Music has a profound impact on the tone of a film and it can come in one of two forms: a score and a soundtrack. Which is which? How can you tell the difference?
Film scores differ from soundtracks in that the score is almost always an orchestral composition, instrumental or with a chorus. Every score is unique to the film on which it appears. (How strange would it be to hear the Jaws soundtrack on another movie?)
The term soundtrack can refer to two things: the audio soundtrack, i.e., the recorded sound of the actors and stage-action noise or the musical soundtrack, i.e., the songs laced throughout a film (as background or foreground).
Musical soundtracks are often comprised of popular songs. However, they can also be made up of songs written for the film, like much of the soundtrack for Crazy Heart.
All theatrical films – after the silent era – have a soundtrack in the sense that all movies have audio accompanying the video.
Not all films use a score and not all films use a musical soundtrack. Some use both. Directors have been known to develop practical film theories around the decision of how to use music in their movies.
John Cassavettes was famous for refusing to use any music in his films that was not a natural part of the scene. The songs that would appear in his soundtracks would play from car radios while characters were driving or portable radios or record players when the characters were at home. This kind of naturalism affects the tone of the film in subtle ways.
Many directors do not attend to this constraint in their films and will often begin a movie with a song from the musical soundtrack.
Alternatively, if a director has commissioned a score for his or her film, the score will be used at the opening of the movie as well as placed throughout the rest of the film.
A great number of films have opted to use a score instead of a soundtrack, using no musical soundtrack or songs whatsoever. Star Wars is one of these films.
And still other films have no musical soundtrack or score and simply use an audio soundtrack without music. This is as bold as it is uncommon. The independent film Ballast is a good example of this decision. The subject of the film becomes related to the quietude of the film and the “music” of the drama and the lives of the characters. But instead of being transported to a place of fantasy where anything can happen, the film without music sets you down in a very real world where things seem to actually be happening. It is no longer conjecture or fantasy. It is gritty reality.