Generally I find that having music on while working or writing at night is the best way for me to get in a zone to bang out some words. It's a habit developed over the last 20 odd years where just writing in silence doesn't seem to produce a productive output.
When I was younger I would mostly listen to music with lyrics - now I find instrumental is best.Sometimes it'll be classical, but mostly I find it is movie themes.
There;s something about a great theme that just elevates a film . There is a story recounted in Peter Biskand's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls that Chinatown first had a horrible score that Polanski for some reason thought was genius. Thankfully he was convinced otherwise and Jerry Goldsmith was commissioned to write an absolutely stunning score that captures the mood of the film absolutely perfectly. It is inconceivable to think of seeing the film without that score now.
And that is the mark of the great score - it becomes so indelibly linked to the film that some scores actually take over the film. Ennio Morricone's score for The Mission is much better than the film, and now probably better known.
In 2005, the American Film Institute came up with its top 25 scores of all time (US films of course). Here;'s the list:
1 Star Wars, John Williams
2 Gone with the Wind, Max Steiner
3 Lawrence of Arabia, Maurice Jarre
4 Psycho, Bernard Herrmann
5 The Godfather, Nino Rota
6 Jaws, John Williams
7 Laura, David Raksin
8 The Magnificent Seven, Elmer Bernstein
9 Chinatown, Jerry Goldsmith
10 High Noon, Dimitri Tiomkin
11 The Adventures of Robin Hood, Erich Wolfgang Korngold
12 Vertigo, Bernard Herrmann
13 King Kong, Max Steiner
14 E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, John Williams
15 Out of Africa, John Barry
16 Sunset Blvd., Franz Waxman
17 To Kill a Mockingbird, Elmer Bernstein
18 Planet of the Apes, Jerry Goldsmith
19 A Streetcar Named Desire, Alex North
20 The Pink Panther, Henry Mancini
21 Ben-Hur, Miklós Rózsa
22 On the Waterfront, Leonard Bernstein
23 The Mission, Ennio Morricone
24 On Golden Pond, Dave Grusin
25 How the West Was Won, Alfred Newman
Now it's a good list, but I'd take issue with a few of them. I prefer Elmer Bernstein's score for The Great Escape to The Magnificent Seven, and I'd go for Jarre's score for Doctor Zhivago over the Lawrence of Arabia one.
And Star Wars the best ever? Sorry not even in my top 10.
What also strikes when you see the list is that there is a lot of common names - Williams, Bernstein, Steiner, Goldsmith. These guys knew (know) how to write music that fits perfectly with a story, and they're also very much of their times. Max Steiner's scores often were full of bombast and melodrama but they seem right for The bombast and melodrama of Gone with the Wind, in a way that a more subtle score would not.
In keeping with the commonality of musicians, two scores that I would have included in the list are both by Ennio Morricone. I have written elsewhere about my love of Once Upon a Time in the West.
But I would also argue Once Upon a Time in America is just as good, and if we're talking indelible sounds, his The Good the Bad and the Ugly is up there with Jaws as being instantly recognisable (and hummable by people who haven't even seen the film).
Of recent film scores, I'd put in Philip Glass's brilliant work for Powaqqatsi - so good Peter Weir used it for The Truman Show.
I also like Maurice Jarre's work in Dead Poet's Society - Peter Weir films as a rule have great scores - the theme of Master and Commander by Iva Davies (!), Christopher Gordon and Richard Tognetti is an underrated favourite of mine.
Carter Burwell is one composer whose work also is generally top drawer. He is the Coen Brothers go to guy, and his score for Miller's Crossing is my favourite of his:
Of the last decade (or so) Thomas Newmann has done some amazing work for The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty, The Road to Perdition, Finding Nemo, Wall E, Cinderella Man and Revolutionary Road. Little wonder he has been nominated for an Oscar 10 times... hasn't won one yet, not that that means much, Elmer Bernstein was nominated 14 times and only one once (not for The Magnificent Seven of course!). Bernard Herrmann didn't even get nominated for his Psycho score!
There are so many films I could keep going for an age, but I'll leave you with a score that I have only rediscovered in the last few months. It is by Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto for the 1983 film Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. I haven't seen the film since it came out (when I was rather disappointed to find it was not much like Bridge on the River Kwai at all). I don't have much desire to watch it again, but the score? Magnificent.
Have a good weekend.