The Quiet Music of Hans Zimmer

Steve Buckwalter

May 30, 2018


Hans Zimmer has made a long career as a composer for Hollywood blockbusters that is almost second to none. He has 149 credits as a composer, and he’s mentored a whole school of composers who are following in his footsteps. The only other composer who has made more of a cultural impact would probably be John Williams; however, Hans Zimmer has done more than most to shape the future of film scoring in Hollywood. That said, it’s hard to find people speaking negatively of John Williams, but the same doesn’t hold true for Hans Zimmer. There are articles like this one about how the world just has too much Hans Zimmer, or this one about how it’s hard to get out of the shadow of Hans Zimmer, or even this colorful one about why Hans Zimmer can, well… You get the idea.


Zimmer is credited or blamed for moving the music of movies away from a score that matches up with the rhythms and plot points of the film, and towards a soundtrack. A soundtrack that is just long stretches of music that goes in various tempos, which the editor can cut apart and move around to fit different parts of the film. His influence in the world of movie music is such that most blockbusters these days don’t have recognizable themes or music that stirs the audience in the way that older blockbusters would. Nevertheless, despite the complaints about Hans Zimmer and his loud bombastic style, and unlike a lot of his imitators, he is actually quite good at writing quiet, simple, musical themes.


A powerful example of Zimmer’s modern take on a cinematic score is his work for Man of Steel (2013). The story of Superman has always been one of duality; of one person who has two personas, that of Clark Kent and of Superman. Zimmer works with this idea by crafting a simple, quiet Superman theme that rises out of a discordant ambient tone, with two notes played with low brass and timpani. The intervals keep growing between these two notes, and more instruments are added until it becomes more of a triumphant chord. The movie opens with the birth of Superman, and this theme is there to introduce and, ultimately, to define him.

After the introduction of the Superman theme, there is the usual bombast and cacophony of the modern blockbuster, but twenty minutes into the film we start getting flashbacks to Clark Kent as a kid growing up in Kansas and trying to figure out who he is and why he has the abilities he does. Clark ends up locking himself in a closet until his mother comes to talk him out, and that’s when we first hear my favorite of the themes that Zimmer wrote for the film. Once again, it’s two simple notes that follow the same two note pattern as the Superman theme, although in a different key, and this time they’re played on a lone piano. It’s probably no accident that I think these flashbacks are the most interesting parts of the movie.

The thing that I love and find interesting is that Zimmer never allows the music in the Kent theme to really resolve. The first time you hear it, instead of resolving it with the last note or chord, the music shifts and moves into something else entirely. Throughout the movie, the Kent theme keeps coming back in fragments that are stretched out and blended and remixed (a hallmark of Hans Zimmer). And during the movie, the Superman/Krypton theme is always adjacent to the Kent theme, never directly connecting or transitioning from one to the other but always informing each other because of their similarities.

That changes at the end, after the climax of the film, when Clark is visiting his Dad’s grave with his mom. We get one more flashback to Clark as a child, and his father working on the farm, with some of the best shots in the movie, and the Kent theme plays it’s last unresolved note and holds until the Superman theme comes in, this time in the same key as the Kent theme. The instruments are now lighter and closer to the same register as the Kent theme. The Superman theme becomes the resolution of the Kent theme that we’ve been denied the whole movie. And if you let it play through the credits, it’s a musical ending that ties together all of the various threads that have been building throughout the whole movie.

Zimmer’s music for Man of Steel is some of his best work, but beyond that, it elevates a rather pedestrian film, rather than dragging it down, as some modern film scores do. The quiet piano music is a stark contrast to the bombastic action scenes, and provide a beautiful breathing space for the acting and emotions to resonate. The subtle themes, rather than overwhelming the viewer from the very beginning, provide a platform for the story and the acting to build on, and the withholding of resolution is a perfect technique to build tension and mystery. His reputation may be built on overwhelming the audience, but it’s in the quiet music that he wrote for Man of Steel that his true genius comes through.  


The soundtrack for Man of Steel is well worth checking out. It has great moments of genuine emotion and some of the bombast is entertaining as well. The track, “Terraforming” inverts the rhythmic cadence of Inception’s “Mombassa” to deliver a pulsating, crackling ride through the action, with the familiar notes of the Superman theme only dying when confronted with the pulsing bass whomps of the alien terraforming device. The Deluxe Edition of the the soundtrack includes several bonus tracks of material that he created yet never appeared in the movie. Perhaps best of which is “Earth,” a mesmerizing and haunting rendition of the Kent and Superman themes that calls back to Vangelis and the music from Blade Runner.


Although he stands out for his loudest music, Hans Zimmer actually uses quiet, subtle music more than he gets credit for. For some additional outstanding examples of Zimmer’s quieter music, check out “Day One” from Interstellar (his best soundtrack in my opinion), and “Rain” from Blade Runner 2049.