James Horner Is Known for His Titanic Score. But His Music for Sneakers Is a Masterpiece.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Sept. 10 2012 1:00 PM

Is That a Glockenspiel?

How a young composer fell in love with the score of Sneakers, and what makes the film’s music so great.

(Continued from Page 1)

Here’s another example of unexpectedly subtle and beautiful music:

This music is from the scene in Sneakers in which Martin Bishop and his crew begin to decipher that “Setec Astronomy”—the research project of a mathematician they’ve been pursuing—is actually an anagram for “Too Many Secrets,”—a hint that they’re on the trail of a codebreaker. At first, we hear a simple yet catchy piano theme repeated over and over. As it continues repeating, a second piano line joins in as a partner to it. The music is quiet yet densely populated with short little piano notes. The music feels like a perfect counterpoint to what is taking place on-screen: The characters are uncovering a secret. As if speaking to this, the music is soft, almost whispered, enhancing our feeling of the mystery about to be unlocked.

Beyond just conjuring up a sense of elevated mystery, Horner’s subtle, minimalist music also underscores the film’s ideas about computer technology. At the end of the film, Cosmo lays out his grand view of the future: “The world isn’t run by weapons anymore, or energy, or money, it’s run by little ones and zeroes, little bits of data. It’s all just electrons.” Horner’s dense texture of uniform repeated notes feels like the “little bits of data,” the “ones and zeroes” that are at the heart of the film’s drama. Listening further to the piece in the “Setec Astronomy” scene, we see the music continue to develop: one, two, then three different pianos playing along simultaneously. As the characters get closer to deciphering the code, more and more musical elements join in: female choir, harp, strings, woodwinds, percussion. We really begin to feel viscerally the newfound power of these “little ones and zeroes.”


The choices a film composer makes can either reinforce the drama on-screen, or they can move in contrary motion to it. I’ve always felt that the best film music does both: It emphasizes the story onscreen and creates its own parallel story. To me, the Sneakers score endures because it does exactly this: supporting the action while overlaying the film with a veneer of quiet beauty and unexpected elegance that lends a sense of richness and complexity to the characters and their drama.

Like the film itself, admired by a small coterie of enthusiastic fans, Horner’s score for Sneakers is often overlooked; it seems to get overshadowed by the more famous and widely acclaimed projects he has worked on. Horner has written iconic music for such films as Field of Dreams, Braveheart, Glory, Aliens, and—of course—Titanic and Avatar, so it’s understandable that his Sneakers score might get eclipsed. But 20 years later, now that I’m working as a composer, I keep coming back to it. And actually, I’m pretty sure that wasn’t a glockenspiel: It was a celesta and a harp.



Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.


Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
Dear Prudence
Sept. 30 2014 6:00 AM Drive-By Bounty Prudie advises a woman whose boyfriend demands she flash truckers on the highway.
  Double X
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
Future Tense
Sept. 29 2014 11:56 PM Innovation Starvation, the Next Generation Humankind has lots of great ideas for the future. We need people to carry them out.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 29 2014 11:32 PM The Daydream Disorder Is sluggish cognitive tempo a disease or disease mongering?
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.