Music in the movies: James Newton Howard

A movie’s music is one of its most important aspects; a characteristic that is often taken for granted.  A film can reveal so much within its music.  Beyond the creepy background music of thrillers that tells you the killer is around the corner, music has the ability to expose characters’ feelings, actions, and a film’s tensions. Thanks to Den of Geek for the article and in their latest music in the movies column, Den of Geek salutes the work of  James Newton Howard, the purveyor of themes for many M.Night Shyamalan films.

An accomplished musician at a young age, James Newton Howard studied at the USC School of music, and after he graduated, began a career as a session musician, working with some of the biggest names in the business before embarking on a career as a composer for film and TV. He composed the iconic score for the TV show ER, as well as scoring a wealth of memorable scores for movies over the years.

With the imminent release of The Last Airbender on Blu-ray and DVD, I thought now would be the ideal time to look at his work with the director M. Night Shyamalan, as well as two of my other favourites in his back catalogue…

Wyatt Earp

If I were to pick a genre where the highest number of my favourite scores came from, it would be the western. It seems that the vast majority have amazing scores, and James Newton Howard’s score for the much-maligned Kevin Costner-starring biopic can certainly be ranked alongside some of the best.

The score is as epic as the film itself, with Newton Howard acknowledging scores that came before, but opting for a more reined in approach for much of his work here, but unleashing grand themes when called upon, particularly in the gunfight during the film’s finale.

The Sixth Sense

The first of many collaborations with director M. Night Shyamalan, The Sixth Sense isarguably their finest work together. I was lucky enough to be in America when this film opened, so managed to go in knowing very little about it, which made what unfolded all the more effective.

Despite the gradual dip in quality of the director’s later work, this remains an excellent film that benefits from an eerie scene-setting score that plays on the audience’s emotions, eliciting high levels of sadness as well as being chilling at the same time. A great score for an excellent film.


For the pair’s second collaboration, Shyamalan sought Newton Howard’s involvement immediately after completing The Sixth Sense. Shyamalan wanted a score that sounded distinct and simple, so Newton Howard limited himself to just strings, trumpets and piano, setting out to record a classic piece of work.

There’s an air of tension and a reoccurring leitmotif that carries much of the piece, and the recording sounds incredible, with large parts of it being recorded in a converted church. Definitely one that comes highly recommended.


Newton Howard pitches this as though he’s scoring a classic thriller, which helps to elevate the material on screen and portray the required levels of suspense effectively. It’s an incredibly bass-heavy score, which makes for quite an unsettling viewing experience.

Sure, there are flaws in the film, and this isn’t the most adventurous of the composer’s work, but it suits the film perfectly, even if it isn’t the greatest standalone listen due to its relentless nature.

The Village

For his fourth collaboration with Shyamalan, Newton Howard enlisted the help of the Hollywood Studio Symphony and violinist Hilary Hahn to bring his compositions to life. The results are quite fantastic, with Hahn’s work being the highlight.

Like Signs, I think there’s a good idea for a film here. I just feel that it failed to deliver on its early promise. It’s by no means a terrible film, just a mildly disappointing one. So, it’s a shame that Newton Howard’s score is often overlooked, as it’s attached to a maligned film.

The score does exactly what it needs to by creating a sense of an insular community with a mix of curiosity, of fear, and wonder of the outside world, resulting in an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score.

Lady In The Water

Grass dogs and evil tree monkeys are but two of the delights that Shyamalan treats audiences to in what, until recently, was regarded as his worst movie. It’s not without reason, as I struggle to think of a more blatant example of a filmmaker slamming film critics and praising his own genius in a film. It’s a masturbatory mess of a movie that has very few redeeming features other than its score.

Newton Howard makes the most of a large scale orchestra to make this a dramatic and stirring score that is much, much, better than the film deserves. Similarities have been drawn to Morricone’s score for Days Of Heaven, and these comparisons aren’t inaccurate.

There are also some awful Bob Dylan covers in the film that go some way to show how easy it is to ruin great songs.

The Happening

The score here bears similarity to his work on Signs and The Village, in that there’s a reliance on recurring themes and an ominous build of tension. Newton Howard’s work here is fine enough, it’s just a shame that the pay-off on screen doesn’t match the quality of his composition.

However, there’s not enough originality or inventiveness here to recommend the score to even fans of the composer’s. It’s very much a by-the-numbers piece of work.

Blood Diamond

Perhaps the score of Newton Howard’s I listen to most in isolation from its film, this is an incredible score that is one of the finest works of his career. Without exception, all of the pieces here are incredibly well thought out and performed to near perfection. And best of all, it shows off an experimental side that seemed to be lacking from some of his other scores leading up to the film’s release.

The Last Airbender

Okay, the film is obviously rubbish, and will, no doubt, be a prominent feature of the worst film of the year list for many people, but the score is probably one of the best efforts of the year.

Newton Howard has composed a score that far exceeds the quality of the film (not hard, I know), and in my opinion has composed his second best score for a Shyamalan film to date.

Whilst it perhaps lacks the inventiveness of much of his earlier work, he more than makes up for it with a sense of drama by using a huge orchestra to its full potential.

There’s a decent mix of moods, from the ominous and slow build in its opening passages, through to its dramatic finale. There’s little hope in the piece, which is generally quite dark. Comparisons could be made to the scores of John Williams, but it’s much more downbeat than much of that master’s work


  1. Yes, James Newton Howard’s work as composer is masterful and hopefully he will create the score for TLA 2.

  2. Agreed. James is a great composter. It’s hard for me to choose which work of his is my favorite. Specially the ones he did for Shyamalan. He also did a great job on “Defiance” “The Dark Knight.”

    If Paramount wants to do TLA 2 with Shyamalan, I am sure JNH will be doing the score.

    • dark knight…..this ones a great pitty, for the only hoard-piece on it is “harvey two faces” wich just contains samples of themes already used in “batman begins”….and the other pieces on the TDK score are just zimmer trash

  3. James Newton Howard is one of my favorite composers, and the day that he dosen’t composed the music for a Shyamalan movie, I’ll know that the end is near.
    My top Shyamalan-Newton Howard is:
    1. The Village
    2. Signs.
    3. The last airbender.
    4. Lady in the water.
    5. Unbreakable.
    6. The sixth sense.
    7. The happening.
    But I have all the soundtracks :))
    I want TLA 2!!! And of course, I want Howard again!

    Please leave your ranking

  4. This is my favorite director/composer collaboration. I’m a big fan of James Newton Howard and I think his best scores are for Shyamalan’ movies. Other great non Shyamalan scores are Snow Falling On Cedars, Defiance, Wyatt Earp, Atlantis the Lost Empire, Dinosaur, King Kong, I Am Legend.

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