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  • Ciana O'Muireadhaigh

ARTICLE: The Cultural Transmission of the Neo-Classical genre in Film Music

Film Music remains a reflection of the director’s experience. It’s a circular relationship around conveying emotions and telling stories alongside people, not only consuming these works, but being affected by them as well. Its affects can lead to change into various personal circumstances – like opinions and values. This highlights the brilliance of Film Music, with its tremendous variation across genres evoking different responses in an audience. As we see it, this brings about the curiosity of wondering - how much have genres developed to bring about its extensiveness is film music styles today, and where are we currently up to with this development?

“Change in society and cultures leads to responses by a Composer. A Composers work leads to change in society.”

The beginning of the 20th century saw the introduction of music to screen and paved the way through progressive and ever-changing styles of Film Music. Despite this growth in genre, these styles have become their own distinctive art-form and continue to be prominently used within film today. Combining elements of these forms of music became a trend popularised by the likes of Stravinsky, Bartok, Schoenberg plus many more; and eventually led to the development and popularity within film of the Neo-Classical genre.


The Neo-classical genre in Film Music is often defined as a unique blend of classical and modern styles. Its characterisations can be outlined with the use of intricate melodies, complex harmonies, and unusual rhythms, all with modern influences. Since its emergence in the 20th Century its ivolvement in film has developed in particular ways including:

Integration with different styles: Elements can often be blended with other styles to create innovative soundscapes which is commonly used in a wider array of film genres such as science fiction, drama, and thrillers.

Experimentation with orchestration: The development and transmission of neo-classicism has allowed for the exploration of unconventional choices in instrumentation, alternative methods of technicality for instruments and the electronic manipulation of acoustic sounds.

Recognition: Alexandre Desplat, Jonny Greenwood, and Michael Nyman are only a small number of composers who have attributed to the acclimation of neo-classicism in Film Music and have gone on to win awards for their scores being featured in films, particularly using this style.

Composer Johnny Greenwood has embraced elements of neo-classicism in his film scores.

Neo-Classical music in film has absorbed influences from various musical traditions around the world. The creation of a unique and eclectic sound is brought about through composers incorporating elements of these different cultures. The cultural transmission of neoclassical music in films involves the dissemination, adoption, and adaption of the genre itself across different cultures, regions, and contexts through the medium of cinema; A process which is shaped around factors such as artistic exchange, technological advancements, and the collective emotional resonance of music.

Other factors also come into play here:

Influence of Auteurs: Directors and auteurs play a significant role in the cultural transmission of neoclassical music in film. Their artistic vision and choice of composers can provide an introduction for audiences to the neoclassical genre.

The Education and Appreciation of Adaption to Cultural Context: Film education and the ability to be critical play a crucial role in the cultural transmission of neoclassical music. Film scholars, enthusiasts and critics help promote the understanding and appreciation that the neoclassical genre has in cinematic storytelling. This is relevant for the cultural-social setting of a film, where the genres’ ability to evoke the elegance and aesthetics of certain eras contribute to its cultural transmission.

Cross-Cultural Appeal: Universality remains a vital characteristic of neoclassical music with its ability to transcend linguistic and cultural barriers.

John Williams' score for "Memoirs of a Geisha" expertly fuses elements of Neo-classical and Japanese music together.

The integration of the neoclassical genre in film music with various elements of cultural traditions has provided the opportunity for films scores to now include what can be considered a unique fusion. Williams score for “Memoirs of a Geisha” sees traditional Japanese music elements being blended with neoclassical composition with the intention to capture the essence and elements of Geisha culture. The 1997 Scorsese film “Kundun” saw Philip Glass’ signature minimalist style blend with Tibetan chants and instrumentation. Ennio Morricone’s score for his 1996 film “The Mission” exudes a culturally rich soundtrack that reflects the location of the film in the jungles of South America, using South American folk music with neoclassical elements.

These only reflect the small number of films scores demonstrating the synthesis neoclassical music and cultural references which provides the chance for audiences from diverse backgrounds to resonate with these soundtracks. The use of neoclassical music shows how the genres adaptability and resonance make is a versatile tool for filmmakers. The dynamic interplay between cultural exchange and artistic expression provides the ability for neoclassical music in film to convey meaning across diverse audiences and therefore highlight the essential element of this genre in film music today.

In conclusion, neoclassical music in film creates cultural versatility which highlights its enduring element within contemporary cinema today. It remains an effective tool for filmmakers and composers to provide a wide range of emotional narrative as well as expression within cinema today.

This article was written by Ciana O'Muireadhaigh. Thanks for checking out this article. Please consider subscribing to our mailing list for more articles such as this, as well as film music tips, and orchestra recording opportunities.


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