Why Credentialed Respect Can Never Make Hans Zimmer: How to make music that matters

I am likely to continue talking about the new movie Interstellar for quite a long time—because it is the latest and most exciting philosophic/scientific endeavor aimed at a mass audience that I can think of, and is a vastly important film. Below is one of the first reviews from Variety and should be read by anyone on the fence considering seeing the movie. It will tell you everything you need to know about the film. But more specific to the film and an equal part of its majesty is the music by Hans Zimmer. The score is mind-blowing good and may well eclipse the iconic music of 2001: A Space Odyssey as instantly recognizable. So it deserves to be known that Hans Zimmer, one of the premier musical composers of our age and on par in history to be known among the giants of Straus, Beethoven, and Mozart did poorly in school and did not attend college. Listen to the man himself talk about his education—or lack thereof—and what he believes is the path to success that most should take.


There isn’t a college in the country who can teach a student with tuition charges to be as good at conceiving and conducting music for films as Hans Zimmer is. There is not a band program out there who can teach an army of others to become another Hans Zimmer. The best way to become another Hans Zimmer is to get near him and start learning—then applying his techniques at decision-making and problem solving into the individual experience of the student. A school cannot teach those skills with memorization techniques. Only through natural aptitude and practice can one hope to become as proficient. There is no way to cheat the system by throwing money at a skill hoping that it can be purchased. The kind of skill that Hans Zimmer has is only obtained one way, through lots of hard work and dedication while maintaining his uniqueness on the curb of perception.

Yet government schools and colleges all across the world suggest that they can produce such people if tuition dollars are applied, and the results never come back with satisfaction. There are many who aspire to become like Hans Zimmer and they may even learn to play his songs at a high school football game through a band program, but they cannot teach a student to become a person equal to the skill of Hans Zimmer with just scholastic education methods. The aspiring artist if they have a hope of such lofty heights must apprentice themselves to someone equivalent to the value they wish to achieve and start with a total dedication of themselves to the craft. Advice is only as good as the person who gives it.

Once when I wrote an article about the failure of a band teacher from our local high school the parents of the students sent me many nasty emails about my opinions. It wasn’t hard to conclude that their vast anger was inspired by a deeply rooted fear that they had in realizing that money could not purchase skill for their children—as they wished to believe. When the famed band teacher fell from grace and was cast aside by the district as a vagabond it was feared that his students would fall as well—as if their success was attached directly to his star. Much to the terror of the parents the real answer was that their children were learning nowhere near enough about music to become anything but copycats in the music industry. They were learning to play the instruments, but they weren’t learning to make music that would play from them—which is a big difference. And these days, anybody can practice playing music with a software program. What needs to be taught are the ways that notes can be composed into new forms of music that reveals the inner sanctum of thought and all human possibilities.

It is for that reason that I seldom ever listen to any “pop” music. My iPod doesn’t have a single music track in eight gig of memory that is not a movie soundtrack of some epic intention. Over a third of my soundtracks on that iPod are Hans Zimmer scores. I still listen to Gladiator at least once a week which I think is one of his best pieces of work. Music should speak about possibilities and achievement, not just passive witnessing of the world around the listener. Band students and music classes in general are not learning about the epic scale of a subject matter, they are simply learning to repeat the work of Hans Zimmer.

If I were to attempt to teach such students I would not do so in front of a class in a stale government school with brick walls and blackboards with the smell of lunch drifting down the halls promising frozen pizza and tatter tots among several hundred other students emitting waves of pent-up rage at adolescent frustrations. I’d have them climb a mountain with sweat pouring off their foreheads then piping the Gladiator soundtrack into their tired ears as they sip for life-sustaining water from a canteen warmed by body heat. Then I’d ask them to compose the first notes that came to their minds based on their experience once the music had been silenced. That is how you learn to compose music, not just copy the notes of Hans Zimmer.

I can’t say how many times I have now listened to the Man of Steel soundtrack even in the minus zero degree temperatures on the back of a motorcycle as the snow was falling ever so ferociously—with my fingertips so frozen that they were in great pain. It has now been more than a dozen at least and each time brought the notes to a grand fortissimo inside my helmet that spoke of another world reality of possibility well beyond the grips of conventional manhood. While most men are first concerned in the morning with where they will use the rest room, what they will eat, where they will dispel their sexual appetites, and how they will earn the acclaim of their peers—such music under such circumstances dictate higher thoughts far more epic than the animal wants of flesh. It is only under those extreme conditions that Hans Zimmer can be understood as notes put upon a blank page as opposed to copied the way a band conductor of a local high school teaches students how to blow a horn and put on a show for their proud parents with their video cameras out to record the occasion—and a “yes” vote during levy time for the memory. On the way home from such concerts the parents foolishly declare that their child may become the next Hans Zimmer because they learned to play the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack. But the students never see the music as from the feelings of observation—they simply memorize the motions put in place for them by someone like Hans Zimmer.

Too many people believe wrongly that being “credentialed” equates to success. They believe that if a music instructor at a school somewhere says that a student knows something—that they know it. Yet they fail 100% of the time to create future Hans Zimmer types no matter how much money is spent on music programs and government school electives. Those good at music are still those with a natural appetite to take their skills to the next levels through extremely hard work and persistence. Credentialed these days has been regulated into being symphonious with security—and that is a path to average—which is not what Hans Zimmer’s music is about at all. His music is much more than that and is why I listen to it with great zeal and marvel at its uniqueness. That uniqueness is why it’s a joy to hear—and thus far, as admitted by Zimmer himself, is why schools cannot duplicate the efforts of the award-winning history making composer even with all the money in the world. That is because his music does not come from comfort, but experience, in a life lived and felt as opposed to copied and mimicked—and is why Hans Zimmer’s score for Interstellar will literally take people out of this world. Zimmer actually let his mind leave this world to write the music—and that is a grand achievement!


Rich Hoffman