Friday, July 18, 2008


Last year, my middle-school-aged nephew worked on a class project about film music. As part of his assignment, he “interviewed” me via e-mail about soundtrack scores. Although I consider myself knowledgeable about film, music for motion-picture soundtracks isn’t my specialty, and I had to brush up a bit on the subject before I could get back to my nephew. My answers may not be perfect, but I did the best with his questions that I could. My reply e-mail went like this:

It’s good to hear from you! Your research project sounds like a good one, and I’m glad that you chose the topic you did. I’m also flattered that you want my opinions.

You ask some very good questions, and you deserve some brief answers to them. You should know that in my college work, I’m used to taking simple questions and spinning long, complicated answers out of them. And a lot of your questions, while short, lead to some complex answers. I’ll try to keep my answers brief, but bear with me if they are longer than what you want.

A) First, the obvious: Film scoring usually uses symphonic music, that is: music played by a large orchestra featuring strings, woodwinds, and percussion, the kind of orchestra that we are used to hearing play the music of such 19th-century composers as Beethoven, Wagner, etc. Film scores since the 1960s have used non-symphonic instruments, but symphonic music is the norm.

B) When thinking of film music vs. concert music, this brings up the difference between music written to accompany something to be looked at (a movie, a music video, etc.) vs. music to be listened to for its own sake. What is the difference in experiencing them? I’m sure that not many people would agree on an answer. But this question leads to another that always comes up when discussing film music: Is a film score better when it quietly supports what’s on the screen or when it stands out from the movie? There are different answers to this question, and you might want to ask [a music specialist] for his opinion.

Now that I’ve said that, I think I can go on to your questions:

1. What is your favorite film score?

My favorite score written directly for the screen is Philip Glass’s music for
Mishima (1985), the first “minimalist” score for a dramatic movie. I looked at the movie differently than if the music had just been strictly symphonic.

However, I need to put in a good word for another piece of film music. After seeing the silent French movie
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), contemporary [American] composer Richard Einhorn wrote an oratorio inspired by the film, an oratorio titled Voices of Light. After the music piece made its rounds in the concert halls, someone got the idea of matching up Voices of Light to The Passion of Joan of Arc, and I think that the results are simply amazing.

2. What, in your opinion, characterizes a great score?

I don’t think that there is any one single thing that makes a film score great. Anyone scoring a film must ask themselves a lot of questions: “Do I want a symphonic score or something else? Do I want a score that stands out from the movie’s images or something more modest?” The short answer is that a “great” film score is one that works best with the movie.

3. How has film scoring changed over the years?

There are a lot of answers to this question. If you look at the history of changes in concert music, you can probably find a corresponding change in film music. If you are looking for One Big Change, it would probably be the increasing use of non-symphonic music or instruments since the 1960s. An example would be Jerry Goldsmith’s score for
Planet of the Apes (1968), which featured the use of “primitive” instrumentation along with its symphonic score.

4. What has been one of the most influential film scores of all time?

Again, it’s hard to pin down just one. But if you think the use of non-symphonic instruments to be the most important change in film music, then the most influential score would have to be Anton Karas’ famous zither score for
The Third Man (1949), an unusual one-instrument soundtrack when most other films were scored with an orchestra.

5. What characterized early film music?

Of course, the earliest films were silent, and music had to be performed live. When sound came to film, music was no longer needed to run throughout the entire movie. Instead of the relatively long symphonic pieces played in the concert halls, the main innovation of early talking-movie music was the use of relatively short pieces of orchestral music — or “cues” — spaced at intervals (pauses) to make room for the dialogue scenes or scenes where no music was needed. Otherwise, movie music of the 1920s and 1930s was close to that of the popular orchestral music of the concert halls.

6. Who were the most notable composers of early film music?

Names of composers who wrote solid symphonic scores for Hollywood in the 1930s and ’40s include Max Steiner (
Gone with the Wind, Casablanca), Erich Wolfgang Korngold (The Adventures of Robin Hood), Miklos Rozsa (Double Indemnity), and Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane and many of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies). In the ’50s and ’60s, notable scores were written for Italian movies by the Italian composers Nino Rota and Ennio Morricone.

7. How did the “live” music in silent movies segue into early recorded film music?

The most obvious “segue” was that early sound technologies, such as Vitaphone in the late 1920s, were developed primarily as a means of making orchestral scores available to smaller movie theatres, theatres that weren’t large enough to have an orchestra accompany the movie and had to make due with a piano player or an organist. In fact, the very first Vitaphone movie,
Don Juan (1926), had a recorded soundtrack consisting entirely of symphonic music and no spoken dialogue.

The movie that caused Hollywood to go from silent to sound was the enormously successful
The Jazz Singer (1927), starring the popular Broadway star Al Jolson. Although The Jazz Singer is frequently mentioned in histories of Hollywood, not many of them point out that the movie was a silent film with recorded musical songs. In other words, whenever Jolson isn’t singing in The Jazz Singer, it’s a silent movie whose dialogue is in intertitles. Many historians believe that the early sound systems were just going to continue putting recorded music to silent movies, but when Jolson started speaking improvised words in between his song’s verses, audiences became curious how movie stars would sound. Because of Jolson’s improvised bits of spoken dialogue, historians say, the “talkies” were born.

The rest of my comments in the e-mail were of a personal nature. However, not long after I sent the e-mail, I realized that I hadn’t mentioned the one piece film music that had been mentioned most often in my general readings on film: Sergei Prokofiev’s score for Sergei Eisenstein’s Soviet film
Alexander Nevsky (1938).

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