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This Fall marks 3 years since Frozen became the new favorite everything of America's youth, and more specifically since "Let It Go" became the new bane of all their parents' existence. The infinitely lip-dubbed song is a film composer's holy grail — a stars-magically-aligning combination of lovable characters, timeless story, uplifting lyrics, and infectious melody — and proof of the impact music can have on kids' minds and tastes.
Matthew Margeson is a veteran film composer who has worked with everyone from Lily Allen to Hans Zimmer on movies your kid liked before they refused to watch anything but Frozen — like Wreck-It Ralph and Puss In Boots. He also has a 2-year-old son who, like any discerning toddler, prefers repeatedly viewing the same 4 things over and over, so he knows a few secrets to creating the perfect, kid-friendly score. He offered some thoughts about the process, how it's different as a dad, and his all-time movie score. And lest you believe the repeat viewing earworm phenomenon is limited to your kid's tiny, still developing brain, remember: you were more excited than them for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and you sang that old familiar theme song all the way to and from the theater. Now, cue the music . . .
At the Core of the Score
Put simply, says Margeson, the goal of any film's score is "to help tell the story through music." On a scene-by-scene basis, things get more nuanced — you're not just moving the narrative but trying to help the audience feel something specific for a particular character or situation. Or know when the giant shark is about to attack.
"That 2-note theme from Jaws, it's so simple; you can play it any time on any instrument and you know exactly what it's supposed to be doing because the beat is so magnificently strong," Margeson says. "Most of the time, people's favorite movie theme is one they can leave the theater singing because the notes are so strong and so memorable."
Consider the Audience
All of the above must take the viewer into account, particularly if said viewer is under 12 years old and the movie's success depends on getting them to demand repeat viewings from their bankrolling parents. "Music can evoke pretty dark and intense emotion, which you might not particularly want for a kids film," Margeson says. "You might not want to scare the young ones too much." Of course, even kids' movies have good guys and bad guys — just ask any '90s kid who was scarred by the death of Mufasa . . . and pretty much every Disney parent — and the music must convey them as such. There are workarounds in these cases, like using "lighter instruments — more woodwinds instead of lower, more ominous instruments — to portray the baddies musically without making them terribly scary." There would normally be a joke here, but instead, everyone please observe a moment of silence for Mufasa.
. . .
Damn you, wildebeests.
The Ultimate Score
Margeson puts John Williams classics like the themes from Indiana Jones, Star Wars, and E.T. first on the list of all-time greats because he's an '80s kid and those songs are objectively the greatest. Other scores he loves include Jurassic Park, Edward Scissorhands, The Godfather, and Back to the Future. His favorite, though, might be lesser known to you and your kids: Ennio Morricone's score to Cinema Paradiso.
As for Margeson's son, Owen just wants to dance, thanks to his frequent attendance of church band rehearsals, where Margeson is the musical director. "Not only does he get what music is but he sees how it functions; me counting off, the different players, the band interaction. He loves percussion," Margeson says.
Owen has also taken a liking to a recent version of The Little Engine That Could that his dad worked on as an arranger. "That's special for me even though he can't really comprehend that right now. He will someday," Margeson says. Meanwhile, he can appreciate having an in-house focus group of one pointing him toward inspiration for whatever he's working on. "My son watches Finding Nemo about 6 times per week, and I discover more gems within Thomas Newman's score each time. It's truly great," he says — without a trace of smoke coming out of his ears. He totally means it! Silly first-time dads . . .
Here's Matthew Margeson's quintessential composer's score, featuring a blend of iconic classics, scores he's worked on, and a few for the kids.