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When it comes to a film score vs soundtrack the definitions can make things a little confusing. Read on to find out what the real differences are, and why everyone’s so confused!

Film Score Definition

According to Wikipedia, a film score is:

…original music written specifically to accompany a film.

Wikipedia

This usually refers to the instrumental music track – whether that’s orchestral or electronic. That means that songs are generally not included in this film score definition.

Other names for “score” include: underscore, incidental music, background music.

The film score is also usually non-diegetic (more on that below).

Soundtrack Definition

Wikipedia’s definition of “soundtrack” is a little more…involved:

…recorded music accompanying and synchronized to the images of a motion picture, book, television program, or video game; a commercially released soundtrack album of music as featured in the soundtrack of a film, video, or television presentation; or the physical area of a film that contains the synchronized recorded sound.

Wikipedia

So…basically…sound?

And yes. In the professional media world that’s exactly what a “soundtrack” is: sound. All sound. Including:

  • Dialogue (recorded on set + overdubs/ADR)
  • Score and songs (instrumental and with lyrics)
  • Sound, sound effects, and foley (natural and artificial)

And in case you’re wondering, this article covers the difference between composition and sound design!

The confusion really comes from that second definition: “a commercially released soundtrack album”.

When a studio releases a “soundtrack album” it’s entirely their decision what they put on it. And the range of examples is massively varied:

  • Just the commercial songs
  • Just the original score
  • A combination of score and songs
  • Songs that “inspired” the film, or that were inspired by the film
  • Scores or songs that were considered for the film
  • Snippets of dialogue from the film
  • Pretty much anything else you can think of!

The decision of what to include on a soundtrack album (sometimes called an “OST” for “Original SoundTrack”) is mostly commercial.

For example, some film scores are hugely appealing commercially (like most stuff by John Williams).

On the other hand, some films may have a more iconic collection of songs (Guardians of the Galaxy, for instance).

Diegetic and Non-diegetic Music

I mentioned that film scores are usually “non-diegetic” before. What the heck is “diegetic”, you might be asking?

Well, in the film/game world sometimes sound can be heard by the characters, other times not. If it can be heard, then it’s “diegetic” – and if not, it’s “non-diegetic”.

To clarify, if something is “diegetic” then it belongs in the character’s world. Therefore, it also exists for the character (as in, they can hear it too).

The score is usually non-diegetic, because it only exists to heighten the audience’s connection to the scene. It has no affect on the actual characters.

Score vs Soundtrack – Final Thoughts

In general, when someone refers to a “film score” they almost always mean the actual music composed for the film by a composer.

However, when referring to a “soundtrack” they could mean the score and/or the songs from a film.

For most of the general population, it’s the songs that stand out to them. Unless they’re watching Star Wars! And that’s why when you search Google for the “best soundtracks” you’ll mostly find compilations of songs.

Most people just don’t tune in to scores like we do ?

So, what’s your favourite “soundtrack”? And is it score, songs, or both? Tell me in the comments!

    • Great question (and great film!), and Amadeus is one of those interesting ones as is uses existing pieces (Mozart’s compositions), but because they’re orchestral they sound more like a custom composed score. So technically it’s “soundtrack” rather than “score” 🙂

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