The film Inception has been compared with a number of classic films, from Bladerunner and The Matrix to the works of Stanley Kubrick. Writer/director Christopher Nolan has come up with a great cinematic and dramatic concept, and the film benefits from strong direction and great central performances. The soundtrack by regular Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer has also broken new ground, and amazingly it was written before any footage had been shot. We can only assume that Zimmer was inspired by the concept of dreams within dreams, and the danger of losing touch with reality. And inspired he certainly was, creating one of the most individual and spell-binding scores of recent years.
If you've not got the album yet, listen to the previews on InceptionScore.com and download the free bonus tracks. The music is best described as ambient and creating atmosphere. It can be compared with some of the great electronic albums of the 70s and 80s though it skillfully blends electronic and orchestral material. There is a range of recurring thematic material though these are not melodies in the traditional sense. One "theme" in particular seems to consist of 4 notes or chords which don't resolve but appear to continue in a circular fashion. This description doesn't really do justice to the music (you need to hear it for yourself), but its key impact is the way it "sucks you in" to its world. It doesn't play overtly to the surface emotions of the characters, but rather to a general feeling of unease and uncertainty in an alien world, with a kind of relentless inescapable quality which creates its own tension.
The soundtrack album kicks off with "Half Remembered Dream" which feels like orchestral sound design, then "We Built Our Own World" introduces a bass beat and John Barry style slow atmospheric chords (Zimmer was perhaps aware of Bond elements in the film's DNA). Then the 3rd track "Dream Is Collapsing" introduces the main theme of Inception and is one of the best tracks on the album. It has a moving bass with insistent notes forming an ostinato pattern. This just grows organically with different instruments entering, some changes of tone and more Barry-style brass chords. "Radical Notion" repeats these same chords slowly and ominously, bringing in a constantly evolving beat, the brass chords become more like Don Davis' in The Matrix and elements of sound design are so well integrated that it is difficult to know where the orchestra ends. "Old Souls" can be compared with the atmospherics created by Vangelis for Bladerunner, with synth layers of vibraphone, trumpet and piano, and introducing an electric guitar before some real strings whip the track into a growing crescendo.
"Mombasa" changes the tone and is almost a dance track. It has a beat plus percussive thumps very much reflecting an escalation of the actions sequences on the screen. The main theme returns again in "Dream Within A Dream". Zimmer manages to make this track itself collapse, with another pattern emerging from the sonic remnants, and growing with triplets against duplets and repeated brass stabs. "Waiting for a Train" returns initially to the mood of "Old Souls", with a distorted sample of Edith Piaf singing "Je ne Regrette Rien" (which plays a significant role in the plot) and the track returns once more to the driving force of the main theme. "Paradox" seems initially to be completely drained of enegry after the previous track with string quartet and backing synth, and "Time" sums up a lot of the film's musical material with a return of the electric guitar and ending with a minimal version of the main theme on piano."
The piano sheet music for Inception is available from this link at Sheet Music Plus. It includes 4 of the key tracks from the album ("Dream is Collapsing", "Dream Within a Dream", "Mombasa" and "Time") and it is a great selection which works really well on the piano.
Music Trivia: The film features a Penrose Staircase in a couple of scenes. This is the illusion of neverending stairs made famous by the Dutch artist M. C. Escher in his lithograph "Ascending and Descending". There are musical equivalents of this illusion where musical tones appear to rise or descend forever. Two versions of this are called the Shepard Tone and the Shepard–Risset glissando. This kind of sound effect has sometimes been used in films. See this page on Wikipedia where you can hear an example of the latter, a continuously descending tone: Shepard Tone.