From Tower Records to Captain Marvel

Pinar Toprak B.M. ’00, the first woman to score a major Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, shared her creative process and the inspiration she found in old-school listening booths. 

October 14, 2019

When Pinar Toprak B.M. ’00 came to Berklee, she wasn’t planning on a career in film scoring. The native of Istanbul started out as a piano performance major, but “I was miserable,” she told a packed house of students and faculty members during a recent keynote address in David Friend Recital Hall. “I get performance anxiety,” Toprak added. “I’d rather work in my pajamas than be in front of people.” Then she grinned. “I get to do that now.” 

As a student, Toprak would spend hours at Tower Records, then located at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Newbury Street, near Berklee’s campus. She told the story of sitting in a listening booth, awed by Hans Zimmer's soundtrack to The Prince of Egypt. “I bought that soundtrack with my last $20,” she said. “And I went back to campus and changed my major to film scoring.”

Now, after nearly two decades in the industry, Toprak has dozens of films to her credit, including 2019’s Captain Marvel, which made her the first woman to score a major superhero film. She spoke with Sean McMahon, chair of Berklee's Film Scoring Department, about her creative process, her love for Los Angeles, and the emotional pull of a good score. 

“There’s a Maya Angelou quote I’m going to paraphrase, about how people won’t remember what you said, but how you made them feel,” Toprak told her audience. “I think that’s true in film, too. An audience member won’t remember all the lines from a film when they leave the theater, but they’ll remember how it made them feel. We’re that subconscious part—the music helps with that.” 

Toprak showed and discussed two clips from Captain Marvel: an adrenaline-filled chase scene on a light-rail car in Los Angeles, and a tender scene near the film’s end involving the reunion of several characters who had been separated. “It’s very small, and human,” she said of the latter scene. “I feel it’s her humanity that’s [Captain Marvel’s] superpower.” The music, she said, needed to convey that. “It’s really about telling the best story you can tell with your music.”