Think of some classic action sequences — Tom Cruise dangling from a ceiling by a cable in the first “Mission: Impossible,” or a Colosseum scene in “Gladiator.” Chances are you can immediately call to the mind the suspenseful action music that underpinned these scenes. You can probably hum the “Mission: Impossible” theme and might have even downloaded the haunting percussive “Gladiator” score by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerard.
But there are many other fascinating examples of how epic action music can change the impact of action sequences and other big visual moments — and even small ones! Let’s explore some of the many cool ways epic-feeling music can change your video.
1. Adding Scope and Anticipation
Most action and adventure movies involve many scenes of, well, not action or adventure. These could be like in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” movies, which involve beautiful scenes of Middle Earth (aka New Zealand) landscape, like snow-capped mountains and vast expanses of green. These scenes are important to give breaks between the set pieces, to build suspense, and to increase our affection for the characters. It lets us know that there’s more big stuff coming, to stay glued in our seats, and to not stop paying attention.
Epic action music also adds dimension to scenes that are attractive but could lack meaning to audiences. The simple, pounding score of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” is harsh and metallic and casts a grim, suspenseful pall over Los Angeles from the get-go. It sets us up for the man vs. machine battle and lets us know that a lot of judgment and action is coming.
Lower-budget but just as amazing action movies like “The Raid” use their epic scores to give their films a bigger sense of scope than their budgets might suggest. “The Raid” takes place in one claustrophobic building and is full of incredible set pieces, and the music adds a layer of suspense and mystery from the film’s start. It also honors the film’s Indonesian-Muslim hero by using culturally-appropriate instrumentation.
Epic action music doesn’t always have to have the same instrumentation. Jerry Goldsmith is famous for incorporating synths into his scores for films like “The Mummy,” and so is John Carpenter for spare scores for his classic films, “The Thing” and “The Fog.” Decay by the Sound Room makes cool use of synths to paint a hard dubstep sonic picture that would add epic tension to any number of scenarios.
In his scores for action movies, Hans Zimmer also uses a mix of contemporary and classical instruments (e,g., combining electric guitars with a strings section). Strong and Proud by composer Bruce Zimmerman has a similar vibe, evoking waving flags and NAVY Seals.
2. Adding a Sense of Dissonance and Contrast
Think of classic Looney Tunes cartoons starring famous antagonists like Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam, Tweety Bird and Sylvester the Cat, or Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd. Much of the music in those wonderful old Warner Bros. cartoons was composed with a full symphony orchestra. While there are instances of classic comedy instrumentation — like uses of piccolo flute — there is also full use of the arsenal of action music, drawing from classical and opera (as in “What’s Opera, Doc?” and “The Rabbit of Seville”) to lend the action a feeling of richness and suspense.
The wonderfully “big”-sounding music of the Looney Tunes universe, composed mostly by Carl Stalling but with many assists and quotes from great classical composers like Tchaikovsky and Bizet, is somewhat dissonant with the small dramas of, say, a cat chasing a bird! But if you think about it, such music adds:
- Dimension to the cartoons’ comedy
- A sense of anticipation and pace, for what are usually short and rapidly more suspenseful plots
- Many extra layers of meaning and allusion to serious works parodied with wit and playfulness.
Interestingly enough, many young viewers were introduced to classical music via Looney Tunes cartoons. So even when there’s irreverent use of opera and classical epic music, it still has the effect the composers desired of providing a sense of high emotion.
“Curb Your Enthusiasm” is a current TV comedy geared toward an adult audience. As Larry David offends and alienates pretty much everyone he can in Los Angeles, the music is often circus- or classical-themed. But the show’s creators often also use action-style music to underscore the ridiculousness of the characters’ encounters, as well as to add tension to the face-offs between them.
We know that Larry is ridiculous, but the action-inflected music adds a layer of genuine suspense to scenes of him racing nemeses to supermarket checkout counters, to when he’s spotted somewhere he’s not supposed to be, and so on. The Fire on the Horizon, composed by Lionel Schmitt, could be used at the end of a big battle scene… or when your comedy lead finds a parking spot.
3. Adding Tension to “Normal” Scenes
A similar but slightly different tonal use can be when directors use epic action music to show the excitement of ordinary life. Steven Spielberg’s films often use music just as soaring as the scores in his fighting scenes to underscore that everyday life can be just as high stakes as action sequences. It creates a connection between the more overtly thrilling parts of a character’s life and their domestic moments.
Spy movies are often adept at using epic action music in scenes exploring their characters’ inner and domestic lives. It brings home the idea that betrayal could happen at any moment. Examples include Tomas Alfredson’s film version of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” in which characters are never far from their work problems and in which the personal and professional are completely enmeshed with one another. Tears, composed by CineScape, makes use of hypnotic piano to build to a climax that could work to support either a personal realization or a larger martial victory (or loss).
Guillermo Del Toro makes films that combine action and fantasy with a romantic undertone. Alexandre Desplat’s lovely music in “The Shape of Water,” which uses whimsical instruments like the accordion, provides a sense of wonder and epic action to all of its scenes — the overtly action-packed and more domestic ones, alike. Forgotten Love by The Sound Room could add romantic dimension and melancholy to an intimate domestic scene or one that is huge and epic.
4. Enriching Character
Francis Ford Coppola used Wagner’s “Flight of The Valkyries” to teach us something about the character who played it as American choppers approached Vietnamese villages and their targets. Yes, it’s awesome to see the helicopters soar over the treetops, but it’s the fact that the music was selected by one of the film’s characters — the unhinged general played by Dennis Hopper — that makes it a really extraordinary scene in cinema.
The desert in “Lawrence of Arabia” is beautiful and a major component of the entire film’s story and meaning, but Maurice Jarre’s score makes it a lot more than that by connecting it to the rich inner life of its protagonist.
Marco Beltrami’s spare score for the final Wolverine film “Logan” was designed to be emotionally supportive, according to Indiewire, and establish a “world-weary mood of the mutant hiding out in a dystopian future after most of the mutant race has been killed.” The score works in concert with the film’s plot, part-Western and part-road picture, and maintains its gritty, grounded feeling while emphasizing Logan’s Clint Eastwood-esque isolation and solitude.
The music might be spare, but it’s still a gorgeous score: epic action music, even when pared down, tends to be beautiful. It underscores a sense of emotion and feeling that the best action heroes possess. We may want to see epic action onscreen, but we also want to feel something or, better yet, a multitude of conflicting feelings that put us in our protagonist’s shoes. Fragile by Rick Pfenninger has a haunting female solo and makes you feel like you’re on the battlefield surveying the aftermath of a massacre.
5. Enriching a Sense of Place
Epic action movie music doesn’t have to be clichéd or obvious. In fact, quirkier choices can often be satisfying. Ridley Scott’s “Thelma and Louise” uses a country-inspired electric guitar soundtrack by Hans Zimmer to score its feminist action story of two women on the run from the law through the badlands of Arkansas and Arizona. It performs all the usual tasks that awesome action movie music should, adding pace and suspense. It also enhances the film’s sense of place and authenticity.
Similarly, Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films use traditional Japanese instrumentation, like percussion, to add to his dynamic, kinetic sense of movement and action as well as to ground the films in a certain tradition.
Music can enrich a sense of place even when the place is a fictional one. In the aforementioned “Lord of the Rings” score, composer Howard Shore uses elements of Irish and Celtic folk music and instrumentation to create the sound of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and the aural textures he creates are just as important to the film’s impact as its visuals. Shattered Stone by Enrico Milardo is one track that puts you in the fantasy dreamscape that you want to inhabit.
6. Grounding Comedy in Reality
While it’s more common to use comedic or lighthearted music over scenes of bloodshed, as Quentin Tarantino often does, it can work the other way, too. Composer Theodore Shapiro has worked on films like “Tropic Thunder,” “Dodgeball,” and “Spy.” He is an advocate of using serious-sounding action scores to give films a sense of anticipation and heighten the comedy. Paul Feig, a well-regarded comedy director of films like “Bridesmaids” and a person with whom Shapiro has worked more than once, explained to NPR that adding a sense of seriousness to the soundtrack, in fact, makes comedy funnier.
Feig says, “I find the only way to make things funny is to put funny people in real situations… because of that, it’s very hard to then kind of put a funny score onto it.” So for the “Ghostbusters” reboot, on which Feig and Shapiro collaborated, they used Gothic horror instrumentation, including a church organ and full choir.
Feig and Shapiro both praise Elmer Berstein as an inspiration. Bernstein was a legendary film composer who scored films like the original “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Age of Innocence.” Bernstein also contributed scores to comedies like “Airplane!” and “Animal House.” To these raucous and often silly comedies, as well as the original “Ghostbusters,” Bernstein contributed serious, dramatic music. This method brings viewers into the films’ worlds and lets the seriousness accentuate the laughs — the equivalent of putting funny people into real situations, as Paul Feig said.
Epic action music can be used to sell the reality of a situation. The sense of counterpoint it provides is more thoroughly engaging and enriches comedy. If you’re working on a project that involves comedy or humor, consider epic action music to help give it depth and improve the impact of the comedy. Dark Matter by Robert Anthony Guerrier could put you in a space epic or an action-comedy kind of mood.
Of course, epic action music can still be used in a classic way — flying over drone footage of waterfalls, zooming over spectacular landscapes, or scaling snowcapped peaks, as in “Cliffhanger,” which has a simple but fantastic score.
6. Connecting to a Larger Genre
The scores by Ennio Morricone for the spaghetti westerns directed by Sergio Leone (“The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly” and “A Fistful of Dollars”) are iconic, much-parodied, and often referenced.
Morricone’s use of such unusual instrumentation as twangy guitar and innovative inclusion of choirs and whistling is immediately recognizable and a lot of fun.
When Quentin Tarantino set out to make his own Westerns (“The Hateful Eight” and “Django Unchained”) he made sure to pay homage to the master and use samples of Morricone’s classic scores and new compositions by him. He knew this would add a sense of history and film-literate reference to his own works while tipping his hand to one of his main inspirations. You can find a similar-sounding track for your own work with Morri Tone by Joel Lopez.
Similarly, films in a franchise (like the James Bond or Indiana Jones films) all share motifs and similar scores, which remind us as we start eating our popcorn of what’s coming. It’s the variations in the theme that keep us glued to what comes next.
7. Commenting on Fighting or Violence
Clint Eastwood uses spare, downbeat music to comment on scenes of action and violence in his films (“Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby”). You could argue that his choices are the opposite of epic, yet his films never fail to generate real emotion and suspense — and “Unforgiven” is certainly an epic in the revisionist Western genre. The emotional impact of his films comes at least in part from the musical choices he makes.
These choices cause us to reflect on the meaning of the violence in his films and the consequences his characters face. The musical choices are still epic, and the music in “Unforgiven” does come to a guitar crescendo at the film’s end. It’s just a more thoughtful and atypical application of music to the genre. Lone Rider by Robert Wayne Johnson offers thoughtful but rousing guitar just right to back up a “man with no name” or the aftermath of any epic action.
8. Celebrating a Victory
Perhaps less self-aware but a lot more exuberant is the use of music in the “Rocky” movies, which has us cheering Rocky Balboa’s victories in the ring. The use of brass by Bill Conti is effective and stirring, leading us to root for the underdog throughout the whole film. Maybe it even motivates us to go for more morning runs. The Life of a Cowboy by Dominik Hauser uses trumpets to evoke an almost-familiar tune that will add stirring pep to your film or video project.
It’s a slightly different kind of victory, but the use of Britpop by Danny Boyle in “Trainspotting” puts us on the side of the film’s drug-addicted antiheroes as they wage war against conventional society. And David O. Russell’s “The Fighter” uses 80s hair metal to get us in the zone with his uplifting but real tale of a boxer’s fight against the odds. Fight by the Sound Room evokes the best of 1980s heavy metal to deliver an epic kick that you could use to get your audience on the side of your protagonist.
There’s a multitude of ways you could use epic-feeling action music to power your video project. Stock Music has the best selection of royalty-free action music, which you can browse by instrument, mood, genre, and tone to get exactly the right music for your video, game, or film project and give it the feel you want. All their royalty-free action music requires a one-off license fee, after which it’s yours to use however you like. And it’s all curated to be of the highest quality. Reach out to Stock Music today and power your musical journey forward!