Film & TV Music

Scoring & film music in the local scene: What we can learn from orchestras

THE DOWNFALL of people’s appreciation for classical music is a complicated topic to discuss. However, I like to theorize that it’s when people would listen to a classical composition and assumed that it was from a film. There were occasions when I would play Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and immediately my friends in the vicinity would say “Oh, this is from V for Vendetta right?”, but then I would play something from Tchaikovsky’s Overture from Romeo and Juliet and they’d struggle trying to figure out which film it originates from. (“Lah ni movie mana pulak?“). Is this a bad thing? Does classical music lose its stature when orchestral music only finds familiarity in films? Or even film scores do not get enough appreciation in our country?

These are the two topics for discussion: why did classical music lose its relevance, and why film scores play such a huge role in storytelling.


In recent history, classical music has always carried an aura of elitism with it. This has probably got to do with the fact that the many people that can spend their evenings watching a symphony at Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra are upper-class people who can afford it.

There’s also the notion that the type of music that becomes popular are the ones that are reproducible, hence why punk rock became famous, because if you wanted to play like the Ramones, you could get a guitar and learn a few chords or so. Classical music seems to wear complexity on its sleeve. People who brag about their ability to play Bach occasionally look down upon people who know a good Eric Clapton guitar solo, which leads to the presumption that classical music is inaccessible.

Or maybe the answer to this is simple: exposure. Every day we are bombarded with music channels and radio stations that give us rap, R&B, rock, EDM, and many other contemporary genres. Even music documentaries about important milestones in music history sometimes circumvent classical music altogether, in favour of a more recent timeline where it all started with The Beatles or the blues. Even promoting our local traditional music faces many obstacles, let alone exposing a person to the ‘Western sounds’ of Mozart and Beethoven.

This is an incredibly sad state of affairs. Popular music has many similarities with classical music (beyond the obvious ones like how they’re both “music”). As much as people like Jay-Z sample other songs for his beats, composers like Dvorak have also borrowed elements from other people’s music and revamp it to make it his own. We like to talk about how pandering and populist music nowadays can be, with simple, catchy and danceable tunes so that the ‘masses’ can listen to it, but even Mozart-fine tuned his music to the taste of his audience.

In a world where feelings are often spelled out to us through lyrics, some people find it hard to relate to instrumentals. As a kid, I would get frustrated when something is just ‘music’ for a long time and I would say to the people around me “Takde orang nyanyi ke dalam lagu ni? Tak best lah”. 

When you get older you realize that sometimes words aren’t enough. And the beautiful symphony of instruments bring me into a different world much easier than lyrical songs can. Free from the confinement of words, the ambience of orchestras and other instrumental pieces leave a much room for interpretation. I can listen to a Linkin Park song and reconnect with my angst, but a good film score from Lord of the Rings might bring me to a whole other universe (of sadness or otherwise).

Speaking of which, films have been an amazing vehicle at bringing instrumental works to life, especially the orchestra. From the grand epic by John Williams in Star Wars to Hans Zimmer’s entire repertoire, we relate a lot to the ambience of instrumentals from the movies we watch. But what about film scoring in Malaysia? Who are our great composers?


Where are our great Star Wars-like theme song in local films?


If you watch our teledramas or even our bigger local blockblusters, film scores are either forgettable or non-existent. Some of our TV programs even shamelessly take songs from games or Hollywood films (there was a teledrama I’ve watched once that used a song from MONSTERS INC. (an animation film about monsters) in a Malay drama (which has different kinds of monsters entirely).

We have a strong heritage for film scoring.  Allahyarham Tan Sri P. Ramlee has received many international accolades as an actor and director, such as the Best Music Award at the 3rd Asian Filem Festival in Hong Kong (1956). Our Seniman Agung have always possessed a flair in film scoring, beyond just the iconic songs he makes for his films (e.g. Bujang Lapok). He creates a mood via ambience, so that when you watch Ahmad Albab, you are immediately brought into the Middle Eastern skit. Or even in the softest things, such as the music that plays in the background when P. Ramlee woos his female counterpart in a film. He rightfully states, “Filem tanpa muzik tidak mempunyai makna. Bukan sahaja lagu adalah penting, tetapi muzik latar belakang juga”.

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All of P. Ramlee’s films have some form of beautiful score, if not song

The latter part is what is missing in most local films. Plenty of big blockbusters go for the easier route – they hire a couple of artists to make a hit song that could climb the charts – Remuh by Black Tomok for J Revolusi is a case in point. Whatever you think about it, the unfortunate fact is that every other composition during the film’s scenes are forgettable.

Why is that?

An argument can be made that cost-efficiency leads to the neglecting of quality. It’s much cheaper to hire a few popular singers to come up with a hit, than to hire orchestras to compose a theme. But civilization is surfeit with technological advancements that can make this process easier. Famous Hollywood composer, Hans Zimmer has been using electronic & digital softwares to compose sounds, even without the aid of a huge ensemble of talented people.

All is not bleak though. We do have amazing composers and music directors for films such as Monoloque in the scoring of the film Songlap or Redha with his song Abah. I’m pretty sure the list goes on and on with other wonderful film compositions in films by Afdlin Shauki (re: Papadom) or Yasmin Ahmad (re: Talentime) But why don’t their scores stick into our brains even if we are avid fans of these films, the same way the theme song for Harry Potter or Jurassic Park might stand out to us?

Most importantly, why does all of this matter?

A good video about why some film scores are more forgettable than others

In Kongres Kebudayaan, 1971, Tan Sri P. Ramlee touched on the quote aforementioned, that a film means nothing without its scoring – the scenes and plot cease to live without music. In a world where most Malay movies and local films get a lot of flak for being unmemorable, fleeting and cheap, it bears weight to be mindful that music transcends language. You can watch a film where the dialogue is not your native language, because the cinematography is beautiful or the story engaging. And certainly if the score was also elevating, complementing the film.

The critically acclaimed and controversial Jagat was a recent lone example that bucked the trend – it featured a film score devoid of singles and full of ambiance and instrumentals composed by the celebrated and respected Kamal Sabran of Space Gambus Experiment. Prior to that was Pitahati’s popular effort of scoring Terbaik Dari Langit with experimental psychedelic music that eventually filled their conceptual album Selamat Datang Ke Panggung Suara.

These are some of the very few examples where local productions took a more artistic turn (and a riskier financial compromise) to score films leveraging on current avant-garde or indie musical genres. None of these scores were composed on a larger-scaled orchestral settings.

Maybe a rekindling of the appreciation for the orchestral will improve that, because music does all of that more. When we appreciate the ambiance and the mood that an assembly of instrumentals bring, we wouldn’t need to have our feelings spelled out to us – the composers draws it out of us naturally.

That’s why music & scoring matters – not just because it crosses the boundaries of language, but also genres and cultures.


This article is written conjunction with the upcoming 2017 Johor Bahru Classical Music Festival. Presented by Johor Bahru: International Festival City (JB: IFC) with the theme “In Sync”, the festival aims to explore classical music’s universality and emphasize its relevance as an avenue for storytelling. Enjoy a fine selection of inspiring local and international performances and classes from 27th – 29th July. Find out more from JBIFC.

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