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Music in Film...Thomas Newman

Updated on April 6, 2018

Welcome to the fifth installment in a series of hub articles dedicated to music in film. Each article focuses on one director, and the composers and songwriters he or she has collaborated with over the years.

The link to the introduction of this series and first installment (Steven Spielberg) appears below:

Thomas Newman

This installment examines the collaboration from the composer’s perspective, and the directors he has worked with over the years. Thomas Newman is one of the most talented, versatile and sought-after artists and composers in this industry. His father was Alfred Newman, the longtime music director at 20th Century Fox Studios and winner of 9 Academy Awards. Composer Randy Newman is his cousin. Thomas has been nominated for 12 Oscars. Ironically, he has yet to win. You may recognize his music from such films as Little Women, Pay It Forward, Finding Nemo, The Green Mile, American Beauty, The Shawshank Redemption, The Help, and Skyfall. Compositions for television include Six Feet Under, Angels in America and The Newsroom.

The Collaboration Between Composer and Director

The composer usually becomes involved during post-production before the film has been fully edited. During the creative process, music and film marry, becoming inseparable. The film score should never clash with or upstage the action depicted on-screen lest the viewer be subjected to a kind of lovers’ quarrel. The collaboration and communication between composer and director are therefore vital to the film’s success. Creative differences can occasionally lead to an impasse, a.k.a. “my way or the highway.” (Having once worked in the entertainment industry, I can assure you that such conflicts do arise, albeit not often.)

Newman is well-known for having a unique voice and the absence of an ego-centric approach which enables him to collaborate successfully with directors. The clip which follows shows the various stages of scoring the film soundtrack for WALL-E. Thomas and director Andrew Stanton also worked together on the award winning animated film, Finding Nemo:

The Newman Sound

Often referred to as “traditional Hollywood,” the orchestral, melodic film scores have harmonic progressions and repetitive motives or musical phrases. (A motive, or motif, is the sequence of notes we hear that is central to the composition or musical idea.) We listened to several in the Spielberg, Scorsese and Redford installments of this series. Newman also created the melodic score for Redford’s The Horse Whisperer.

More modern scores often include electronic elements. A contrast to the melodic is the technically ingenious action score such as Hans Zimmer’s from The Dark Knight. Zimmer presents us with a distinctly non-melodic feeling. What is predominant instead are striking timbre and rhythm. The strings and brass build on the pervasive tension and movement anchored by two instantly recognizable notes that repeat throughout:

Newman utilizes both schools and elements with compositions for large orchestras; simpler, more subtle content for smaller ensembles of musicians; and percussion-driven scores. He also employs a hybrid approach with distinctive rhythms, repeating phrases, and a duality of emotion that is ingenious. Newman prefers to experiment by using unusual instruments juxtaposed with standard orchestral sounds.

Meet Joe Black

The 1934 film, Death Takes a Holiday, was the inspiration for this romantic fantasy directed by Martin Brest. The Angel of Death (Brad Pitt) pays a call on William Parish (Anthony Hopkins), a wealthy and powerful CEO of a media empire. Death informs Bill that before taking him to “that next place,” he wants to remain in his world for a brief time to experience what life is truly like for mere mortals. In exchange for Bill’s services as a tour guide, he will have more earthly time to take care of his affairs before departing for the Hereafter. Left with little choice in the matter Bill accepts his proposal.

In order to move through the human world incognito, Death (Joe Black) takes the form of a young man who was killed earlier that day after a coincidental meeting with Bill’s daughter, Susan (Claire Forlain), in a coffee shop. Joe’s arrangement with Parish is further challenged when he and Susan, who is unaware of Joe’s true identify, fall in love.

Newman's Score

Newman’s modern classical theme is both rich and romantic. In the following clip, the strings build in harmony to a crescendo (the kiss), and a motive that is repeated. It is Newman’s beautiful score that helps to make this film special. His music begins at the 1:25 mark:

The Road to Perdition

Directed by Sam Mendes, Perdition was adapted from Max Allan Collins’ novel. Mike Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is a hit man for the Irish mob in Depression-era Chicago. His employer, John Rooney (Paul Newman), has strong ties to Al Capone. Sullivan was raised by the generous Rooney who loves Mike as a son. Their relationship is tragically tested when Mike’s own son, Michael, inadvertently witnesses the execution of a man at the hands of Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig), John’s cruel and duplicitous biological son. Despite the boy’s promise to remain silent, Connor, who has been stealing from his father’s operation for years, takes matters into his own hands. During a failed attempt to silence the boy, he murders Sullivan’s wife and younger son, Tommy.

Grief-stricken and enraged, Mike takes his revenge while on a road trip to the town of Perdition where he plans to leave Michael safely with his aunt. Capone’s organization refuses to cooperate with Sullivan because of Rooney’s influence, and hires a hit man to kill him. John Rooney is furious with Connor, but ultimately protects his son and refuses to give him up. “This is the life we chose; the life we lead. None of us will see heaven,” he tells Mike.

Newman's Score

Rooney and Sullivan once played a piano duet at John’s home during a wake. On the final evening of his life, John and his bodyguards walk toward his car during a storm. We hear only Newman’s music. The soft piano notes wander in the quiet night rain. Bright flashes in the distance mark the silent explosion of bullets that tear into the bodyguards through the darkness. Rooney is left standing alone, awaiting his own death. The piano tones fade as Sullivan emerges from the shadows and walks slowly toward his former boss and friend. Rooney’s eyes meet his, and we can see in both men the regret and sorrow over what has been lost and what is now unavoidable:

If the haunting piano tones in the above video sound familiar, you have a very good ear as you’ll hear when playing the following clip from the film, American Beauty:

American Beauty

Similar to the Perdition scene, we are presented with an evocative, beautiful aura that moves the soul. The piano notes drift with the floating movements of the bag…its beauty, unnoticed by society. The simplicity of the castoff dancing in the wind against a hardened and indifferent background is lyrical and almost heartrending in its grace, as if whispering, “This is what you have lost.”

The Oscar-winning American Beauty was directed by Sam Mendes. Alan Ball wrote the original screenplay that centers on the longing for youth, beauty and esteem in a society preoccupied with superficial facades. The story follows the rebellion of Lester Bernham (Kevin Spacey), a cynical, middle-aged family man experiencing a severe midlife crisis. His wife and daughter deal with their own frustrations and resentment as they try to cope with the value changes taking place in this “perfect America family” that has long since stopped communicating.

In creating the film score, Newman used instruments from the percussion family of which the piano is a member. His brilliant compositions capture the rhythmic pulse of humor, beauty and tragedy which interfold throughout the story.

The Shawshank Redemption

Adapted from Stephen King’s novella, Shawshank was written and directed by Frank Darabont. The film tells the story of Andy Defresne (Tim Robbins), a banker who is sentenced to life at Shawshank State Penitentiary following the unjust murder conviction of his wife and her lover. In prison, he befriends fellow inmate, Ellis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman), a seasoned lifer. Andy survives the brutality of prison life for many years by drawing on his intelligence, dignity, and his unshakable belief in hope despite the cynicism of his friend, Red: “Hope is a dangerous thing; hope can drive a man insane. It’s got no use on the inside.”

Many viewers theorize that Shawshank is a metaphor for the prison in which we might find ourselves at some point in our lives. Red personifies the spiritual arc in the story. Andy is the redeemer, and the catalyst of self-realization and triumph of the human spirit through which adversity is overcome.

Newman's Score

The only music we hear with melody and harmony in this magnificent film relates to Andy as the inspiration. For example: During the rooftop scene with the bottles of beer; the Mozart opera Andy plays over the prison loudspeaker; his escape from Shawshank; Red’s discovery of what Andy left for him hidden under the rocks in the field; and his final journey to see his friend and begin his life anew in the video that follows. Red’s closing words as narrator are, “I hope” :


Skyfall once again teams Thomas Newman with director Sam Mendes. In this exciting 23rd installment of the iconic James Bond legacy, Bond (Daniel Craig) investigates an attack on MI6 by a former operative, chillingly portrayed by Javier Bardem. Mendes re-energized the Bond franchise with this exciting action thriller. Scoring the film presented Newman with a new set of challenges in combining the “tuxedo vibe” from the previous installments with elements that were more modern and refreshingly new:

Note: My apologies for omitting such film scores as Finding Nemo and Angels in America. Several hubs would be needed, at minimum, to encompass Newman’s entire body of work.


· Film Music Magazine; Interview with Thomas Newman; Daniel Schweiger; November 5, 2012

Written content has been copyrighted, 2014, by Genna Eastman (Genna East). All rights Reserved. Said copyrights do not extend to the videos that are utilized solely for learning purposes.


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    • Genna East profile imageAUTHOR

      Genna East 

      6 years ago from Massachusetts, USA


      Hello Phyllis. Thank you! I agree that Newman can really set the mood so well…he comes from a very talented family.


      Hi Jan. I think many people are more familiar with Randy. Oddly enough, Thomas sort of invaded Randy’s turf when he scored “Finding Nemo.” Then it became more competitive between the two cousins. Thanks so much for the visit and thoughtful comments. :-)

    • Genna East profile imageAUTHOR

      Genna East 

      6 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      @Nell Rose

      Thank you, Nell. I’m so sorry about Perdition. I keep my fingers crossed in hoping that everyone will be able to play the videos. I will try to find an alternate to this one. Many thanks for the visit and thoughtful comments. I also love Shawshank. :-)

      @Audrey Howitt

      Thank you, Audrey. Newman is one of my favorites…he is very creative, and I like his use of melody and harmony. Good to see you! :-)

    • janshares profile image

      Janis Leslie Evans 

      6 years ago from Washington, DC

      Thanks for the introduction to Thomas Newman, more familiar with cousin Randy. Excellent hub, extremely well-written and informative, Genna East. I must make time to read the other installments. Voted up.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      6 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Another excellent hub on a great composer, Genna. I love the music on these videos, a few of the movies I have seen and Newman can really set the right mood. Thanks for all this information, I enjoyed reading it.

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 

      6 years ago from California

      I was so surprised to see so many of my favorite movies on this list--and yet, I don't know this composer--Thank you!!

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      6 years ago from England

      Hi Genna, we never really think about the film music do we? So this was fascinating, I listened to all the music vids, but couldn't get the road to perdition one, not sure if it was just because its not available over her, my favorite is shawshank, that is lovely, great hub, and really enjoyed listening to the music, thanks, nell

    • Genna East profile imageAUTHOR

      Genna East 

      6 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      @Nadine May

      Thank you, Nadine. I think that Newman’s score really helped to make Joe Black memorable. He does have signatures in his music, which we hear a little in various films, depending on the context. He is a wonderful composer. I appreciate your visit, and hope you are enjoying this special weekend. :-)

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 

      6 years ago from southern USA

      I can certainly understand about running out of steam as all of the hard work you have put into this series is evident! You have done excellent work in compiling the most interesting aspects of each individual's career, from which there is so much to choose.

      Oh, yes, writing one on women composers and directors is a wonderful way to end this excellent series. I know it is challenge, but I know you are always up to a good challenge.

      I can imagine this field being both rewarding and cruel, as well as with the really long days.

      I look forward to reading your next and possibly last installment to this creative series.


    • Genna East profile imageAUTHOR

      Genna East 

      6 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      Happy Mother's Day Everyone! :-)

    • Genna East profile imageAUTHOR

      Genna East 

      6 years ago from Massachusetts, USA


      Hi there. Yes, they are very talented. Randy used to be the go-to composer for animated until Newman created the soundtrack for “Finding Nemo.” It’s a pleasure to see you, and I thank you for that nice comment.


      Hello dear Faith. I appreciate those very thoughtful comments, votes and sharing. Actually, I’m running out of steam on this series. I think I will write one more on women composers and directors…it is challenging since this is a relatively male-dominated industry. I wasn’t sad to leave that business (it was another life.:-) ) It can be as rewarding as it is cruel at times. As long as professionalism trumps ego, it is worthwhile when all of the creative elements come together to enlighten and inspire audiences. Sadly, ego can sometimes run amok and phonies abound. As long as your feet are firmly grounded on terra firma, it is exciting, but the days are loooong. Have a wonderful weekend, dear Faith. Hugs.

    • Genna East profile imageAUTHOR

      Genna East 

      6 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      @Frank Atanacio

      Hi Frank…

      What a nice comment…thank you! It’s always good to see you. Have a great weekend.

    • Genna East profile imageAUTHOR

      Genna East 

      6 years ago from Massachusetts, USA


      Hi Ruby…

      Lol…I know…isn’t he gorgeous? Newman has scored dozens of films in the past 25 years; I have seen only 7-8; including the ones above and “Pay It Forward” and “The Help.” Daniel Craig was the draw in “Skyfall,” as I am not a big fan of the James Bond franchise. Good to see you, and thank you for the comments. :-)


      Hi Dana. Yes, the piano motives are very similar…one of Newman’s signatures. If you listen to the “American Beauty” soundtrack, you will hear the same percussion elements in part of the soundtrack for “Pay it Forward.” You asked, “What gives in that town?” Lol. Good question. I think what happened with Shawshank, for example, is that it didn’t receive a lot of attention when first released. It didn’t become such a popular classic until later. Thus, not enough members of the Academy had viewed the film when it came time to cast their votes. “Finding Nemo” was nominated for best score but lost to “Lord of the Rings; Return of the King.” Thank you for those supportive comments. Hugs to you and Molly.

    • Nadine May profile image

      Nadine May 

      6 years ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

      Oh wow that was such a creative article on the behind scenes of movies. Meet Joe Black was one of my favorite movies, but so was Shawshank Redemption and American Beauty. Your video's were so helpful to realized how important the music is to make a movie successful. Must be a great job to be able to do that well. So rewarding.

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 

      6 years ago from southern USA

      Genna, my goodness, you are writing up a storm on this brilliant series! I love that Newman is non ego-centric in his approach, as that seems rare these days.

      I really love that scene in "Meet Joe Black" and of course the music is perfect to crescendo to that kiss!

      Now, I have a face to put with all of the brilliant music thanks to you. It is wonderful to read this series, especially being you have worked in the industry and have that special insight to share.

      Up and more, tweeting, pinning and sharing

      Have a lovely Mother's Day weekend.

    • breakfastpop profile image


      6 years ago

      Now thats what I call a talented family! I enjoyed reading this and I am voting up, interesting and awesome!

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 

      6 years ago from Shelton

      Genna I always enjoy your hubs they entertain bless you for that..:)

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Wow. I gotta go with Mcbrdbks. Where do I begin? This is a terrific series, Genna. I like the way this installment examines music in film from the composer’s baton and not the director’s chair. Your description of the piano scoring with the plastic bag in American Beauty is superb. It IS very similar to Perdition. I’m flabbergasted Newman has not won the Oscar for best original score. What gives in that town? Excellent work. Keep ‘em coming.


    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      6 years ago from Southern Illinois

      Genna. I was unfamiliar with Thomas Newman but not the movies he was connected with. I know i've watched The Shawshank Redemption at least five times, if not more. I might add that Thomas is a good looking dude. lol..I will say that after reading your music series, i've noticed the music much more than ever before. Great presentation including videos. Voted up and tweeted..

    • Genna East profile imageAUTHOR

      Genna East 

      6 years ago from Massachusetts, USA


      Hello Mike. In another life, I worked for an executive producer in Bev. Hills – LA. It’s a tough business, and LA is a tough town. (It’s why I wrote “The Red Mile.”) I was happy to leave. :-) But artists and composers like Newman make it worthwhile. Thank you for your visit and your supportive comments. I appreciate your continued encouragement…it makes my day! :-)

    • Genna East profile imageAUTHOR

      Genna East 

      6 years ago from Massachusetts, USA


      Jo, you bring up an excellent point: We are conscious of music in the film, but at the same, we aren’t aware of it. Thanks so much for those thoughtful words. I am happy you find this series interesting. :-)

    • Genna East profile imageAUTHOR

      Genna East 

      6 years ago from Massachusetts, USA


      Hi Bill. It must be hardwired in their DNA…what a talented family. I understand that Thomas got into composing by accident, although I don’t know how true that rumor is. He used to score music in his father’s old studio but I’m not sure if this is still the case. Good to see you, and thanks for the comment, my friend.

    • Genna East profile imageAUTHOR

      Genna East 

      6 years ago from Massachusetts, USA


      Hi John. I know what you mean. Newman is one of the most nominated composers in the business. (John Williams has been nominated over 40 times.) The popular Shawshank theme was not only nominated, it has been used in other soundtracks…for example, in the 2005 trailer for “Brokeback Mountain.” I guess it’s all about the competition. Nevertheless, if this continues they will probably give him an honorary Academy Award for his contributions to music in film. Thank you for the comments and vote. :-)

    • mckbirdbks profile image


      6 years ago from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas

      Hello Genna, Thomas Newman is a name I am not familiar with. Yet the list of flims is so impressive to be hard to believe they came from one director. You have covered so much in this article that I hardily know where to begin. A bit more about your career in the entertainment industry would be nice. But back to Newman - it is incomprehensible that he has not won Oscar awards for this work. He must feel like Job. Genna this series is a real winner. Heck - your descriptions in 'The Road to Perdition' are award winning.

    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 

      6 years ago from Lincolnshire, U.K

      A very educational series! Film music is one of those strange and wonderful things, the best ones work so seamlessly with the action, we feel it, but we don't really appreciate it in its own right, we simply enjoy the film.

      Excellent work, very interesting and informative.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      6 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I didn't know Randy Newman was his cousin. What a talented family! Love this series, and Newman is definitely a quality director.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      6 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Wow Genna, Thomas Newman has written the music score on some wonderful movies (some of my favourites). It must be only a matter of time before he wins an oscar, and is strange he hasn't won one before now. Voted up.


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