Academy Mistakes: ‘The Piano’ for Best Original Score

Throughout the first half of February, the Sound On Sight staff will take a look at the Academy Awards.

Ask any film score buff and he or she will attest that the Academy has always had a contentious history with film composers. Over the last few years, the AMPAS has made a few publicly egregious snubs: Johnny Greenwood for There Will be Blood and Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard for The Dark Knight come to mind. Barring their questionable nominating practice, the Academy has developed patterns of complacent and downright unimaginative selections. Whether it is nominating John Williams for everything (this year saw him nab nods for both War Horse and The Adventures of Tin Tin), or snubbing great scores to difficult films without the benefit of a more prestigious composer (Cliff Martinez this year for Drive), or overindulging international composers (Gustavo Santaolalla winning a second time for Babel, A.R. Rahman winning for Slumdog Millionaire). Largely, if the Academy does take the effort to award a fine composer, it’s for some of their weakest or safest work (Elliot Goldenthal for Frida).

More often than not, a nom for Best Picture does not necessarily guarantee a nom for Best Score, as do the Best Editing and Best Director categories. But when a Best Picture candidate contains a plot that is inextricable from its music—bewitching music for that matter—such an omission becomes baffling. One of the Academy’s most shameful oversights occurred in 1994 when The Piano, a film which garnered eight nominations, failed to earn one for its most crucial technical element: the score by Michael Nyman.

Nyman had been tethered to British filmmaker Peter Greenaway, with whom he scored nine of his films, until Prospero’s Books in 1991 when the composer objected to his score being altered. The break from Greenaway led to a creative revival for the artist, producing a series of brilliant one-offs with other directors—Gattaca with Andrew Niccol, Ravenous with Antonia Bird, The End of the Affair with Neil Jordan and a potent if brief partnership with British director Michael Winterbottom. But it is still his score for Jane Campion’s The Piano that solidifies his notoriety within the musical world.

Campion’s film, a gorgeous evocation of unbridled love under repression, thrives on its dreamy piano theme, which provides passion to the film’s romance and, most importantly, a voice to its mute lead character. It is a score that functions both diegetically and externally, as Holly Hunter’s lead character, Ada, performs the piece that can also be heard on the soundtrack.

If there is any detriment to the beauty of the music, it is in the editing of Nyman’s score, which at times, is less than flattering. His pieces are so lush that simply fading them out seems an injustice to their power. In the context of the film’s narrative about fleeting pleasures, however, the editorial stunting is quite apropos. Though The Piano is a terrific film, the score is transcendent, unable to be fully experienced when hampered by cutaways and fadeouts.

Observe a scene from the film that first introduces Nyman’s theme in all its glory and then listen to the full track.

The Promise Scene

The Promise Full Track

It is no surprise Nyman’s music became an international best seller and frequently pops up on lists of greatest scores. The Piano won three Academy Awards independent of the snub (Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Original Screenplay). In fact, the AMPAS was not the only awards branch to neglect to nominate Nyman. Out of the myriad of awards The Piano was nominated for, the score was only nominated by the BAFTA and the Golden Globes. Its sole win was from the Australian Film Institute. The Academy most certainly deserves some blame, but this was an oversight by an entire film community, which, in its clamor to award a beloved film, became tone deaf.

Nyman still has yet to be nominated for an Oscar. Here is a list of a few major composers and their scores that have been snubbed by the Academy since 1994:

Marco Beltrami- Hellboy, The Three Buriels of Melquiadas Estrada

Don Davis- The Matrix

Danny Elfman- Hulk

Michael Giacchino- The Incredibles, Star Trek

Elliot Goldenthal- Alien 3, Batman Forever, Titus

Jerry Goldsmith- The Ghost and the Darkness, Star Trek: First Contact

Johnny Greenwood- There Will Be Blood

Cliff Martinez- Drive, Solaris

Mark Mancina- Speed, Twister

Clint Mansell- The Fountain

James Newton Howard- Signs, Unbreakable

John Powell- The Bourne Supremacy/Ultimatum, United 93, X-Men: The Last Stand

Edward Shearmur- The Count of Monte Cristo, Reign of Fire

Howard Shore- The Cell

Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard- The Dark Knight

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Shane Ramirez is a professional actor and videographer, as well as a budding filmmaker and novelist residing in San Marcos, TX. A life-long film enthusiast, Shane has written for and, and has produced his own short films. He is versed in the arts of cinematography, photography, and editing. His favorite directors are Andrei Tarkovsky, Terrence Malick, Christopher Nolan, Michelangelo Antonioni and Krzysztof Kieslowski. Contact Shane at [email protected]


  1. The melody is from a very old Gaelic song. It was taken by Neil Gow and became “Lord Balgonie’s Favorite” two hundred fifty years ago. The orchestration is beautiful but Nyman didn’t compose the melody.

  2. Very interesting and wellwritten piece.

    When a film recieves mediocre reception,yet has a wonderful score…is it a snub? Films that have great ingredients,like DiCaprios performance in so-so J.Edgar or the art direction in pretty dull Immortals but a dissapointing whole is tricky to concider a snub…like your Hulk. Unless the unwritten rules and the whole view change and great components of mediocre end result can be rewarded like they should.

    Shores score for Gangs of New York basically only got one nom and that was the Oscar…I found it wonderful and a snub.
    John Ottman-The usual suspects.
    Clint Eastwood- Mystic River,Changeling.
    Danny Elfman- The Kingdom.
    Thomas Newman- The debt(I liked it!),Revolutionary Road.
    Harry Gregson-Williams- Kingdom of Heaven/The Rock.
    Hanz Zimmer-The Rock/King Arthur/The last Samurai.
    Graeme Revell,R.Rodriguez-Sin City.
    David Julyan-Memento.
    Ennio Morricone-Once upon a time…

    Totally agree with The piano,my fellow swede must´ve fallen victim to an inside joke. Like many nominations and signs pointing towards The girl with dragon…would get a best score nom and Tinker Tailor Soldier a cinematography or Art direction nom. They switched places,so basically no one has a shot at winning now. The academy has distanced themself from all other institutions,the absurd Swinton snub sort of confirms it.

    Bet next year,one film will have 3 noms;Best picture,best art direction,best sound mixing,hehe…that´s how absurd the spread is starting to look.

  3. Woodman, The Piano was nominated at the 1994 Academy Awards, but it is a 1993 film. Your list of nominees is from the following year’s, for 1994 films. The 1994 Oscars for 1993’s films are:

    Schindler’s List: John Williams (WINNER)
    The Age of Innocence: Elmer Bernstein
    The Firm: Dave Grusin
    The Fugitive: James Newton Howard
    The Remains of the Day: Richard Robbins

    Out of those, I am only familiar with Williams’ score, which is pretty good, and Newton Howard’s, which really pales in comparison to his later stuff. I’m sure Nyman could have replaced any one of them.

    I couldn’t find any extensive explanation as to why The Piano wasn’t nominated. I’m fairly sure most of the score is original. But either way, they should ditch that rule.

    As for the title, I couldn’t really come up with an adequate headline, so I went for one similar to what some of the others have posted.

    Even though I’m not a musician, I love film scores and could write a whole bunch of articles on the topic.

  4. And which one of the five that were deservedly nominated would you have replaced?

    The Lion King – Hans Zimmer *winner*
    Forrest Gump – Alan Silvestri
    Interview with the Vampire – Elliot Goldenthal
    Little Women – Thomas Newman
    The Shawshank Redemption – Thomas Newman

    All worthy scores in my opinion.

    @Brace – Williams’ War Horse/Tintin > Drive/Contagion in every way possible!

  5. Nyman’s score for The Piano is one of my favorite.Last time I saw that film was years ago (more than ten) but I still remember that music.I actually thought that it’s not original and that is the reason it was nominated,but now I can really say it is a terrible snub.
    And you mentioned Cliff Martinez – yeah, his score for Drive was one of the best, and Contagion too.It’s him who should have got two nominations not John Williams for millionth time.

  6. When I first read the title of this article I thought the writer was saying The Piano had won Best Score and he was upset about it. I was fully prepared to rip him for this because the score for The Piano is one of the lasting memories I have about the film and, now that I know he was upset because of the snub, I cannot agree more that it should have at least warranted a nomination.

    Nice article, good to read something about the more technical of awards rather than reading acting, writing and directing stuff over and over and over.

    P.S. I very much liked Danny Elfman’s Hulk score too