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Film Score Music

To say that music plays a large role in our society

would not do
justice to one of the most important and popular art forms of yesterday
today. We underestimate the effectiveness and power that music, in any
form ,
can have over even the most insensitive of people. In almost
everything we do
and see music is involved in some form or another. Be it a piece
played at a
wedding, a song played on the radio or even the music played in the
in a television commercial. The music is always there, reminding us of
experiences, making us smile and feel exhilaration and sometimes even
making us
cry. It is this power that music has over us that film score composers
advantage of when they are writing the music to accompany the movies.
listeners we often do not appreciate that the music that is scored for
films or
played in films is put there on purpose to create a certain feeling,
emphasize a
point, give more life to a character or sometimes to simply add humour.
the average moviegoer does not usually realize is that a great deal of
time and
thought goes into writing the score for a film and choosing the
background music
for a scene. None of the music is arbitrary; themes and sub themes
have been
created with specific ideas in mind and have been put in place only to
add to
the story and the characters. It is also important to acknowledge that
evolution into the type of film scoring that we are accustomed to today
was not
a quick or easy transition. It has taken almost a century to develop
specific techniques that are used in todays films. When the first
pictures were seen they were known as silent films, although they were
actually silent. They contained a very primitive type of musical
that laid the foundation for what was to later develop. As time passed
the type
of music found in films developed into a fine art containing specific
guidelines and techniques that most composers tend to follow. The
person does not usually pay astute attention to the music that is being
used in
a film, however, if it were to not be there the films would seem empty
and as if
something was missing. The actors, the writing and the direction is
what is
primarily noticed in a film but the music is the inconspicuous
supporter of all
of these elements. To create a film that will be effective it is
essential that
the film have a thoughtful score, and, as the audience, it is our duty
acknowledge the music in order to fully understand all that is being
to us in the film.
To realize fully the foundation of what we now recognize
as an
effective film score it is important to examine the music behind a
silent film.
No film was actually ever completely silent. There may not have been a
soundtrack that we are accustomed to, however, the music was always
essential to
a movie, no matter how primitive it may be. In the earliest days of
film the
music was played on a phonograph. This was around the time of Edison.
phonograph was an invention that did not last long in the world of
film. The
next step was the use of a vitaphone, which also did not play a lasting
role in
the movie industry. The next step was not the use of a recorded
soundtrack but
rather it was the use of live musicians. The live music came about as
movies were becoming a little more common. The films began to be played
commercially in Vaudeville houses, cafes, and music halls where
musicians were
already hired to play in the musical concerts that evening. Because the
musicians were already there they were asked if they would play along
with the
film. In the Vaudeville houses there was no specific place for them to
sit so
they sat seated at the front , in front of the screen. Even after
theatres were
built to show the moving pictures a space was created at the front
where the
musicians were to sit. Because the musicians were inexperienced with
accompanying films they played what they liked or what they knew. This
made it
uncommon that the music actually fit with the action on the screen. The
musicians paid little attention to the film and played arbitrarily.
This meant
that often a serious or dramatic scene would be occurring on the screen
wile the
musician played something comical or something that belonged to a scene
with a
car chase. Sound-effects men were soon added to the sounds behind a
film. This
would be a man that created noises, erg. train whistles and bells, fire
bells, gun shots, explosions, cannon fire, etc. in order to add realism
to the
film. This made movie-going more popular which in turn bettered the
standard of
movie-making. It was at this point that the musicians hired to
accompany the
films began to take the music more seriously. Set standards were
created but
the musicians job was to make sure that these standards did not become
monotonous. They also began the use of simple motif that would
introduce a
character or foreshadow an event. The motifs are the elements of the
music that
are extremely important in shaping the characters and the theme of the
film. It
was the use of these motifs that made the music much more sophisticated
people began to take the films more seriously. The idea of motifs did
disintegrate but rather became an important technique in the scoring of
films in
the years to come. By this time the music was ceasing to be merely and
job for Vaudeville musicians and had actually become an art that needed
and was
given thought. The house musician, which later became a small ensemble
sometimes even a large orchestra, was a valued addition to the movie
and they could be found in hundreds of movie houses across America. It
was from
this point on that films were to always be accompanied by some sort of
The house musician remained in movie houses for many years, however they
eventually disappeared to make way for the recorded film score, known
as a “
talkie” or “canned music”.
The 1930's was the time that saw the rise of the
symphonic film
score. This was the time in which many great composers began to write
scores for films. The scores were not simple little symphonies or
pieces but
rather enormous projects that took a great deal of time and thought.
It was
also in this era that the click track was developed. This was a
technique first
used in the scoring of cartoons, however as the scoring for life action
became more complex the click track became vital to the preciseness of
the score.
A click track works to synchronize the music with the action of the
film with
the use of mathematics. The exposure of films is measured in frames
and there
are 24 frames a second, 1440 frames a minute. Holes are punched into
the film
to click at any given metronome beat. The composer measures this beat
dividing the figure, 1440, by whatever metronome speed that he wants
and the
resulting figure is the frame click beat. For example, if the composer
want the
metronome beat to be at 144, than he divides the figure 1440 by 144 and
resulting figure is 10. This means that the holes punched in the film
click every 10 frames. The studio musicians would wear headsets
through which
they would hear a constant clicking sound, thus keeping them precisely
with the
The major film score composers of this time were actually
arriving in Hollywood to compose great works for film. The European
gave the films scores that many of the elements found in the romantic
style of
the Viennese opera, eg. large orchestras, complex parts, lush harmonies,
doubling of parts and full string parts, as well a influence from many
composers, for example, Richard Strauss. The composers that sat at the
forefront of film scoring at this time were Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang
Korngold and Bertrand Hermann. These men wrote the scores for many of
famous films that came out of that era, eg. The Informer, Since You
Went Away,
King Kong, Casablanca, and Gone With The Wind (Max Steiner), The
Prince and the
Pauper, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Private Lives of Elizabeth
and Essex,
and A Midsummer's Nights Dream (Erich Wolfgang Korngold), and by
Hermann the infamous Citizen Kane. The films required a great use of
themes, and sub themes. It was these characteristics that gave the
music such
importance and helped make these films of the thirties become the
classics that they are. Some examples of the effective use of themes
and sub
themes can be found in the scores of Max Steiner's The Informer, Since
You Went
Away, and Gone With The Wind. Each of the scores that accompany these
have an enormous orchestration and key motifs as well as a blend of
types of music that creates a particular feeling or accentuates a
point. The
Informer is a film set in Ireland and tells the story of Gypo Nolan
who is the
tragic main character who is ultimately gunned down in the street. The
used in this film are of this tragic genre with Irish folk melodies
with many of the main themes. One of the most effective uses of
symbolism in
the music of this film is found at the end when Gypo finally meets his
After he is shot he makes his way to a small church nearby with the
sound of
heavy brass chords imitating his every plodding step. When he reaches
inside of the church he collapses only to see a nun who he thinks in
the Virgin
Mary. At the this point his face moves from darkness into the light
and a soft
hymn, “Sancta Maria”, written by Steiner himself emerges as the more
dominant of
the musical sounds. This whole scene symbolizes the passing of Gypo
into heaven
and the final acceptance of his soul by God. It would lose all
effectiveness if
the music was not as dominant as it is.
The film, Since You Went Away, has many similar elements in
the music
that make us feel and understand the feelings of the characters. This
contains a scene in which a young woman, Jennifer Jones, races along
the railway
platform alongside the train that is carrying her true love off to war.
chose to use elements from familiar songs, “I'll Be Home For
Christmas”, and
Irving Berlin's “Together”, intertwined with a military sounding
symphony part
to exemplify to us the thoughts that were racing through the minds of
these two
character as they left each other , not knowing if it was to be for the
time. The effect that this music had on those who saw the film was
unforgettable as Steiner portrayed emotions so poignantly through his
Probably the most memorable film score to arise out of
1930's was the music to the epic Gone With the Wind. This film begins
many different themes being introduced, the most famous of which is the
for Tara, intertwined with the strains of the Old South. Steiner
worked closely
with the producer David O. Selznick when he was writing the score for
this film,
however little of what Selznick asked for in the score actually
appeared in the
final movie. Selznick encouraged Steiner to use little original score
rather use prerecorded classical music with some Old South tunes mixed
Steiner disagreed with his ideas. This was and is a common occurrence
with the
producers and the composers of movies, they rarely agree on the same
ideas for
how the movie will be scored. The producer wants to put his ideas
forth but
really, as producers, they are not adequately qualified and the
composers just
want to be left alone to do their what they were hired to do as
effectively as
they can. This disagreement during the scoring of Gone With The Wind
became so
intense that Selznick actually hired an additional composer to write
score in case he did not approve if what Steiner had written. In the
Steiner's extraordinary composing ability prevailed and it is his
score that appears in this epic drama. In this score Steiner manages
to create
seven themes for the important elements of this film: Scarlett O'Hara,
Butler, Melanie, a love theme for Melanie and Ashley, another love
theme for
Scarlett and Ashley, Scarlett's father (Gerald O'Hara), and finally a
theme for
Tara. The theme for Tara is the most effective because this old
plantation and
it's collapse in essence symbolizes the collapse of the Old South after
Civil War. This theme recurs throughout the film each time is is
slightly to show to the audience the undying strength and endurance of
the proud
tradition of the Old South in the minds of the Southerners, even if it's
foundation had crumbled. The music of this film is extremely effective
important even if we do not always notice that it is there. From the
of the film until more than twenty minutes into the picture the music
does not
stop. We often do not notice the music when it is there, however, we
surely notice it if were to be gone.
To construct an effective film score there are no real
rules but
rather a patterned set of guidelines that have become tradition over
Certain types of musical themes have been used time and time again to
create the
style, mood or feeling of the film. For example, the type of music
that would
be used in a Western, or a Suspense-Drama or a Love Story varies very
from picture to picture. A theme found in a Love Story will not always
be the
same as the one before it, however, it will have the same style or
feeling to it
that creates the emotion of love in our minds. These ideas are often
because of the intensity or seriousness of the film, however, they are
essentially similar. The key to a memorable score is the creation of an
effective main theme with equally effective sub themes. This main
theme should
be the connecting link between scenes but should not be over used as
not to
saturate the audience with it's melody so they become bored and annoyed
with it.
The introduction of the main theme followed by lesser sub theme that are
juxtaposed and varied enough to teas the audience until it reaches a
final statement of the theme in it's entirety. The use of leitmotifs to
represent characters and the intertwining of one character's theme with
is instrumental in telling the story of the film and giving a full
portrait of
the character and their relationship with others. It is also important
realize that different instruments and different colours of music are
used to
create a certain feeling. There are certain sounds that we are used to
that are effective in adding to the mood or feeling of the film.
Nothing in the
creation of a film score is arbitrary all of the music that we hear has
composed specifically to accentuate or punctuate what the main idea
that the
writing, acting and directing of the film is trying to show to us.
Another aspect of the soundtrack to a film that is not
chosen is the use of source music and the unoriginal score. Source
music is
the music that can be heard coming from a radio, a dance club band , a
band, etc. The music that is chosen to be played in these scenes is
put there
to accentuate the point of the scene, to add humour or even to make the
seem ironic. This source music can also be used to foreshadow
upcoming events
and prepare us for the next scene. The unoriginal score is music that
has been
written by somebody else but has been placed in the scene to add
effect. The
music can be a part of the scene as in the scene with Tom Hanks
explaining the
story of La Mamma Morta to Denzel Washington in Philadelphia. The
music in this
scene has been added to create depth in Tom Hank's character and to
create a new
special bond between the two men. The other way that the unoriginal
score can
be used effectively is if the music is not actually in the scene but is
playing in the background as if it were in the minds of the characters
in the
scene. An example of this can be found in the film True Romance where
Hopper's character is speaking to Chrisopher Walken and we know that
Hopper's characters going to die. The music that is being played in the
background of this scene is a faint opera, that adds peace to a scene
should not feel peaceful. The beauty of the music adds a certain grace
to the
scene and gives it more character.
To listen to the score of a film is to appreciate fully
what the film makers were trying to point out to us. The acting and
and the writing are the element that primarily we remember, however,
subconsciously we remember more that we give ourselves credit for. A
movie can
be seen once and already the themes are ingrained in our minds and if
we were to
hear them elsewhere we could identify them. Many themes of films today
are so
memorable that we can often sing them on cue, for example, the themes
to The
Godfather, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Jaws, Jurassic Park, etc. Each of
films has a theme that we remember even if we do not make a conscious
to do so. It is far to often that the power of music is underestimated
and not
enough credit is given to the thought that was put into creating an
film score. As an audience it is our duty, not necessarily to always
enjoy, but
to at least appreciate all elements of the film making process. The
scoring of
the film has always been a cornerstone to the success of the film, no
matter how
primitive the music may be.


Bazelon, Irwin. Knowing the Score. Van Nostrand Reinhold Co, New York.

Hoffman, Charles. Sounds for Silence. DBS Publications, New York.

Kalinak, Kathryn. Settling the Score. The University of Wisconsin

Press, U.S.A.

Manrell, Roger and John Huntley. The Technique of Film Music. Focal
Press, New

McCarty, Clifford. Film Music. Garland Publishing Inc., New York.