19. A Brief Exposition on Movie Music

As we continue through my “Great American Screenplays” series with a series of reviews focused solely on films which came out in 1939, I would like to take a moment to introduce a few lists that I will be featuring alongside the reviews.  These lists, I believe, will require a chapter all of their own, because they involve a topic that we haven’t yet tackled in this blog.

The topic at hand?  As you guessed by the title of this chapter, we will be talking all about movie music.  From songs in musicals, to orchestral scores, to songs that play during opening and closing credits, and songs that just play in the background of a scene, music is an integral part of great cinema.  But, how much of a positive influence does good music create for a film?  There are real positives and real negatives in regards to movie music when it comes to film theory.  And, I hope, we can discuss those succinctly yet thoroughly in the following paragraphs.

What is a Soundtrack?

Adaptations and evolution of the lexicon occur gradually, but often.  That is certainly the case with the word “soundtrack”.  What we, in our generation, often refer to as the “soundtrack” is an adaptation of a movie’s “music track” that has been packaged for commercial consumption.  “Soundtrack” (it can be one or two words) is actually the composite of multiple tracks of different types of sound that are recorded for the film.

In sound film, there will always be a sound effects track, there will almost always be a dialogue track, and there will frequently be a music track.  While the dialogue track is normally created during filming, things like the music track and sound effects track will be frequently created post-production, so that a more conclusive edit of the film can be used, off of which they can base the sounds and properly synchronize them to the images on the screen.

The ability to make a good soundtrack has become an art form in today’s cinema; and this is one of those very rare elements of film-making which an educated film-connoisseur could fairly argue has improved over time.  The “popcorn flick” has become more an exhibition of sound than anything else, which is one reason why movies like that are better viewed in movie theaters than at home.  We often get so caught up in the characters and action and the screen that we don’t give a lot of the credit to the sound engineers backstage who had, simply put, given life to the entirety of the movie’s action.  We live in an era where the soundtrack reigns supreme.

That is why it is a little unfair to the technological geniuses that we have come to refer to the musical selections of a film as the movie’s “soundtrack”.  In the 1940s, studios started releasing records with samples of the movie music as a promotional effort to market their films (after Walt Disney made a buck or two doing it for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs).  These albums were released under the name “music from the motion picture soundtrack.”  Over time, the terminology shifted from this to “motion picture soundtrack”, to “original soundtrack”, and to the now oft-used-in-the-world-of-emoticons “OST”.

These “soundtrack” albums, nowadays, are used less as promotional tools and more as capitalizing efforts.  The album release for Titanic is one of the top 20 albums sold of all time, and Titanic the film is one of the most successful pictures of all time.  The former is, inevitably, the result of the latter.  I believe that this phenomenon is best ascribed to the lingering effects great movies can have on us, and the undying desire we have to keep those effects strong even after movie’s close.  Money for these albums are made after the film’s release, not before; and these are often purchased by fans of the film who want to put off the catharsis of the end credits.  Listening to the music from an original motion picture soundtrack is like listening to your ex-lover’s favorite song after a breakup.  It’s a way to keep holding on.

I do jest a little, but it’s pretty true, isn’t it?  We buy the music 1) because we like it, and 2) because it reminds us of the movie.  I’m as guilty as anyone in this.  When I was in Middle School and High School, I would frequently take a break from my Pink Floyd to listen to the music of Howard Shore from The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  That is such a mood-inducing score that it would transport me immediately back into Middle-Earth.  I think we all have music like that.  It takes us places we thought we’d left behind, and makes us long for more.

The advent of the “soundtrack” album as a real money-maker is, therefore, proof to the emotional impact music has on the viewer of the film.  The true emotional vestiges of a scene are tied to the music used to accompany it, particularly in modern cinema.  Take, for example, this scene from that movie whose music has meant so much to me for so long:

Notice how the music sets a nostalgic mood, sending the characters back to a place of peace.  Then, listen how the music gets darker as Frodo gasps for help underneath the crushing power of evil around him.  Then, listen what happens to the music as Sam responds.  The music guides our emotions, lends gravitas, and introduces a music theme that we can always remember; even take home with us.

What is Film Score?

The above example is an example of film score.  Under the direction of both the producers and the film director, the film score is written by a composer to accompany the action going on on the screen.

Really, the job of film score is to set a mood.  It is amazing what can be done by incorporating music into a scene.  This is something that we have learned all too well in modern cinema.  We may even use it too much…but I get ahead of myself.  We’ll discuss that later.  As an emotional trigger, few things work better than music.  It works as a bridge from the screen to the heart of the viewing, cuing an emotional reaction from those watching in an almost manipulative way.  Again, that can be a bad (or, at least, deceptive) thing…but, again, I get ahead of myself.

Film score is anything written, without words (though choral pieces normally count), as a musical accompaniment to the film.  There is no restriction on genre when it comes to movie scores.  For example, you can have the very thematically-driven music of John Williams in movies like Star Wars or Schindler’s List, or you can have the mostly ambient background of electronic music that have been featured in many modern films.  There can be jazz, like in Duke Ellington’s Anatomy of a Murder score, or there can be more pop-driven soundtracks like those in the James Bond movies.  There can also be movie scores that invoke far more of a classical element, as if pulled from the world of powder wigs and horse-drawn carriages through cobblestoned Vienna.  Those that come most to mind are the works of twentieth-century composers like Aaron Copland, Dmitri Shostakovitch, Leonard Bernstein, and Sergei Prokofiev.

What Other Forms of Movie Music Are There?

Film score is but one of the different types of musical elements that go into a music track.  While, in contemporary film, it is the probably the most important of these elements, other things matter greatly. The use of diegetic music is particularly important.  Take for example, this example from Top Gun:

In diegetic music, music is played actually in the world of the film.  Frodo and Sam can’t hear the London Philharmonic as they march up Mount Doom, but Maverick can certainly hear the Righteous Brothers.

Other forms of movie music include songs, original or recycled, that are incorporated into the body of the film or the film’s credits.  These songs are often used or written to express, through words and music (rather than just one or the other) the emotions of the characters in the film.  They can also be used to propel a plot point.  But, much more frequently, particularly when used during the credits, they are used to introduce key themes to the film.

One example of a song being used to express the emotion of a character is in the following clip from The Graduate.  In this case, the Simon and Garfunkel song “The Sound of Silence” is used to show Benjamin’s ethereal existence and his inability to share the world and situation he is in with anyone around him.  Setting it against the backdrop of a pool adds even more to this delicate symbol:

View the clip here.

An example of a song propelling a plot point forward is in Annie Hall, here we see how Diane Keaton (playing Annie) is able to grow as a performer through different renditions at a night club.  This shows not only growth as a performer, but demonstrates the type of maturation that relationships bring, which is one of many elements to love and relationships that Woody Allen addresses in his masterpiece:

Or, there is the ability a song has to introduce a thematic element of a movie.  Take for example, this song from Midnight Cowboy.  Here, the movie is introduced by Hans Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin'”, about leaving a shelter once too-familiar for a new life.  The lyrics at the end of the song, “I won’t let you leave by love behind, no I won’t let you leave…” are particularly telling about the nature of such moves:

But, not all songs brought in from an original source are pop songs or ballads.  Sometimes, and this is very frequent with the classics, classical music is brought in to collaborate with sound what is going on on-screen.  Often, classical music is used during edits as a “filler”, if you will, to pace the final edit of the film before the original score is completed.  In the case of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the classical music they used as this filler was the work of Richard Strauss and Johann Strauss, in particular, the “Blue Danube” and Richard’s tone poem “Also sprach Zarathustra”.

Kubrick opted to use both pieces in his film in place of an original score by Alex North.  In particular, the thematic elements of “Also sprach Zarathustra” made this decision so poignant and timely.  In a much deeper, though still the same, way as Hans Nilsson’s song at the beginning of Midnight Cowboy introduced key thematic elements to the movie that was about to play, Strauss’s famous piece establishes from the outset the themes of 2001: the eternal potential of man and the rise of the Superman, who is God.

There is also the kind non-diegetic, non-musical special effects-driven soundtrack that somehow still plays an almost music role.  One of the most famous examples of this is Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.

How Did Movie Music Get to Where it Is Now?

All this is important, because it shows you how much of a hold music has come to have on films today.  But how did we get to this point?

I need you take yourself out of this world you live in for a few minutes and bear with me.  Put yourself in that crowded little movie theater in Paris when the Lumière Brothers first showed their now-famous short film, L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat.  We’ve talked about that film a lot so far in this blog, most notably during my essay series on montage.

You have never seen a picture move.  You’ve seen plenty of pictures, but never one this big.  Never one that came at you.  You have never seen any image other than the image of reality move before you.  But now, you see it.  You see a train come right at you.  Whether or not the purported story is true, that people screamed as they watched the film, the point remains clear.  No one had ever seen this.  It wasn’t on their radar.  It wasn’t slow enough in coming that they felt forewarned.  They just saw a picture move.

Did it need any sound?  No.  It was moving, and that was amazing enough.  No one ever stopped to think, in that theater of shocked—and maybe scared—viewers, “hey, why isn’t the train making any noise?”

The first silent films were released just as their name would imply: silent.  But, there was a problem.  The sound of the projector was often incredibly distracting for viewers of these silent films.  According to Kurt London, the marriage of music with moving pictures was not originally motivated through art, but rather through practicality, the obnoxious sound of that projector needed to be tempered.  “For in those times,” he said, “there was, as yet, no sound-absorbent walls between the projection machine and the auditorium. This painful noise disturbed visual enjoyment to no small extent. Instinctively cinema proprietors had recourse to music, and it was the right way, using an agreeable sound to neutralize one less agreeable.”

What started as a pragmatic attempt to get rid of noise became a gradual movement to incorporate noise—the right noise—into the cinematographic experience.  Where, for a while, an accompanist would merely play along with the goings-on on screen, soon, movies were being released with original scores, the sheet music of which would be handed off to the musical accompanist and played in the same manner throughout a picture’s entire run in the theater.  Or, in the case of scores where full orchestras were employed (which was incredibly common, particularly in German silent cinema), recordings would be sent along with the filmstrip.

Soon, we had a word hurdling toward that drastic date in 1927 when The Jazz Singer was released.  With The Jazz Singer, synchronized sound was incorporated permanently into the movie industry.  It was certainly a long time coming.  Supposedly the famous Eadweard Muybridge (the inventor of the zoopraxiscope—the original moving picture-taker) proposed to Thomas Edison (the inventor of the phonograph—the original sound-recorder) the concept of sound-synchronized moving images as early as 1888.  But, it was a technological advance that was slow in coming, and not without good reason.  (I’ll get to that “good reason” in the next section of this essay).

After The Jazz Singer, even silent films had sound.  Take, for example, the famous score from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times.  The movie is, for all intents and purposes, a silent film.  But, it has a score (written by Chaplin) written specifically for the film, and includes the synchronization of sound effects and dialogue at various points in the film.

What we know today as “movie music” would come to true existence in two watershed moments.  The first of these was in 1933, when a man named Max Steiner—a prodigy who directed his first operetta at the age of 12—wrote the score to David O. Selznick’s King Kong.  Considered the progenitor of all modern movie scores, the aggression, scope, and dynamics of King Kong‘s score was unlike anything heard before in a movie theater.  Before Kong, movie music was more of a peripheral nature.  After Kong, it was the omniscient puppeteer, pulling the reactionary strings of everyone in the room who watched the film.

Not only was Kong important for its use of dynamics and leitmotifs (a series of notes that make up the central core to a recognizable melody), Kong was also an important piece in the synchronization of movie music with the action on the screen.  Not only did Kong invoke emotion with its music, it also moved forward through action-cues drawn from the images on the screen.  Wikipedia cites the example of the native chief on Skull Island whose every footstep moves in pace with the slowly growing crescendo of the music.

The second watershed moment was an entire year.  Now, what possible year could that be?  If you’ve been reading my blog, you would well aware that the year in question is 1939.  1939 was incredibly important for the evolution of movie music, because it was the year when we really established motifs and themes as central elements to movie scores.  This is an elemental aspect of modern movie scoring.

You can probably hum many different themes from, say Star Wars, couldn’t you?  There’s the main theme (da-da-da dummm…dum! da-da-da DUMM dum, da-da-da DUMM dum, da-da-da duum), there’s the Imperial March (bum! bum! bum! bumm-ba-dum! bumm-ba-dum), the Force theme (ba-dum…dum…da-da-dum…dumm), and many others.  Did you know that Howard Shore’s score for The Lord of the Rings featured 90 different leitmotifs, each representing a different culture or character?  What about those catchy tunes that immediately remind us of Indiana Jones, Don Corleone, the Man With No Name, or Inspector Clouseau?

All this owes itself to what happened in 1939.  In particular, Alfred Newman and Max Steiner established the pattern with Tara’s Theme (Gone With the Wind), and Cathy’s Theme (Wuthering Heights).  Many, even today, would say that Tara’s Theme is the most recognized movie theme in history.  Though I used it in one of my countdown videos, I have to say that it has since been dethroned by the Star Wars theme.  But really, all that’s beside the point.  1933 and 1939 were, without doubt, indispensable in the evolution to modern movie scoring.

However, that doesn’t mean that nothing changed after 1939.  The 1950s also brought about rapid change in movie music, and this change is felt to a great degree in today’s scores.  In the 50s, composers began a more experimental journey to express the emotions and motives of a film.  Composers like Leonard Rosenman and even the great Elmer Bernstein starting to incorporate jazz, atonality, syncopation, and non-diegetic pop into their compositions in movies like East of Eden and Walk on the Wild Side.  The bravery in their non-classical compositions led to the rebellious and influential soundtrack in Easy Rider, the first film to use only rock music as its accompaniment.

I say that these movements in the 50s (and into the 60s) are “felt to a great degree in today’s scores” because we have, today, a style of film music that is mostly ambient.  Other than a few hold outs, film composers today are focused on creating maybe one or two true themes for their movies, and then recycling them and rehashing them throughout the picture with less dynamic changes to create a more haunting tone that comes to define the entire picture.  Take, for example, the music to last years The Imitation Game, or The Theory of Everything.  Listen to their “soundtracks” and what I just said should be made quite manifest.

Then again, though, there are still people working to make movie music magic.  The composer of the score for The Imitation Game actually composed the score for The Grand Budapest Hotel that same year.  His name is Alexander Desplat.  Desplat’s score in The Grand Budapest Hotel is one of the best achievements in movie music in the past decade, embracing a multi-culturalism in its folkishness while at the same time respecting the classical traditions of Prokofiev and Copland and the thematic skills of composers like Williams, Steiner, Morricone, and Korngold.

What are the Limitations of Using Movie Music?

Now, we get to the part of cynicism.  I’m a movie critic.  We both hate and love everything.  And we can be quite obnoxious in terms of pointing weaknesses in the things you love only to switch gears and point out all the strengths of those things once we have succeeded in changing your mind.  We love to play devil’s advocate, I guess.

But, this has to be done.  If you’re going to be a competent film-connoisseur, you have to hear this part of the essay.  It’s of paramount importance.  And I don’t mean the movie studio.  Because in coming to understand the limitations of movie music, even the negatives of movie music, you will find your bearings pointed toward what is truly great about film.  You will start to see movies differently.  And, instead of having this change of opinion shrink your tastes, it will enlarge them.  You will find that more movies become more watchable.  And you will be very happy to see the enormous world of cinema open itself up before you.

You will come to love movies more because the movies will stop telling you how to feel.  Rather, movies will age with you because they become mercurial experiences that you share with the movies’ makers.  When a movie tries to tell you how to feel, a movie is either preachy or corny.  Sometimes, they can veil it well enough to trick you into thinking you’re watching greatness, but really, you’re watching something that will fade with age.  Movies are meant to be slices of cake.  They ask you to be involved, to be an active movie-watcher.  When you involve yourself in a film, it means more, and lasts with you longer.

Directors use, mostly, two things to tell you how you’re supposed to feel during a motion picture.  The first tool is the acting.  This has become all the more prevalent since the rise of method acting in the 1960s, but, in all honesty, it’s been around since the very beginning of cinematic history.

The second tool is, you guessed it, music.  Music is a powerful, powerful thing, and if used unwisely, can wreak havoc.  Some of the greatest pieces of cinema ever filmed are, actually, propaganda pictures.  Imagine watching Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible without Sergei Prokofiev’s brilliant score.  But, in the case of the Nazi and Soviet propaganda films, the music was used to terrible ends.  Otherwise independent souls found themselves swayed by seeing the swastika raised triumphantly against an audio backdrop of major chords and lifting arpeggios.

This is why I have already dedicated a large portion of this blog to acting, and am now dedicating a portion of the blog to movie music.  I am arming you not only with an historical knowledge of the crafts, but also with necessary ammunition against all the deceivers out there.

Without this point in mind, you will never come to appreciate the work of two of my very favorite directors: Yasujirô Ozu and Robert Bresson.

I’ve already used this example in my blog, but I’ll use it again.  In the case of Bresson, there is a famous story about how he chose to direct the lead actor in his film A Man Escaped.  Bresson, somewhat of a taskmaster, was famous for his approach to minimalism.  He would strip everything but the absolute necessities out of the frame, focusing solely on the letting the camera tell you the story rather than all the minutiae in front of it.  This included his actors.  He often wanted to work with non-professionals, because he liked how they didn’t really act.  They were more manipulable.  In the case of François Leterrier, the philosophy student Bresson hired for A Man Escaped, Bresson worked tirelessly, scene after scene, take after take, to strip Leterrier of all emotion.  They would film over and over and over again until Bresson was convinced that his actor was no longer acting.  His actor was a prop in his minimalist setting.

Why would Bresson do this?  Because he didn’t want to go through all of this trouble making a film where the camera tells the story only to have the actor decide how the story was going to be told and how all the viewers were going to interpret it.  Now, you probably read about this and think to yourself, “that’s a movie I don’t want to see.”  Well, you’re sadly mistaken, and I hope that you change your mind.  A Man Escaped is so riveting, exciting, interesting, and artful that you never realize you’re watching a minimalist film, because you’re too enthralled at what is going on before you.  It’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, without a doubt.

Do you see, though, what I’m getting at. Bresson doesn’t tell you how to feel in his movies.  He doesn’t appeal to the simplest tricks to get you to cry or laugh or nod your head in approval.  He wants you to experience his vision and become a part of it.  And, he doesn’t fail.  Practically without exception, Bresson always provided a masterpiece for his viewers.  He respected them, they respected him, and movie magic was made immortal.

It shouldn’t surprise you, then, that the only music Bresson featured in A Man Escaped was the “Kyrie” from Mozart’s “Great Mass in C minor, K. 427”.  And it only played in transition sequences.

Perhaps the best example of a person who only used music in transition scenes was the other director I mentioned, Yasujirô Ozu.  He only used music in his famous “pillow shots,” sequences of city or rural life that would be inserted between scenes as transition-like elements.  Ozu was known for these pillow shots.  But, the music behind them was telling of how Ozu felt about film.

Like Bresson, Ozu didn’t like the tendency filmmakers had to try and command their viewers to feel a certain way, or interpret a certain scene a certain way.  Ozu felt that limited the potential that was there for his films to apply to any one at any time and in any place.  If anything, Ozu wanted to stray as far away from that tendency as possible.  Said Mark Schilling:

“In contrast to standard industry practice, Ozu refrained from underlining emotions with dramatic close-ups and surging background music. Instead, he typically shot such scenes from a distance and confined music to transitions, while using it to offset or contrast the mood of the characters. Thus, lively tunes followed sad scenes.”

I made it very clear in my list of the Greatest Directors of all time that Ozu and Bresson mean very much to me.  I have never seen movies that moved me so much as their films have done.  The fact that I’m an American millennial, with little to nothing in common with these two men long deceased, and am still so moved by their work shows that they knew what they were talking about when it came to how to produce their films.  They recognized that music had great motivating power, and didn’t want that sort of power to corrupt their films.  The knew that music had real limitations when it came to film, and they used their music wisely.


So, how, then do I, the FilmSage, feel about movie music?  I have no idea.  I love it.  But, I fear it.  After all, I stated in my list of the great directors that Ozu and Bresson were two of my four favorite directors.  As a matter of fact, another director ended up taking the top spot on the list (after much deliberation on my part).  That director was Alfred Hitchcock.  He’s the man who approved of Bernard Herrmann’s score in the romance scenes of Vertigo or the horrific murder sequences of Psycho.  Surely, Hitchcock was a man who wanted to tell you how to feel.  Or was he?  There’s another topic for another day.

What it ultimately comes down to is theory.  And my “A Slice of Cake” theory, as stated in my revisiting of the theory in an essay of its own, clearly states that there is an important corollary.  Here’s a quick review:

  1. All movies are meant to be slices of cake, not slices of life.  They are supposed to be something outside of our reality, and they are that way in that they show us the world as seen through the eyes of artists.  The truly great films are reflections of their makers.  We are given a world of their making, and we are able to actively participate in that world through our watching.
  2. The corollary to that theory is that a movie-maker can approach their movie-making in one of two ways.
    1. Through an appeal to film as the “seventh-art”: Film is an art-form unto itself.  It works independent of music, literature, painting, architecture, and dance.  The director chooses to use the film, and the film alone, to portray his or her thoughts.
    2. By creating a multimedia “Gesamtkunstwerk”: Modern cinema has evolved into a multimedia art-form.  It not only incorporates film, but it also incorporates music, literature, painting, architecture, dance, and more.  To create a movie that fairly and adequately incorporates all these elements is to attempt a “Gesamtkunstwerk” (or complete work of art) after the Wagnerian tradition.

Bresson and Ozu are examples of those types of directors who follow the first approach to the “A Slice of Cake” corollary.  Hitchcock follows the latter.  Naturally, there is overlap.  But, the overall approaches are there.

This is why I can’t say, exactly, what the magic formula is for music in movies.  I spent more than half of this essay talking about all the great things music brings to film.  I spent the last part talking about the negatives.  I’m not alone in this understanding of the duality of music in movies.  Fritz Lang, one of the German directors who was influential in getting original scores implemented for silent films, was one of the biggest detractors for the incorporation of music once 1927 came around and talkies were born.  How could he, on one hand, be such an advocate for music when there was no sound in film, only to have, on the other hand so significant an aversion to it after sound came to be?

I don’t know, but I think it goes to show you what a dynamic topic movie music is and can be in critical circles.

One thing’s for sure, though.  I love music; and music will always a welcome place anywhere and anytime it can be featured, so long as it’s done right and done well.

7 thoughts on “19. A Brief Exposition on Movie Music

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