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ARTICLE - A (Very) Brief History Of Film Music

For over 120 years music has accompanied every twist and turn in our favourite movies, transporting us to distant and fantastical lands. It is impossible to tell every part of film music history without writing an entire novel; however, I’ve tried to condense this article into a pocket-sized retelling of the story so far. As composers it is good to know where the music we love originated, the different styles it has journeyed through, and from where we can pull some inspiration for projects of our own. Guest article from Genevieve Fisher

In the beginning there was… Silence

Drama and music have been a relationship that can be traced back through the ages, from the plays of ancient Greece, to European operas and more recently musicals. Early film was silent, beginning in the 1890s as show-booth attractions at fairgrounds and vaudeville shows. In an attempt to grab the attention of passing crowds at these usually loud events, live musicians were used to accompany the film or perform outside the event.

Music and film can be found in the 1890s in Paris, with Emile Reynaud’s Pantomimes Lumineuses (1892) and the Lumi’ere brothers’ short films, both were accompanied by compositions for the piano. Notably Camile Saint-Saëns, the prominent French composer, wrote the soundtrack for L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise, which was released in 1908.

(Soundtrack for L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise (1908) by Camile Saint-Saëns written originally for strings, piano and harmonium. This piece has an interesting cross-over between typical romantic concertos and the sound-scaping affect we have come to expect in film music.)

Many films at the turn of the 20th century used or borrowed from pre-composed pieces, either under the recommendation of the film company or from just the music the performers already knew. This commonly included works by Beethoven, Mozart, Grieg, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Verdi, and Wagner, alongside some traditional tunes.


The Sound of Silence

As silent films grew longer and more abundant, the technology that supported them continued to take huge leaps forward. 1921 saw the release of D. W. Griffith’s Dream Street which, although a flop, featured a pre-recorded love song. One of the most notable silent films of the 20s was Warner Bros. Don Juan (1926). This feature-length film used a pre-recorded soundtrack of music and sound effects written by William Axt, David Mendoza, and Major Edward Bowes, and was recorded by the New York Philharmonic orchestra. In 1927, Warner Bros. released the first film with spoken audio, The Jazz Singer, heralding in a new age of ‘talkies’ with The Lights of New York (1928), bringing the age of silent films to an end.

(Warner Bros. The Jazz Singer, the first film with spoken audio and synchronised music.


Beginning of the Golden Age

Between the end of the 20s and early 30s, film musicals became popular as developments in technology allowed studios to experiment with genres they had not been able to before. In other types of film where speech was important, many directors feared the music may drown out what was being said as music and dialog were recorded together, so many films actually became more musically silent for a short period of time.

In 1931, the ‘Godfathers’ of film music, Max Steiner, Dimitri Tiomkin and Alfred Newman, produced their first scores. Most notably, in 1932, Steiner produced the first completely original score for a film, Symphony of Six Million. Alfred Newman’s jazz and blues inspired soundtrack for Street Scene began to pull film music away from purely symphonic sounds, whilst creating a jazzy sound synonymous with the Manhattan skyline. The soundtrack for King Kong (1933), by Max Steiner, used techniques in the music to evoke the jungle landscape, alongside micky-mousing (when movement on screen is mimicked by the music). The 1930s also saw the arrival of Erich Wolfgang Korngold with his first scores for Give us this Night (1936) and Captain Blood (1935) and the rising success of Disney.

(Jungle Dance from Max Steiner’s soundtrack for King Kong is punctuated with staccato accented crochets that mimic the movement on screen, whilst increasing tension until it cuts when the camera crew are spotted.)


World War II and Post-War Years

Although France and Italy had originally dominated the early film music scene, World War II challenged this, alongside pressure from the successful Hollywood competition. By the end of the war American films made up around 90 percent of films shown in Europe, with Bernard Herrmann stating, ‘America is the only country… with so-called “film composers” – every other country has composers who sometimes do films.’

The period saw many different music styles develop: stirring patriotic music for wartime film, including the Stalinist propaganda scored by Shostakovich; musical styles seen in Disney’s Pinocchio (1940) and Dumbo (1941); later in the 50s, musicals such as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (1955). Most importantly, there was a rise in popularity of Jazz, notably seen in Alex North’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), which was directly derived from Dixieland Jazz.

(Trailer for A Streetcar Named Desire. Notice the use of brass that mimics jazzy undertones)


The good, the bad, and the chromatic stab

As film music adventured into the 60s, new sounds were discovered, including the works of Ennio Morricone with the distinctive sounds of his Spaghetti Western scores, returning to the large symphonic sounds of earlier decades. The late 50s saw Bernard Herrmann’s most famous scores, Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960), that reflected the suspenseful films of this period, where many soundtracks became eerie or unsettling.

(‘The Ecstasy of Gold’ by Ennio Morricone from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), notice the symphonic arrangement with emphasis on percussion and trumpets alongside vocals and guitar)


The 70s

Famously, the 70s marked the return to the large symphonic sound found in the origins of the film music of Max Steiner and even earlier romantic composers such as Wagner. Thanks to John Williams’ soundtrack for the ‘space opera’ Star Wars (1977), many composers began to return to this grand orchestral style. Alongside this, Jerry Goldsmith produced popular textual scores for films such as Alien (1979).

(John Williams’ opening for Star Wars)


The Revenge of the Synth

Great changes occurred in the 80’s with the addition of the synthesiser, first heard in Chariots of Fire (1981) by Vangelis, which grew in popularity as an entire score could be recorded by only one-person, revolutionising film music. This also allowed for popular songs and contemporary rock to become the basis of many soundtracks.

(Theme from Chariots of Fire by Vangelis)


90’s onward

By merging the techniques of symphonic and synth, the hybrid soundtracks produced covered a broad range of styles, consequently creating a versatile and effective medium for communicating with audiences. Throughout the history of film many different soundscapes have been associated with certain themes and eras that we can use to our advantage in our own projects. Conclusion


As composers, looking back on the music that came before can help pave our way to new and exciting projects, encouraging us to experiment and always push the boundaries of what is possible. This history of film music has been brief, and there are so many fascinating chapters that had to be left out. However, below I have linked some of the books that go into incredible detail of film history which this article is based on. If you wish to know more, these are the ones to read.


Mervyn Cooke’s A History of Film Music (2008)

Laurence E. MacDonald’s The Invisible Art of Film Music: A Comprehensive History (2013)

James Wierzbicki’s Film Music: A History (2009)


Other sources used to create this article;

IMDb (Internet Movie Database)

Article by Genevieve Fisher

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