The Difference Between a Score and a Soundtrack (Yes, There Is One)

While it is tempting to refer to “score” and “soundtrack” interchangeably, they are technically quite different. Scoring — an art form that some of us first learned in 2020 also applies to sourdough — refers to the original music that accompanies a film, whereas a soundtrack is generally used to refer to the selection of recorded songs that accompanies a film. However, its technical definition spans more broadly than that, as well as more broadly than the score. Let’s dig deeper for a better understanding of both, as well as some things you might not have known about either.

What Is a Film Score?

The score is music that is tailor made for a film, and is usually written by a composer who is specifically contracted for the production. The purpose of this original composition is to underscore and accentuate the delivery of a scene’s mood and the film’s emotion. Therefore, the creators of the score traditionally get all their cues from the film: plot; characters; spoken dialogue, as well as that which is left unsaid; scenery and set decor; costumes; and, of course, the director’s vision. An integral part of a film’s soundtrack, the score encompasses all the musical elements of a film’s sound, from background music in a scene to musical composition that accompanies climactic moments. 

It is also incorrect to think of a score as just a linear progression of more or less memorable orchestral tracks. In fact, scores have a multi-dimensional structure that spans both sides of the fourth wall. A score includes both the music that exists within the story (a.k.a. “diegetic”), which characters can also hear, and the soundscape that exists outside the story, which exists in the film only for us to hear (a.k.a. non-diegetic). 

When thinking of iconic scores, most of us instantly remember some of the  instrumental/orchestral theme songs that may or may not have also been our phone ringtone at one time or another. Those are more often than not an original composition non-diegetic score that ends up defining a character, a place, or a whole mood. Diegetic scores are where the bespoke composition sometimes meets existing songs that are licensed for use in the film’s soundtrack. A good example is when Buffalo Bill (as portrayed by Ted Levine in Silence of the Lambs) dances to “Goodbye Horses,” a real song from our real world by Q Lazzarus. Similarly, Guardians of the Galaxy features an extensive diegetic score, made up of all the real-world hit songs on Peter Quill’s mixtape. 

What Is a Soundtrack?

We generally associate the term “soundtrack” with the collection of music that is released along with a feature film. The thing is, a commercially released soundtrack album can be anything the studio wants it to be: it could be only the original score, only the licensed songs, or a combination of score and excerpts of dialogue or remixes and tribute versions of the music in the film. With A Man for All Seasons, RCA Victor released a double-album set that was a recording of almost all audio soundtrack of the film, including dialogue. 

While the soundtrack of a film does include the music, it is not limited to that. In fact, technically, the soundtrack encompasses all dialogue (both recorded on set and overdubbed), as well as ambient sound and sound effects – basically all of the sound in a movie. The soundtrack that reaches the general public is in fact a composite track of several other tracks that were recorded independently, such as the dialogue track, sound effects track, and music track. The making of a soundtrack brings together music composers, sound designers, editors, supervisors, and many more audio-visual professionals. 

Of course, neither scores nor soundtracks apply to just radio drama and movies anymore. Video games, theme parks, events, audiobook productions, and even book launches have enriched the audio entertainmentverse by including original scores, as well as dedicated soundtracks to complement the narratives and experiences they provide. 

If you’re looking to create music to go with your project, or want to know more about the differences between score and soundtrack, reach out to Cutting Room Music and let’s figure it out together. Our talented trio of composers is ready to help you with any musical project you might need, and we love a challenge!

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