Film Score Music

Film Score Music

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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 and
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 background
in a television commercial. The music is always there, reminding us of past
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 take
advantage of when they are writing the music to accompany the movies. As
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. What
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 the
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 the
specific techniques that are used in todays films. When the first moving
pictures were seen they were known as silent films, although they were not
actually silent. They contained a very primitive type of musical accompaniment
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 average
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

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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 to
acknowledge the music in order to fully understand all that is being displayed
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. The
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 the
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 engine
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 and
people began to take the films more seriously. The idea of motifs did not
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 extra
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 and
sometimes even a large orchestra, was a valued addition to the movie industry
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 music.
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 the
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 movies
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 by
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 the
resulting figure is 10. This means that the holes punched in the film should
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 European,
arriving in Hollywood to compose great works for film. The European influence
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 European
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 the
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 Bertrand
Hermann the infamous Citizen Kane. The films required a great use of leitmotifs,
themes, and sub themes. It was these characteristics that gave the music such
importance and helped make these films of the thirties become the memorable
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 films
have an enormous orchestration and key motifs as well as a blend of different
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 motifs
used in this film are of this tragic genre with Irish folk melodies intertwined
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 death.
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 the
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 film
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. Steiner
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 last
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 the
1930's was the music to the epic Gone With the Wind. This film begins with
many different themes being introduced, the most famous of which is the theme
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 but
rather use prerecorded classical music with some Old South tunes mixed in;
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 another
score in case he did not approve if what Steiner had written. In the end
Steiner's extraordinary composing ability prevailed and it is his fantastic
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, Rhett
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 the
Civil War. This theme recurs throughout the film each time is is modified
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 and
important even if we do not always notice that it is there. From the beginning
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 would
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 time.
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 little
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 modified
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 climactic
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 another
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 to
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 hearing
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 been
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 randomly
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 marching
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 scene
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 still
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 Dennis
Hopper's character is speaking to Chrisopher Walken and we know that Dennis
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 that
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 exactly
what the film makers were trying to point out to us. The acting and directing
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 these
films has a theme that we remember even if we do not make a conscious decision
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 effective
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.
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