwig Göransson and Hildur Guðnadóttir.
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Ludwig Göransson

The Mandolorian composer Ludwig Göransson created a unique sound world for the score by using instruments not often used. One of the first instruments he turned to was the recorder. He picked that particular instrument because it was one of the first things he had learned to play at the early age of 7. It was the beginning of his emotional return to childhood, part of the way he would recreate the sensation he’d had listening to John Williams’ Star Wars score when he was a child. 

He also used the sounds of particular elements from the set. One example being, he recorded the sound boot spurs made while the lead character walked. You can hear these metallic sounds throughout “The Mandalorian” score. This is a common technique that Ludwig Goransson uses in his scores. 

In an interview with Insider Magazine he says:

And a lot of time, the way I do that is to take real sounds from whatever movie or project I'm working on and make it into musical elements.

Composer Ludwig Göransson

While working on the movie “Creed,” this meant recording sounds from a Philadelphia boxing gym. Most recently in his score to the Movie ‘Tenet’ in which he used the sound of director Christopher Nolan’s breathing, heavily processed it, to become this menacing sound design element/motif throughout the score.

The key to the success of ‘The Mandalorian’ main motif is it is simple and instantly recognizable. It is played on the bass recorder, an instrument not widely used, and one that Göransson was not overly familiar with playing. 

Another unique and interesting score by Göransson is the mind-bending TENET. 

This score takes a lot of techniques that he uses in his electronic hip hop productions and brings a fresh approach to scoring blockbusters. With its booming bass and complex rhythms, and use of elements more common in dance music such as sidechaining which can be heard prominently in the cue ‘Trucks In Place’.

As the movie is mainly based around the concept of manipulation of time (as with most Nolan movies) – Ludwig also manipulates time.

I recorded three percussion players. I had them play the main rhythm of the theme and I recorded them and then reversed the recording on my computer. Then I played it for the musicians and I asked them to emulate the reverse recording... And then I recorded that, and then I reversed that recording again.

Two interesting rhythmic concepts of Risset Rhythms and metric modulations are heavily explored in Tenet.

A Risset rhythm is a fractal rhythm that sounds like it’s constantly speeding up. It’s the rhythmic equivalent of a Shepard tone, created by having 2 rhythms both speeding up, but one at the half-speed of the other and slowly fading between them.

Metric Modulation is a concept where you keep the underlying pulse the same, however change the subdivisions so it feels different. An example would be a bar of 4/4 with 8 8th notes grouped in 2’s. You could then group these in 3’s and change to 6/8, while keeping the length of the 8th notes the same.

If you would like to dive deeper into the score on Tenet, there is a brilliant breakdown of the score that he does in this video. He solos certain parts of the score so you can really piece study it!

Hildur Guðnadóttir

The Oscar winning score to Joker by composer, Hildur Guðnadóttir is mostly textural in its approach, using dissonant, dark textures created on her cello. She sat with her cello for a while, finally landing on a note that felt right for Arthur. “It was almost like it punched me in the chest,” she says. “And then this physical reaction, this movement happened, because I had found his voice, found what he wanted to say.

It was almost like it punched me in the chest. And then this physical reaction, this movement happened, because I had found his voice, found what he wanted to say.

Her remarkable Emmy winning score for the show Chernobyl was constructed almost entirely from her samples of a nuclear power plant. She visited the power plants a few months before starting the score and recorded for hours. She’s quoted saying ‘I didn’t know what it was going to sound like,” she says. “It was like treasure hunting. You go in there with completely open ears and you just listen.” The result is a haunting textural soundscape.  

Listen to the soundtrack for Chernobyl here. You will hear the sounds of the nuclear power-plant as well as the distortion/saturation and other effects that she has used to break up the sound, to really immerse the viewer into the world. I highly recommend watching the show so you can see the score in context.

Final Takeaways

All of these scores talked about could have been scored in a more traditional way, and would have worked well.

However, what makes them great is the uniqueness and the willingness of the composers to experiment.

The main takeaway from this and how we can apply this to our own writing as composers is to experiment. Be unique in your sound, take elements from your own experiences and create your own distinctive voice. 

It’s also a testament to the fact that a lot of times, it pays off to go that extra mile. Nobody will immediately tell from listening to the music of Chernobyl that Hildur went to an actual nuclear power plant for hours, but you can surely feel it. It gives the score the special something that transcends the ordinary. Similarly, most people won’t recognize Nolan’s breath and the multiple times reversed percussion in TENET, but again it gives the score that deeper level of storytelling and an added level to the creative body of work that otherwise would be missed.

Most of these things are felt, not heard. But at the end of the day, that’s what the score is all about. How it makes the audience feel.

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