When people think of scary things, they often think of monsters. The monster under the bed. The monster in the closet. The monster that destroys Tokyo. It’s the latter that we’re concerned with here, monsters that at their normal size aren’t usually much of a bother, but when they’re enlarged to the point of being a fair size bigger than before, people start to worry. Especially as with the size increase, there’s usually an increase in strength, hunger, and aggression, as well as the obvious growing teeth. All the better to eat you with. So from that you have the ants from Them! (1954) and the tarantula from Tarantula (1955) as well as the two titans of the monster world, Godzilla and King Kong. That’s not even mentioning the seafaring type such as the giant shark of Jaws (1975) and the mega-octopus of It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955). But what must it sound like to be in the midst of an attack by a giant monster? Like one hell of a storm. Thundering footsteps shake the ground, while buildings crumble with massive bangs and crashes as the concrete splits apart. And then there’s that ear-splitting roar, with a piercing scream or a growl so deep it sounds like it comes from the very depths of hell itself, or sometimes both. Or the pure unfiltered bass as waves crash over your head, submerging you so it can carefully pick you off from below, the only sound your panicking legs splashing around. And then there’s the music.

If you watch a monster movie and listen to the soundtrack, chances are that you’ll hear a lot from the brass and percussion sections of the orchestra, with those huge instruments and their huge sound appropriating and emphasising the sheer magnitude of what is ostensibly a foot-tall puppet on a model city stage, or at most a tall man in a suit. When you have a giant monster that in reality is no bigger than a horse, you need some extra oomph to convince the audience that the buildings the monster is striding past are so tall they disappear into the clouds, and that the human race can easily be crushed by the towering behemoth presented before you. And that’s where the score comes in, often telling you about the monster before it even appears.

The opening of Jaws is a perfect example: you have the girl who’s just decided on a bit of drunken late night skinny dipping, so she’s whipped off her clothes and jumped into the ocean for a midnight swim. As we see her from below we hear a beautiful if ambiguous harp (an instrument Bernard Herrmann coined for underwater use) with little snatches of strings, but the mood sharply turns as the strings are isolated and the shark theme comes in, those two notes picking up an increasing tempo to emphasise the shark – and the audience as the shark – getting closer and closer to its victim, with a flourish as the first bite is felt. You don’t even need to see the shark because you are the shark.

In King Kong (1933), the effectiveness of the gigantic gorilla’s entrance is helped by Max Steiner’s immense score. Absolute silence precedes the scene to provide tension as native men stand at the top of their wall and strike a huge gong. As soon as they do, a short woodwind and brass figure is repeated, acting like approaching footsteps, and as we cut to Fay Wray’s Ann Darrow tied up before a forest opening, the big low brass begins to play the three-note figure of Kong’s theme, with the trees suddenly breaking apart as a shape ploughs through them. The power of the brass gives a huge amount of heft to Kong as he stands before us, dwarfing Ann, and we’re thrilled at this wonder, only to realise after that the huge primate stands at just eighteen inches tall. But even knowing that he is just a puppet made of aluminium, latex, and rabbit fur, Kong remains in our minds a powerful icon of monster cinema – and much of that is from Max Steiner’s music.

Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla (1954) is another monster movie that uses its music to strengthen the effect of its technique, in this case a man in a monster suit. Godzilla emerged from the ocean in 1954 and has gone on to star in over nearly thirty films, most of which have a somewhat tainted reputation that the series does not deserve. But while the films are characterised as being tongue-in-cheek by many – and certainly deliberately in some cases – the original film in the series is a true horror film, not just an effective monster movie but a stark treatise on the horrors of weapons of mass destruction and a nation’s collective reconciliation with a horrific tragedy. While the American release was neutered, removing the essence of the film and replacing it with newly shot exposition footage, the original film has not lost its power to shock and terrify, which is perhaps why many often still call it by its original Japanese title: Gojira. Less a film than a portal for a nation still mourning to elicit a cathartic response, Godzilla is a monster movie that treats itself and the monster within with absolute seriousness and pure horror, which is reflected in the music by Akira Ifukube.

Godzilla begins in full-foreboding with the gigantic echoing footsteps of the monster over the Toho logo, followed by his iconic roar as the title card crawls into view from below. Both were created by composer Akira Ifukube, with the roar being created by running a resin-coated glove down the strings of a contrabass. What is now known as Godzilla’s theme plays over the main titles, however at this point this was not the monster’s theme. A jaunty and upbeat piece with a steady beat and a heroic ascending melody, over the years this has been recognised as the theme for the monster but here was composed initially for a later moment in the film where the Japanese air force defend Tokyo. Decided as a good piece for the main title, it was repurposed and eventually rechristened as belonging to our loveable irradiated dinosaur, used as a victory march for his extraordinary exploits, heroic or otherwise. But again, the use of that theme for Godzilla is something that only works in those later films, as here the tone is decidedly more serious.

However, Ifukube did create specific themes for Godzilla itself, in a much less heroic mode. The first, a versatile piece called the Odo Island Theme, is broken into two sections; a four-note initial section and then a longer six-note phrase that is used in ingeniously different ways to illustrate the different effects of the monster. Godzilla develops its own “Fury” theme during its attacks on Tokyo, and here Ifukube uses the crash of gongs to symbolise the footsteps while the thick brass represents his huge size and power. And then there is a frantic piece with fast-paced strings embellished with brass and percussion, before slowing down with a portentous low brass motif supported by swirling and twisting harp. It’s used as a device to show the effect of Godzilla without actually showing the monster, more showing the victims of his devastation and the effects on them.

Further themes include a piercing insectoid string piece for the oxygen destroyer, a haunting lament for the destruction caused by Godzilla, and upbeat marches for the Japanese military effort. The latter is used more for showing the promise of the frigates and such as they are launched, but it’s notable to remember that there is no triumphant theme for anyone – not the military and certainly not Godzilla. The film also uses several diegetic source cues, one of which the film proper begins with, opening with the freighter Eiko-maru (“Glory Round”) where some of the sailors are sitting on the deck, playing a peaceful melody for harmonica and guitar. This moment of serenity is interrupted by an explosion and a strange light under the water that itself explodes, causing the Eiko-maru to sink while aflame, scored by the fast-paced disaster piece that ends with portentous thick brass notes that indicate the possible cause of the sinking as news comes through of the disaster.

A further ship – the Bingo-maru – is sent out to investigate, and itself is downed in a brief scene, and there is somber music heard as the people of Odo Island wait by the sea for news of their fishing boats. The cue heard here features the Odo Island theme here with the two phrasings reversed, very much a portentous indication of things to come. And true to form, a storm is coming. As the wind and waves crash against the Island, the Odo Island theme appears on low brass as a signifier, with the fast-paced disaster theme returning as blinding light illuminates a house from within together with those terrible echoing footsteps. Godzilla. It’s when the aftermath is shown that we have a true idea of Godzilla’s power, and Ifukube plays us a lament, with the Odo theme played on woodwind, as we see many of the island homes have been destroyed destroyed and their water contaminated by radiation.

After scientist Yamane and his team encounter Godzilla on the island and return to the mainland to present their findings (all unscored), the brassy Frigate March is used to score the release of the “anti-Godzilla Frigate Fleet” who are dropping depth charges in the ocean. It feels like a parody, with the brassy patriotism of the march scoring these brave ships who are just going out to bomb the ocean, something that is inevitably ineffectual. Come on, let’s go out and teach that giant lizard some manners!

It’s time for talk, not action, and the Japanese government subsequently have a stark discussion about whether or not to kill him, and if they do decide, how they can do it. The potential answer is found with the battle-scarred Serizawa, a scientist haunted by his previous experiences with war. This is what Godzilla is really about, and there is a scene where Serizawa shows his former fiance what he calls the oxygen destroyer. As he drops a object into a large fish tank, manic piercing strings score the look on her face, followed by an echoing low piano as she screams and turns away. It’s a moment made by the actress’s face and the score, with the power of suggestion, not least from the horror on her face but the horrific and alien strings stabbing at the audience – this is something devastating, and is part of opening a dialogue on whether or not such a thing can, or indeed should, be used.

As Godzilla appears in Tokyo bay the second phrase of the Odo Island theme is played in a terrifyingly gutteral and primordial reading on low woodwind, before the first fragments of the fury theme appear as the military attack. The disaster theme returns in a furious rendition as people try to evacuate the city and Yamane tries to get through to the military. The fury theme plays in full with its thick brass illustrating his heft as he walks ashore and takes out a train, the huge notes as powerful as his gigantic self as he destroys a bridge while returning to the water.

The military theme reappears as military vehicles and emergency services gather to prepare the city, including putting up a gigantic electric fence to try and deter him from returning to the city. As he once again rises from the depths, the guttural reading of the Odo Island phrase accompanies him, followed by low piano notes of the Fury theme as he comes ashore and approaches the fence. The thick and steady piano gives it a countdown-like feel, injecting tension as the military wait to see if their plan will work. Inevitably it doesn’t, and we see his radioactive breath unleashed.

With the defences failing, his fury theme returns as he uses his breath on the city, buildings in flames as he strides through with some harrowing moments as people are incinerated. The military theme briefly scores fire engines racing to the area, before the score stops as tanks try and drive Godzilla back, but the brass of the fury theme is oppressive, like a gigantic wall of thunder scoring humanity’s potential doom. Godzilla is beaten back by jets, but what’s left is the repercussions, the burning city, the hundreds of thousands in hospitals. A montage of images plays under a heart-rending string lament underlining what the film communicates so effortlessly. The legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the effect that kind of power can have when turned on humanity – any humanity. It’s a startling combination of images and music, and you can feel a nation in mourning through Ifukube’s powerful cue.

There is a piece that plays afterwards that further emphasises this feeling as a diegetic cue coming from a television broadcast. It’s a prayer called ‘Oh Peace, Oh Light, Return’, sung by a chorus of children as we see the further aftermath in hospitals.

May we live without destruction

May we look to tomorrow with hope

May peace and light return to us

It’s a haunting sequence, and has us examine the reality of those lyrics and the significance they have, not just in the world of Godzilla but in the real world, especially coming not even a decade after the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Note the point of view of the song; it’s from the children. May WE live without destruction. May peace and light return to US. It’s a devastating thought, of children praying that they not having to endure a lifetime of war, and an illustration of the psychological fallout of that atrocity. Ifukube’s music under the chorus is another powerful lament for strings, wind, and brass, similar to the Tokyo devastation.

As Serizawa is persuaded to use the oxygen destroyer to kill Godzilla, the devastation theme returns, underlining the grave circumstances of the mission. The elegy illustrates the futility, with Godzilla approaching under the sea, thinking about the devastation the device – the weapon – will cause to the ocean. The orchestra deepens as Serizawa sets off the oxygen destroyer and watches Godzilla die, and then cuts his line, sacrificing himself and his knowledge. Huge piano strokes echo as the line is pulled, only to find it severed, and as the ocean erupts, a final roar from Godzilla comes before he sinks into the depths, with hints of the military theme and the fury theme before his body is disintegrated. The monster is dead, but which one?

While there is jubilance at the monster’s destruction, the finale is sobering, emotionally grasping not only Serizawa’s sacrifice, but also the wonder of Godzilla and the lengths they have gone to wipe him from the earth. The prayer theme returns as Yamane makes a final rumination on weapons of mass destruction and how their use may yet bring about more creatures like Godzilla. The lyrics again hit hard, and the future is left unresolved, the chorus rising into a climax over a shot of the ocean, the sun reflecting in the water like the radioactive matter seen earlier with Godzilla. It’s a beautiful moment musically, with Ifukube’s wonderful final curtain raiser providing a mixed emotional response, one of grandeur but also of reflection.

Godzilla is a wonder of evolution, taking Steiner’s Kong with Ifukube’s sensibilities to fashion something not only new aesthetically but emotionally too. Honda and Ifukube are presenting a giant monster causing mass destruction, but under that asking basic questions about humanity’s seeming will for self-destruction. Akira Ifukube’s music is one giant thunderstorm; the powerful and oppressive fury of the storm, and the beautiful yet sobering lament for the damage that has been caused, and will be caused again. Godzilla is an engine of frightening power and destructive potential, but it has nothing on human nature.