“The King’s Speech”
Composer: Alexandre Desplat
Oscar pedigree: Three previous noms
Momentum: BAFTA, Golden Globe noms
Style: Predominantly piano and strings
Aesthetic/dramatic approach: “(Music needed to) express this man’s pain, his struggle, and at the same time express what the movie does, which is to go from sadness to joy. There are two main themes, and neither can really find their way through. The opening theme has a silence in the middle, as if it can’t go anywhere.”
The suite spot: “The rehearsal at the end of the film, that’s the turning point — where George VI finally trusts Lionel, a crucial moment for the film and the score. It’s a celebration, a completion of his painful-childhood theme where a repeated piano note seems to be stuck and the theme can’t evolve.”

“How to Train Your Dragon”
Composer: John Powell
Oscar pedigree: First-time nominee
Momentum: Annie winner; BAFTA, World Soundtrack Awards noms
Style: symphonic with choral, Celtic elements
Aesthetic/dramatic approach: “I wanted to bring to the film a kind of grandeur. I started out by researching Nordic music; there are common traits they share with Celtic music — and (the characters) all have Scottish accents. … I like animation because I tend to find that I can write joyful music.”
The suite spot: “The first time that Hiccup is flying, he’s testing the equipment he’s put in the false tail. That’s where I got a texture I liked, a tune I liked — it was part classical, part non-classical, all the things that I thought would be interesting to balance everything else on.”

“127 Hours”
Composer: A.R. Rahman
Oscar pedigree: Two wins, one other nom
Momentum: BAFTA, Golden Globe noms
Style: Guitars dominate, although briefly orchestral
Aesthetic/dramatic approach: “I sometimes had to keep quiet, sometimes be very meditative, sometimes drive the whole movie — but not to bring the movie down, not to make it very sad or self-pitying. … We wanted to stay away from a big epic sound because it’s very intimate.”
The suite spot: “(The amputation scene) itself was harsh, and music shouldn’t make it more harsh. I had two or three pieces for that scene, and ultimately the piece that was very meditative worked well.”

“The Social Network”
Composers: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross
Oscar pedigree: First noms
Momentum: Golden Globe, L.A. Film Critics wins
Style: Mostly electronic, some acoustics, heavily processed
Aesthetic/dramatic approach: “We decided to focus on a grand piano as an emotional center and drop that into some of the synthetic landscapes we came up with, for a sense of engulfing motion and organic-ness to it,” Reznor says. “In three or four weeks we had the bulk of what would end up being the score.”
The suite spot: “The title segment when that piano comes in, the whole movie feels different, important, like something unexpected is happening,” Reznor says. “It gets your whole mind tuned into the channel of this film and sets it up.”

Composer: Hans Zimmer
Oscar pedigree: One win, seven other noms
Momentum: BAFTA, Golden Globe, Grammy noms
Style: Highly processed orchestral with electronics, Johnny Marr guitar
Aesthetic/dramatic approach: “I knew from the outset that the movie’s audience was going to have to pay attention. If I make this analogous to thinking the audience is adrift in a boat on a river, and my music is the river, an emotional river, my main concern was how to sweep you through this story. So if it sometimes got a little rocky, don’t worry, it’s still going to get you there.”
The suite spot: “When she (Marion Cotillard) is out on the ledge and going to jump. It’s nearly a Richard Straussian line, and then it takes the longest time to get to a resolving chord.”

More on Eye on the Oscar: Music:
Tradition faces new guard | Nominees for Best Song | Nominees for Best Score