From the title theme in The Mandalorian (2019) to his Oscar and Grammy-award winning score to Black Panther (2018), Ludwig Göransson’s TV and movie scores are instant classics. His latest soundtrack for Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer (2023), is equally affecting.
In this blog post, we break down the key elements of Göransson’s film score to explore why it is so effective.
Göransson’s biggest film and TV scores from the last five years have required him to get into the mindset of the protagonist. For projects like Black Panther, he created mysterious (24%) and dark (13%) moods that would add a layer of intrigue to this character’s portrayal.
In Oppenheimer, he takes this a step further. The historical biopic is driven by J. Robert Oppenheimer’s complex emotions over the course of his life. Interestingly, this score diverges from the rest of the composer’s work by avoiding the dark moods prominent among his action films (Tenet - 17%, Venom - 34%). As a result, the Oppenheimer mood has more in common with Turning Red, an emotional coming-of-age story which is only 6% dark.
This is because Göransson wanted to put the audience in the protagonist’s shoes, with the music reflecting Oppenheimer’s emotional state – a process the composer describes as “first-person” scoring. As a result, the music in Oppenheimer is more sentimental (10%) than dark (6%), which makes the audience feel more sympathetic towards the character, helping us feel his inner turmoil.
Time is a central theme in Christopher Nolan’s films. A great example of this is the iconic ticking at the beginning of Dunkirk (2017), which is used to symbolise three different countdowns (one week, one day, one hour) running in parallel.
Göransson rises to the precedent set by Nolan’s previous time-turning work with the Oppenheimer track ‘Can You Hear the Music’ that constantly shifts its BPM. This happens during a montage sequence at the start of the film where the tempo of Göransson’s music changes every four bars, starting slow and ending up three times faster than when it started.
Clearly Göransson was able to tap into Nolan’s passion for playing with time.
Although Göransson’s sound tends to be predominantly electronic and ambient, he creates uniqueness by associating specific (sometimes unorthodox) instruments to specific characters in his film scores. Examples include the talking drum in Black Panther and a bass recorder in The Mandalorian.
In Oppenheimer, Nolan wanted violins as the central instrument, prompting Göransson to begin with classical influences. He told Curzon: “I knew that incorporating synths and other modern production would be easy as long as you have this emotional core first, before infusing it with the sound that makes it more unique.”
This is particularly effective in the film at the pivotal moment that the first bomb is about to be detonated. Göransson told the New Yorker Radio Hour: “The whole score changes from this beautiful, lush orchestra to this intimate and horrific sound design with radioactive particles and this little metallic ticking and throbbing bass.”
Ludwig Göransson’s score for Oppenheimer is a testament to his musical ingenuity and emotional intelligence. His music is a vital component in conveying the protagonist’s story and connecting with the audience.
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