Forget the Movie, Give Me the OST


Some of us love original motion picture scores, and I don’t have to explain that to my fellow addicts. Eighty bucks for a rare Jerry Goldsmith OST CD? Cheap at the price! Okay, that’s a little farther over the edge than some of us. But if you had the money to splurge, you would, too.

It’s not about “I have it and few people do.” That’s a soundtrack collector‘s mindset, a certain competitive completeness. I want to have it to listen to at will. If you gave me a choice, for free, between a full Krull limited edition 2-CD set, and 20 or 30 soundtrack albums that have to be $10 apiece or less, I don’t even have to think about it: I can list a couple dozen off the top of my head that I will take on that offer. Those will give me more happy time than any single complete soundtrack.

A pause to define: There are what they now call soundtracks that are anthologies of pop songs used as soundtracks (that started in the 1970s). I have a few of those, especially when it seems the only way to get some songs or versions of them. Suckerpunch, for example. The covers of songs are great (love of covers is another day’s insanity). But we need to differentiate those from the original soundtrack (OST) or film score.

“You mean that stuff like classical music in the background?”

Sometimes, yeah. But Alan Parsons put screaming electric guitars into the medieval fable of Ladyhawke, and it isn’t classical-kine music Ramin Djawadi composed for Iron Man (though he did for Game of Thrones) It’s not classical for The Man with the Golden Arm or Tron: Legacy, either. let alone Kundun. Rock, jazz, minimalism, electronica, and a lot of other musical traditions provide OSTs, especially ethnic styles in overseas OSTs. So while, yeah, most are in some neo-Romantic style, there’s a lot of variation, which is part of what I like about them.

Soundtrack-o-philia may have been embedded in my brain early. When I was eleven, my mother bought me a thrift-shop record-player and a dozen albums, which was sweet of her, because it wasn’t to fulfill the obligations of a present day, but just because she thought I’d like it. Most of the records were classical — I was playing violin in a school orchestra — but three distinctly were not. One was by Andres Segovia, Spanish guitarist, and it was hard to believe that was only two hands playing. (Yes, I got CDs of him later). The other two were soundtrack albums. One was an anthology of themes from Wide Screen SpectacularsBen Hur, Quo Vadis, El Cid, Cleopatra, &c. — and the other the jazz OST for The Man with the Golden Arm. I don’t think I had particularly noticed the existence of soundtracks before then. That’s when I started paying attention.

What I think I most enjoy about the OST as music, not as part of a film, is that it is emotional, mood-oriented, dramatic, but instrumental. It’s music to back up what I have in my head that’s needing to get out, whether as a writer or an artist. I’m not being led astray by the story in some lyrics, especially bad if it almost fits but not quite. I’m not distracted by the words when they’re way off, and especially I’m not annoyed by vocal mannerisms. Some months I just can’t listen to someone saying “ja-iy” instead of “joy” or turning all their initial H’s into mild uvular fricatives. Sometimes I can’t take hyper-sopranos heading for dog-whistle pitches, or maybe it’s an over-dramatizing or too-flat delivery that bugs me. Instrumental music simply does not have these annoying idiosyncrasies. Instruments don’t impose so much personality.

In a lot of reviews at A** and the like, I see people gushing how they adore the soundtrack because they can relive the movie through it. I don’t have to see the movie to love the soundtrack (The Quest for King Arthur by Gary Pozner). I may loathe the idea of the movie, never see it, and still get the OST (Heart of Midnight by Yanni, say). In some cases, I listen to the OST for months before I finally develop an interest in seeing the film (Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, which I bought on recommendation from a fellow OSTophile).

This detachment from the source has helped me branch out into the two newest areas of soundtracks — video game soundtracks, and trailer music — because I don’t have to have seen and judged the movie to want the soundtrack. Game soundtracks are just like the movie ones, only they loop better. This is great for writing, because one track on continuous replay is the norm. When just listening to soundtracks, variety in moods = good. When writing, one mood played as long as necessary = good. “As long as necessary” may be hours at a stretch.

Trailer music is not what they play at the trailer park. It’s the music heard in the trailer/advert for an upcoming movie. Trailers are usually released when the film is in the can and the major special effects (shown in the trailer) are done. But this is about the time some composer is being handed the film to score: the OST of the movie doesn’t exist yet. Instead, they have had a team or firm provide them with what you might call generic soundtrack music to back up the trailer: action/adventure, high fantasy, horror, romantic, but composed to suit the high points of the trailer. They usually run about three minutes.

The fun part is that the composers are now releasing these as albums to the general public. They don’t tell you which trailers they backed, but give them evocative names. They don’t impose any particular movie or its remembered mood on you. It’s like bits of soundtrack from movies you not only didn’t see, but never heard of.

Similar to this is the fondness I have for composers in general who turn out something that sounds like soundtrack music, even if it isn’t,  and comes in unitary chunks. Standard classical music is forced by its format to go from big bombastic to slow elegiac to twinkly pastoral dance. It’s like listening to the whole soundtrack, not just one cut. So Mozart and Beethoven don’t make it for me for writing. On the other tentacle, something not so up and down in tempo, like Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia, Mousourgsky’s “Bydlo (The Polish Oxcart)” from P*, or Ravel’s Bolero, just may work, depending on what you’re writing.

Interestingly, most of these modern soundtracky people get classified as New Age, though occasionally as World Music. Since this form isn’t well advertised, I just sort of trip over them and take chances. We’re not talking yoga relaxation music. A cut or two like that go a long way, so I don’t buy whole albums of it. These are also, I notice, people who wind up doing soundtrack music, like Yanni, or David Arkenstone (Robot Wars, World of Warcraft: Taverns of Azeroth). Loreena McKennitt is a rare vocalist who, as a harper, will write some soundtracky instrumentals, like “Marco Polo” or “Serenissima.”

One of the idiosyncratic problems I have as a writer is that it’s really hard for me to work on something for which I haven’t got a soundtrack for the movie in my head. It’s like it hasn’t jelled. This is another reason I collect, not just OSTs, but soundtracky music of all sorts. This develops the benefit that the soundtrack/writing music acts as a post-hypnotic cue: if this music is playing, I must be writing on this project. During challenge months, I can keep my head in the write place by playing the musical cues while I’m getting mindless chores done, from walking to cleaning.

If you want to see some playlists from my soundtrack and soundtracky collections, you can find me on as Dreamway. Yeah, I have the standard contemporary composers like Zimmer, Badelt, Williams, Greg-Wilson, Shore, &c, but I’m trying to hit the ones you don’t hear all the time. I think most of you have never spent much time with Miklos Rozsas, Alfred Neuman, or Eric Korngold, among others.

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