The Role of Traditional Instruments in Film Music

Posted on: May 16, 2024

The Role of Traditional Instruments in Film Music

A film score can make or break a movie!!

Sometimes, we can’t remember the name of something we watched, maybe not even the names of the actors in it, but we always remember how a movie made us feel, and its music plays a huge part in that.

Some of the most beautiful music created in the modern age comes from movies, and through those scores, we can feel how protagonists feel; we can experience their adventures as our own and leave the theatre deeply touched. Film music can inspire us to visit new countries and get immersed in new cultures; it can move us to explore this strangely beautiful planet, and it all starts with a creative and bold use of traditional instruments in movie scores.

Culture Weaved into Music

The use of traditional instruments opened a whole new world of possibilities for film composers. They figured out how much of a difference it makes to use instruments of a certain country to bring the essence of its culture into the movies and theaters worldwide. The rich textures and flows, the complex flavors and sensations that traditional instruments bring are unique, and they’ve given us some of the most memorable scores in existence.

All the famous and beloved movies in history are inseparable from their music, and there’s a lot to be learned from them, especially if you’re an aspiring music producer. Whether you’re just started to work with someone who is taking NYC voice lessons for beginners or someone preparing for Julliard, these scores’ magnificence will inspire you. So, let’s take a look at what makes these music tapestries unforgettable.

Acclaimed Movies and Their Legendary Scores

Some of the greatest movies of all time are called that partly because of their music. Here are some of the famous movies that made the most of traditional instruments in their scores that earned them the renown they enjoy today.

Lord of the Rings: The Resurgence of Monochord

The “Lord of the Rings” trilogy needs no introduction – the masterpiece is firmly set as one of the greatest cinematic achievements ever created. There are many reasons for this, including Jackson’s undying loyalty to Tolkien’s books and an incredible cast. Then there’s Howard Shore, the main composer, who won three Acadamy Rewards for the best original score and best original song in the movies.

His mastery and creativity are unmatched, and you can see that in the way he uses a nearly-forgotten instrument like monochord to bring forth the ancient feel around the One Ring and the doom it brings. This simple instrument is the foundation of the scores throughout all three movies, bringing forth a unique quality to the soundtracks that you’ll always remember once you hear it.

Traditional instruments like hurdy-gurdy, Indian tanpura, sarangi, and Iranian ney were used to accentuate the world of mysterious and ethereal Lothlorien Elves. The unique combination of instruments and the way they were used marks the Lord of the Rings scores as one of the finest that were ever made.

Lion King: The Enchanting Spirit of Africa

“Lion King” took the world by storm when it first came out, and it still has a big place in our hearts. The story is set in the African savannah, and music producers went out of their way to ensure that the music reflects that.

After a lot of research, different types of traditional African drums and percussion took center stage to bring the untamed beauty of Africa to the audiences. Dundun, djembes, ashiko, and bongos were some of the most prominent traditional African instruments used in the soundtracks, along with Mbira and rattles. They brought to us the feeling of being in a savannah along with our childhood heroes, battling the cunning of Scar and becoming a grownup all at once. That’s why if you watch Lion King today, the melancholy and beauty of its music will be as powerful as it was thirty years ago.

Slumdog Millionaire: Fusion of East and West

“Slumdog Millionaire” was a complete hit when it came out, and that was made evident by the eight Oscars it won. The story of hope and human perseverance is an archetype that we all love and want more of in our lives and in cinema, and A.R. Rahman enriched the experience with his unique combination of traditional Indian instruments and familiar Western sounds.

By bringing together the bansuri flute and sitar with Brazilian drums, reggae, and even gangster rap, Rahman melded sounds and cultures into one expressive masterpiece. Not only does the score reflect Indian culture, but it also takes us on a journey that leaves behind human limitations such as fear, uncertainty, and country borders. The Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack is a perfect example of how a profound message can be conveyed through music.

Laurence of Arabia: A Timeless Classic

If you’re looking for an enveloping, romantic, and deeply moving music score all at once, look no further than “Laurence of Arabia.” Even though it’s over 60 years old, this score showcases the union of Arabic instruments and Western soundscape in a way that was never done before.

While the score was supposed to be a mutual endeavor of a few composers, it was Maurice Jarre who alchemized the iconic soundtracks within a span of a single month. In it, he used lesser-known instruments, like Ondes Martenot, to paint a picture of sweeping desert landscapes. Jarre created two Arabian themes that were shaped through the sounds of cithara, timpani, ney flute, horns, and Oud, each bringing a special flavor into the mix.

The score won Jarre an Oscar and is so popular that you may hear it in your own ears the first time you’re faced with desert views because the music and the landscape have become one.


The role of traditional instruments in film music can’t be overstated. Their emotional resonance, atmosphere, and authenticity deliver us to new worlds, new feelings, and new depths of unknown cultures that we then wish to discover. Their unique sound and blends changed the music in the movies infinitely for the better, and if you don’t believe it, just watch any of the movies above – the music will do all the persuading.