Action thriller films, with mid-range budgets, have long established themselves as a favorite genre in the global film industry. Although they may not claim title to Best Picture, they reliably provide exhilarating entertainment. Movies like the “Has Fallen” franchise, Jack Reacher, and John Wick consistently pull in robust, sometimes outstanding, box office numbers. Being an aficionado myself, I’ve spent countless hours captivated by these films. In this article, we’ll delve into the distinct musical score that defines this genre and discuss how you, as an aspiring composer, can master crafting captivating scores for it.

Action Thriller poster from the Has Fallen Franchise

Elements of the Action Thriller Genre

An action thriller is a unique sub-division of the broader thriller genre, differentiating itself from action-adventure, psychological thriller, and horror categories. Typically, events revolve around an elite military veteran, private security expert, or trained assassin. These characters often find themselves entangled in criminal situations with direct implications on their personal lives, ensuring they’re fully vested in the fight. Frequently, these lead figures boast relatable emotional experiences, such as a passionate romance or family ties. Such backstories not only foster a connection between the audience and the character but also raise the stakes in the event of potential failure.

In the realm of storytelling, action thrillers are renowned for their fast-paced plots that bind audiences to the edge of their seats. The suspense and anticipation ramp up with each scene, making viewers agonize over what will happen next. Action thrillers often weave a tangled web where nothing is as it seems, accentuating an underlying sense of danger and unpredictability. 

Action thrillers are marked by a constant dance between tension and relief: moments of intense action are often followed by brief periods of calm, only to plunge again into peril. It’s this rhythmn—this emotional rollercoaster—that keeps viewers engaged and invested in the narrative. 

Another paramount element in action thriller storytelling is the hero’s journey. The protagonist is usually forced out of their comfort zone, facing insurmountable odds and challenges that will test their mettle. This journey not only allows audiences to root for a character but also facilitates a deeper emotional connection, increasing the impact of triumphs and failures. 

Cognitive dissonance plays a crucial role, too. Protagonists in these films often have to make morally ambiguous choices to succeed, posing difficult dilemmas to the audience. This ethical conundrum further blurs the line between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, deepening the intensity and substance of the action thriller narrative. 

Ultimately, the action thriller genre is much more than explosions and car chases. It’s about storytelling that challenges and engages, about layered characters and twisted plots that keep viewers glued to their screens. And as a composer, understanding this intricate narrative can guide your musical choices, helping you create a score that complements and heightens the cinematic experience.

Understanding the Essence of Action Thriller Music

Music has always been an integral part of action-thriller movies, enhancing the suspense, excitement, and intensity of the scenes. The right soundtrack can elevate a car chase, a fight sequence, or a tense standoff to new heights, leaving a lasting impression on the audience.

One of the most iconic examples of music enhancing action in a thriller is in the James Bond film series. The recurring theme music instantly sets the tone for high-stakes espionage and thrilling action. The fast-paced melodies and dramatic orchestral swells create a sense of urgency and danger, perfectly complementing the on-screen excitement.

In recent years, composers and artists have continued to push the boundaries of action-thriller music, blending electronic elements with traditional orchestral scores to innovate and capture the modern audience’s attention. This fusion of different musical styles not only adds depth to the film’s narrative but also creates a unique sonic identity for the action-thriller genre in contemporary cinema.

Overall, the role of music in action-thriller movies cannot be overstated. It has the power to immerse the audience in the heart-pounding action, creating a memorable and captivating cinematic experience.

Silence or minimalistic music can be just as effective as intense, complex scores in creating tension in action thriller movies.

The most important thing to bear in mind when composing for this genre is that the music isn’t the story. The music is there to draw people into the story. In fact it should felt, rather than noticed. For the mid-budget movie it is advisable to avoid strong melodic themes that vie for attention and draw comparisons with well-known franchises such as James Bond or Mission Impossible.

Typically the music will use the minor mode to establish a serious tone for the movie. A strong percussion track will be essential in most cues with melodic interest provided by slow moving string lines with simple voice leading, sequential development, and conventional tonal harmony. However, once the action starts this can change dramatically.

The Jason Bourne series uses a mournful bassoon solo to establish the rather tragic figure of the eponymous hero. This contrasts with syncopated string figures during tense scenes of pursuit and evasion.

James Newton Howard’s score for Salt uses a polytonal motif which fits the cognitive dissonance of the protagonist’s conflicting identity.

However Secret Service Agent Mike Banning in the ‘Has Fallen’ franchise doesn’t get any special musical treatment. Why is that? One possible explanation is that those films don’t dive into the inner emotional world of the protagonist to the same degree as Bourne or Salt. ‘Has Fallen’ also lacks any memorable theme like Bond or Mission Impossible. Again, the reason may be that the ‘Has Fallen’ stories don’t focus on the hero in the same way, taking a deliberately cooler approach to defining ‘good guys’ and ‘adventure’ in favor of a grittier, less flashy action thriller. The character doesn’t need to be cool or sophisticated like Bond, nor emotionally conflicted like Bourne.

Themes, Motifs, and Rhythm in Action Films

An action sequence usually requires music that is fast-paced and intense, with a strong beat and powerful orchestral elements. The music should be able to create a sense of excitement and tension to match the on-screen action. The percussion track is ubiquitous and modern scores contain many electronic elements. As with traditional orchestration, the string section is the most versatile in providing most of the music.

A strong leitmotif might be repeated throughout the film, as in Salt, where it is also used in various arrangements and orchestrations to reflect different moods and intensities in the film.

In many movies, strong melodic lines could be inappropriate and outmoded. The use of themes for heroes and the main villain of the film is almost comic book, fantasy adventure material, and out of place with the gritty realism most modern action thrillers try to evoke.

In addition to action sequences, there will be a variety of other pieces of music used throughout the film to create different emotional states. These include moments of important plot exposition, suspenseful and atmospheric tracks for tense moments, and emotional and contemplative tracks for quieter, more introspective scenes such as romantic or family situations.

Overall, the music should be able to enhance the visual and narrative elements of the film, making the audience feel more immersed in the story and the action.

Harmony in Action Films

In an action film, the harmony should help to enhance the sense of excitement and tension on screen. The minor or Dorian mode is typically the scale of choice in any key. This creates a dark and serious mood for the story. However to create a unique soundscape for the film often requires more advanced harmonic techniques.

One approach is to use dissonant harmonies to create a sense of tension and unease. This can be done by using chords that are not commonly found in traditional harmony, such as clusters or chords that have many dissonant intervals, or the use of polytonality, the simultaneous use of two or more keys.

Another approach is to use a fast harmonic rhythm, where chords change frequently, this can create a sense of urgency and movement.

Another technique is to use a pedal point, which is a sustained note or chord that is repeated in the background while the harmony and melody change above it. This can create a sense of tension and expectation as the audience waits for the pedal point to resolve.

Additionally, to create a sense of climax, some composers use big orchestral chord with a lot of tension and dissonance, like bitonality and polytonality, and they can be used together with the use of dissonant intervals, dissonant chords, and dissonant melody lines, to create a sense of chaos and danger. Don Davis’ use of bitonality in ‘The Matrix’ is a classic example, where trumpets and horns vie with one another with keys sharing no common tones.

Overall, the use of harmony in an action film should be used to enhance the sense of tension, excitement, and danger on screen and to complement the visuals and dialogue.


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