As important to films as acting, writing, and design, music can instantly create a realistic or fantastic world, guide emotions and enhance storytelling. Yet the annual Academy Award nominations for best original score are one of the few times film music gets a look in with the general public.

And because they are chosen by Academy members who work professionally in the world of film music, the nominations also serve as a bellwether for current trends in film scoring. The five nominated scores are the ones film musicians themselves have found the most compelling, and are therefore worth the attention of moviegoers.

The 94th Academy Awards will be held in Hollywood on March 27. And so, the nominees for best original score are…


Dune – Hans Zimmer

Hans Zimmer is the most influential composer working in Hollywood today, having scored more than 200 films over his 30-plus years in the industry, including Gladiator, Thelma and Louise, Blade Runner 2049 and the Dark Knight trilogy.

As well as his own nominated score for Dune, his influence can be heard in most of this year’s other nominated work.

Where John Williams, the most influential film composer in the 1980s and 1990s, used thematic melodies and rapidly shifting harmonies to “musicalise” the events and emotions on screen, Zimmer uses varied instrumental or electronic textures and slowly shifting chords to sit beneath action and dialogue.

Dune is a textbook example of his style. Music is as prominent in the mix as the sound effects, and pervades the film in long, slow-burning passages (which film composers call “cues”).

Oscillating semitones and meandering scale figures, often made with an Armenian instrument called the duduk (popularised in film scoring by Zimmer himself in his score for Gladiator in 2000), are played over chugga-chugga rhythms provided by acoustic and electronic drums.

This can all be heard in the cue “Ripples in the Sand”. There is little subtlety in the music, but director Denis Villeneuve and his collaborators compensate with nuanced production design and acting. The film’s best moments produce an interesting contrast with the bluntly expressive music.


Don’t Look Up – Nicholas Britell

What we might call the softer side of Zimmer’s influence is evident in Nicholas Britell’s score for Don’t Look Up, the climate change satire that has divided viewers and critics.

Britell’s cues use the repeating harmonic modules of Zimmer, adding a jazz influence in the timbre (a large brass section and prominent mallet percussion) to cannily suit the satirical tone of the film.

The music cues are mostly short, punctuating major events in the story and covering transitions. Britell is skilful in his ability to convey a scene’s meaning in musical microcosm. For example, the cue “My Boyfriend Broke Up With Me” takes only 30 seconds to set the film’s mood.


Encanto – Germaine Franco

The Zimmer style is also heard in Germaine Franco’s score for Encanto. Franco takes Zimmer’s typical aesthetic markers and adapts them to the animated family film genre.

In fact, the music often sounds a lot like Zimmer’s Lion King score, albeit with South American musical features rather than African ones.

Listen to “Antonio’s Voice”, for instance, which incorporates Colombian chanting in its textured motives. It is an effective score for a charming film, but very much a long shot to win the Oscar, which nearly always goes to dramas or epics.


Parallel Mothers – Alberto Iglesias

Alberto Iglesias is not as well known in the English-speaking world as some of the other nominated composers, and most of his work has been in his native Spain.

That may change, with his nomination being the first in many years for a non-English language film. Scored for his frequent collaborator, director Pedro Almodóvar, Iglesias’s music helps make Parallel Mothers a must-see melodrama about motherhood and Spanish national trauma.

Like Zimmer, Iglesias is largely influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s favourite composer, Bernard Herrmann. And like Herrmann, he uses repeating but subtly shifting musical modules, usually favouring strings.

The film’s trailer (which uses the actual music from the film, surprisingly unusual in trailers) demonstrates how well the score fits the mood Almodóvar creates with his images.


The Power of the Dog – Jonny Greenwood

The one major exception to the Zimmer influence among this year’s nominees is Jonny Greenwood’s score for The Power of the Dog. And for me, it’s the standout because of its different approach to matching music with onscreen action.

Greenwood makes careful use of melody, harmony and texture, not just to serve as wall-to-wall aural carpeting, but rather to actually interpret the dramatic setting and what is happening between the characters.

His music doesn’t merely reinforce what we can already see, but adds a layer of meaning, effectively amplifying Jane Campion’s languid yet intense storytelling.

Greenwood’s favourite composer, Olivier Messiaen, is very much in evidence, but he finds his own version of Messiaen’s innovations in melody and harmony. Greenwood also incorporates certain stylistic features from maverick 20th century American composers Charles Ives and Conlon Nancarrow, matching the film’s 1920s western setting. The cue “Best Friends” illustrates this well.

The envelope please…

The front runners seem to be Dune and The Power of the Dog, both of which have done well in other awards this year. But with the final decision voted on by the full Academy membership, rather than just the music branch, the Oscar is somewhat more of a popularity contest.

Setting my own tastes aside, however, all five are worthy nominees and undoubtedly represent the foremost current trends in film composing.

This article originally appeared in The Conversation.

Gregory Camp is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Auckland.