Hans Zimmer is one of the most well-known film composers of our time. The Lion King, Gladiator and Pirates of the Caribbean are just three films that thank their extremely recognisable soundtracks to Zimmer who, believe it or not, actually tends to keep the core of his compositions very basic. In this article, I’ll show you how you can easily recognise Hans Zimmer’s style and apply it to your own productions or film score.
About Hans Zimmer
Hans Zimmer is essentially the biggest music technologist in the film score industry. He was one of the first composers to use DAW software and studio technology within the context of orchestral soundtracks, while his colleagues held on to more traditional methods like working with the London Symphony Orchestra. Zimmer’s body of work can be roughly divided into two stylistically different periods: his early style which covers the nineties and a few years into the turn of the century (think The Lion King, Crimson Tide and The Prince of Egypt), and his current style which is much more minimalist. The only constant between both periods is that Zimmer always opts for more extravagant productions.
Less is More
There was a time when different tracks basically represented a different character or topic, but these days, film score is only getting more minimalist and less thematic/melodic.The Star Wars soundtrack by John Williams is a good example of more thematic work, or even Wagner’s compositions. Nowadays, film music is more about ambiance than thematic substance. Just compare John Williams’ ‘Superman’ to Hand Zimmer’s ‘Man of Steel’. The musical differences are like night and day, so anyone who wants to copy Zimmer’s style shouldn’t be taking cues from Williams. The expression in Zimmer’s work is closer to that of pop and ambient music – which by the way perfectly lends itself to experimenting with virtual effects – than traditional symphonic music.
Tip 1 for Hans Zimmer-style film score: Keep the note composition minimal and don’t overdo it on the harmonies. Approach it like it’s pop music.
Zimmer is often associated with action and superhero movies where he likes to match the loudness of virtual and real instruments with the action. In other words, if you’re trying to copy his style, you shouldn’t be afraid to use enormous ensembles. While the average orchestra includes four horns, Zimmer will unapologetically use as many as sixteen horns if he believes the film needs it. The same goes for percussion. Instead of the usual two to five, Zimmer will happily assign ten percussionists to toms, and when it comes to cellos, he’ll go from the conventional eight to hiring as many as twenty cellists when he’s in need of a deep, dark timbre.
Tip 2 for Hans Zimmer-style film score: Go for big arrangements!
Then Go Quiet
Zimmer likes to have certain instruments played quietly so he can turn their volume up in the mix. This way, they’ll sound much warmer compared to fortissimo dynamics.
Tip 3 for Hans Zimmer-style film score: Turn the loudness of quiet instruments up in the mix.
I hate to break it to woodwind musicians, but they basically lack the muscle for Zimmer’s signature action movie-style sound. It’s the reason why he mainly opts for strings, brass, percussion, choirs and synths, where the latter are part of the many soundscapes that Zimmer creates for both big tonal, atonal and rhythmic clusters. Depending on the film, such soundscapes may also include guitars or more exotic instruments. Horns are primarily used for melodies or counter-melodies, while trombones often serve to add larger-than-life accents to Zimmer’s compositions, usually in the form of staccatos and often combined with percussion and low staccato strings.
Tip 4 for Hans Zimmer-style film score: Add high-volume orchestral sounds but skip woodwind instruments.
An ostinato is a repeating pattern which Zimmer likes to integrate into his compositions using strings to create tension or a heartbeat-like pulse. Ostinatos are perfect for adding substance while sticking to a minimalist approach, and have become a core element in Zimmer’s arrangements. Work in an ostinato and you’re well on your way to sounding like Zimmer.
Tip 5 for Hans Zimmer-style film score: Inject rhythm through both ostinatos and percussion grooves.
What’s your favourite film music? Drop a comment below and let us know which soundtrack you’d recognise after hearing the first note.