15 unique film scores that effectively create an innovative sonic identity for their respective films

Some directors like to turn the art of film-making upside down: they embrace alternative storytelling techniques, encourage unusual framing or lighting from their cinematographer or utilize experimental techniques during editing to emphasize the story. And sometimes, they’ll collaborate with a creative composer to ensure that the film has a highly unique musical voice that compliments the artistry of the film in a magical way.

15. Forbidden Planet (1956) – Louis & Bebe Baron |

Louis and Bebe Barron started composing experimental music with electronic sound generators and magnetic tape in the early 1950’s. They assisted John Cage in his creation of the magnetic tape composition Williams Mix.

Through a chance meeting with MGM executive Dore Schary, they were hired to score their first mainstream film, Forbidden Planet. This otherworldly score features electronic circuits they fashioned themselves, as well as a numerous musique concrète techniques.

14. Annihilation (2018) – Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow |

After composing an incredible and highly effective score for Alex Garland’s film Ex Machina, Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow were brought on board to compose the score to Garland’s next film, Annihilation.

This score features unusual melodic fragments and sonic themes that evolve and develop in an organic manner similar to the unfolding biological mystery in the story, the synthesized effects, mesmerizing vocal layers and sound design perfectly underscoring this cerebral sci-fi film.

13. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) – David Shire |

Prolific composer David Shire has a large body of work to his name, including more recent films such as David Fincher’s Zodiac.

What would be the perfect sound for a thriller about a group of criminals taking passengers hostage in a New York subway car? ​Atonal-ish action-funk, of course!

12. Sicario (2015) – Jóhann Jóhannsson |

Jóhann Jóhannsson (RIP) was an incredibly talented and unique film composer. Working with Denis Villeneuve, he created some incredibly innovative film scores, and it was difficult to not include Arrival in this list.

But his score for Sicario, full of descending lines and relentless percussive sound design, synchronizes with the tension of the film in a thoroughly unique and powerful way.

11. Donnie Darko (2001) – Michael Andrews |

Later scoring BridesmaidsBad Teacher and Daddy’s Home, Michael Andrews took a dive into the weird end early in his career scoring Richard Kelly’s mysterious indie film, Donnie Darko.

Subtle synths and atmospheric effects surround warm piano melodies to create a unique sonic world for this strange and surreal film.

10. K-PAX (2001) – Edward Shearmur |

In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, Edward Shearmur was a busy composer, scoring films such as Charlie’s Angels and Miss Congeniality.

Having worked with director Iain Softley on The Wings of a Dove a few years prior, Shearmur was brought on to direct Softley’s next film about a man in a mental institution who thinks he’s actually an alien. The thrilling combination of orchestra and electronica perfectly fits this intriguing, subtle sci-fi film.

9. Gone Girl (2014)- Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross |

The Social Network is certainly worth mentioning, and did garner an Oscar for Best Original Score through innovative use of electronics.

Reznor and Ross followed that up with another collaboration with David Fincher that led to this unique, atmospheric score with detuned synths and electronic effects. Reminiscent of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Vol. II, this score creates just the right amount of disturbing just-off moments to compliment this film.

8. Blade Runner (1982) – Vangelis |

After winning an Oscar for Best Original Score for Chariots of Fire, Vangelis landed the gig to score this Ridley Scott sci-fi film.

Bending synths, subtle sound design and reverb create a unique musical world for this classic sci-fi film. Vangelis dialed in an electronic sound for this film that, unlike other synthesizer scores of the time, feels much more timeless and unique.

7. Paris, Texas (1984) – Ry Cooder |

German film-maker Wim Wenders engaged composer and slide guitarist Ry Cooder to concoct an atmospheric sound for his surreal film about a drifter in the desert.

​Subtle droning effects and evocative slide guitar melodies float along to create a dreamy, lonely sonic world.

6. Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind (2004) – Jon Brion |

Jon Brion scored three of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, including Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love, prior to working with Michel Gondry on this film.

​​A bluesy piano tune in three isn’t exceptionally original, but the way the five-bar phrased melody develops uneven melancholy and combines with mesmerizing reverse sound design effects to meld the strange with the familiar perfectly fits this film.

5. Requiem for a Dream (2000) – Clint Mansell |

Clint Mansell scored Darren Aronofsky’s film Pi, creating thrilling electronica music that fit alongside tracks by Aphex Twin, Autechre and Massive Attack.

Aronofsky returned to Mansell for Requiem for a Dream, and Mansell delivered a gritty, bold hybrid score utilizing the Kronos string quartet and electronics that flawlessly emphasizes the downward spiral into drug addiction depicted in the film.

4. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) – Popol Vuh |

Before becoming better known for his English-with-a-German-accent documentaries, Werner Herzog made a number of narrative films in his native language.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God takes place in the 16th century in the Amazon, following the crazed Don Lope de Aguirre (played by Klaus Kinski) as he leads an expedition to find El Dorado. In their first of many collaborations with Herzog, the band Popol Vuh managed to create a mesmerizing soundscape of synthesizers and voices to perfectly compliment both the physical and psychological feeling of isolation and insanity in the film.

3. Solaris (2002) – Cliff Martinez |

Although there’s really no way to top the artistry of Andrei Tarkovsky’s original film, a unique score came out of the effort.

A regular collaborator of ​​Steven Soderbergh’s going back to Sex, Lies, and Videotape, former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Martinez combined György Ligeti-like orchestral atmospheres with mesmerizing steel drum textures to create a unique sound world for this cerebral sci-fi film.

2. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966) – Ennio Morricone |

With Sergio Leone, Ennio Morricone single-handedly defined the sound of spaghetti westerns.

Although Once Upon A Time In The West is worth a mention, this film really nailed down the right combination of odd instrumentation and evocative themes to tell the story of Tuco, Blondie and Angel Eyes. Layering Civil War songs loosely together ala Charles Ives is a high point beyond the obvious main themes utilizing whistling, human voices, flutes and electric guitars.

1. There Will Be Blood (2007)- Jonny Greenwood |

Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead was brought on board to compose the score to Paul Thomas Anderson’s fifth feature film.

​​Subtle in execution but bold in effect, the orchestrations in this powerful score evoke an evocative balance of melancholy and tension. Tapping into contemporary and impressionistic classical inspirations, this score sounds like a mash-up of Charles Ives and Claude Debussy with a splash of Toru Takemitsu thrown in. Greenwood would go on to innovate film scores further with P.T. Anderson, writing scores for The MasterInherent Vice and Phantom Thread.

What did you think of the list? Any there any that should or shouldn’t be on this list? Leave a comment!

If you’re a filmmaker looking for a unique, innovative score for your film in the same way that these scores create a musical identity for their films, then don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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