Watch: What Makes a Soundtrack Memorable?

Star Wars
This video essay warns that Marvel Entertainment might show us what not to do.

There are only a handful of movie soundtracks we'll remember in a lifetime. Soundtracks make their impressions on us for different reasons and in different ways. In his latest installment of Every Frame a Painting, prolific videographer Tony Zhou looks—quite piercingly—at why we remember certain soundtracks and might forget certain others, most notably the soundtracks of Marvel Entertainment films.

One key, according to Zhou, is the misuse of temp music, or the filler music supplied by directors to composers as an indication of the sort of sound they'd like for a given scene, or even for an entire film. In fact, prolific composer Mark Korven (The Witch) just warned against this practice at a TIFF masterclass. It's one thing to show up at the barber shop with a photo indicating how you'd like your head to look; it's quite another to ask a composer, "Can you write me something like this?" All too often, as Zhou points out here, the results can be what more or less amounts to inadvertent plagiarism, in which the composer creates something which sounds uncomfortably like the model offered, and in so doing, doesn't sound like much at all.

Zhou's piece is a well-reasoned indictment of the unoriginality and soullessness of most Marvel Entertainment soundtracks. He begins by asking strangers to sing parts of the Star Wars soundtrack, for instance, with broad, if roughly sung, success; when the questions move to Marvel soundtracks, the answer is silence. Shrugs. Wrinkled brows. This points to another cornerstone of Zhou's approach: Because these films are striving less for originality than for the sustainment of a product line, in Zhou's view, their elements are less distinctive, and, subsequently, no one can remember them.

 Avoid temp music like the plague. Don't listen to it. 

The piece demonstrates that, in Marvel films, the soundtrack is in fact a negligible part of the audience experience, and could be removed without significant result—possibly even improving the film. Zhou shows the pointlessness of these audio tracks in a couple of ways: by actually removing the audio track in one instance, and by playing it alone in another. These pieces of music are minimal, dulled, hollow—almost an auditory version of the line, "There is no there there." And in so being, they reveal quite a bit about the works they serve, and about the process behind those works.

The lesson here is a fairly simple one: do as Danny Elfman reportedly does, and stay away from temp music. Avoid it like the plague. Don't listen to it. Work with your composer to create something truly original instead. Why? Think about posterity. If someone were to ask a stranger to hum a theme from one of your films, would you want them to immediately start humming it (even if off-key), or would you want to hear silence, broken only by the sound of a head being scratched?     

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Your Comment


You may want to included this in your article. This Video Essay is in response to Tony's video and Tony even recognized it on his youtube channel.

Dan Golding argues that its not Temp music that is responsible for the forgettable music in Marvel films but the digital production of film scores pioneered by composer Han Zimmer and the like.

September 19, 2016 at 1:15PM

Ryan McCurdy
Commercial Video Producer/ Filmmaker

As a composer/foley guy/sound designer, I find it too scary that directors at every level take pride in the originality of their footage, but request sound-alikes and even library music for their soundtracks so they can sound like everybody else. All the while hundreds of really original sounding composers "can't get arrested" unless they sound like Zimmer or Williams

September 22, 2016 at 2:11PM

jim fiegen
sound designer

So true. Which goes to show how much respect or interest they have in the music. And just how little they must feel it adds to "Their" movie.
But that is Hollywood always. Cloning & cannibalizing itself based on past successes, until something truly new comes along and slips through the Gate Keepers of the Bland's barricade. Then, a new paradigm begins all over & becomes the new norm to which all must adhere. Round & round it goes while those hundreds you mention are left out in the wilderness.
Like in the video - "Safe" is the key word (and boring & Bland)

September 23, 2016 at 8:58AM, Edited September 23, 9:04AM


A lot of filmmakers I know use Soundstripe. Soundstripe is a service that allows you FULL access to their entire library of music, for only a small monthly fee of $15/month.

You can sort by genre, mood, etc. Perfect for video editing music, no matter what type of project. They’ve even created playlist categories to help you find what you need instantly!

January 9, 2018 at 1:08PM, Edited January 9, 1:08PM

Ethan Loomis
Videographer, Loomis Video