Film Music Appreciation
This is a text by Dr. Christine Gengaro to be used primarily for film music appreciation courses. Some of the materials are applicable to music appreciation, cinema studies, film studies, music history, musicology, and media studies. It attempts to provide a methodology for studying and analyzing film music without requiring the specific study of a particular set of films. It is appropriate for those with musical backgrounds and those who simply love film music. Suggestions are made in the instructor materials for assignments and assessments that empower students to analyze films in multiple ways, drawing upon cultural context, emotional viewing experience, historical milieu, among other lenses.
Film Music Appreciation is an introductory survey course designed to familiarize you with the music used to accompany film from the silent era to today. Emphasis is given to contextualizing the musical elements that support and enhance the dramatic experience of film in a cultural and historical perspective.
This text will address various topics within film music and, by extension, film genres and aspects of film production. These topics will cover the film traditions of multiple countries. Throughout the text, you will build a vocabulary that will allow you to analyze and contextualize the various uses of music in film.
Rather than focus on the Hollywood tradition, this class will branch out to include film music traditions from other parts of the world. As such, this will not be a chronological survey--except for the early sections which deal with the historical and technological development of film and film music. Instead, we will use a topics-based approach that will focus on a methodology of how to view and listen to films, and we will consider various ways to provide analysis for whatever content you cover in your class.
Author's note: to keep this text an open resource, we focus on how to study this music, rather than require that a certain set of films be studied. Whatever films or other media that is freely available to you--so long as it has music--can be used for these lessons. We will make recommendations as to what may be useful in a particular lesson, but these can change based on the availability of free library resources, subscription streaming services, phsyical copies of movies in a film library, clips on YouTube or Vimeo, etc.
The Beginning of Film Music
By the end of this section you will be able to:
- Describe the first film-going experiences and the technologies that made them possible
Music in film is a powerful force. It can perform numerous tasks--some technical, some symbolic, some emotional. It forms the aural (heard) element of an invented world, contributing to its authenticity and its vitality. It may appear as part of the action on screen, and/or it may be heard only by the audience.
In this text, we're going to talk about the different ways that film music works, and how it functions as part of a film. We're going to do this from a few different perspectives. Our first perspective is going to basically cover some brief history and lay out some vocabulary that we'll share. Once we have established some shared vocabulary, we can look at film music in different genres and across different global film traditions. We will be more concerned with seeing HOW things work than we will be about any particular film score. The films and other media in this text are suggestions, and you may make choices based on what is freely available to you.
What is Film Music?
To get us started on this journey into "appreciating" film music, It's important to understand how film music (as it exists now) came to be. As James Buhler's text on film music states: "Film Music is any music used in a film." (Buhler et al, 2010, p. 4) This includes everything from a newly written score, pre-existent music of any kind, music heard by the characters in a film, and music on the score which is not experienced by the characters.
As this is not a film history class, we won't go into a lot of the details of early film, but it might be useful to start by talking about the development of film technology. In around 1894, inventor Thomas Edison unveiled a machine called the Kinetoscope, "a peephole viewer for a single person to observe moving pictures without sound." (Hickman 2016, 65) These were gathered into parlors where people would pay money to watch short films.
The films created for the Kinetoscope were short without much plot. They were centered on single ideas--a bodybuilder flexing, a couple kissing, a dance--rather than narratives. Edison soon developed the Kinetophone, which was a machine that could play music on a phonograph while visual images played. The films were mostly of people dancing to popular tunes, and did not focus on dialogue or narrative.
The Kinetoscope/Kinetophone were quickly overshadowed by technology that could show a film to a group of people at once by using a projector. The Lumière brothers in France invented a machine that could record, print film, and project images. Their Cinématographe was fairly light and portable. One of the very first films ever shown to a public audience was footage of a train arriving at a station. Here, we recommend that you go to YouTube or Vimeo to watch the short film that premiered in December of 1895: Arrival of a Train at Ciotat. Here is a poster advertising the Lumière's invention (the original painting was by Marcellin Auzole (1862-1942):
These early films consisted only of moving images. No sound was encoded with the visual. But that didn't mean that early film audiences sat in silence and watched the earliest movies. Live accompaniment--by solo pianists or guitarists, or even small ensembles--was part of the film-going experience. By the way, Edison eventually got on board with the whole projector idea, and by 1896 he had one of his own, called the Vitascope. Here's an ad for this Vitascope system:
(Notice the full orchestra playing for the film.)
As film became less of a novelty where you might see something you'd see in real life (like a train arriving at a station or someone sneezing), people began to develop narrative films, that is, films that told a story. The development of narrative films has come to be associated with two men, one American and one French. Edwin Porter was responsible for what is considered the first narrative film in America, The Great Train Robbery. (Hickman 2016, p. 68) Georges Méliès attended the Lumières' premiere, and--unsatisfied with the short non-narrative subjects--he built his own studio and started making movies. In total, he would make more than five hundred films. The most famous of these is A Trip to the Moon. We recommend watching this film or clips from it. It is usually available on Youtube or Vimeo for free.
In the early days, music for these films was often improvised by the musicians in individual theaters, meaning that seeing the same film in two different theaters could be a wildly different experience. Your understanding of the plot, the emotional connection you felt to characters or events, and even your ability to suspend disbelief and immerse yourself in the story were dependent, in part, on who was improvising the accompanying music. The musician or musicians' understanding of plot, characters, and events influenced what they played, as did their individual skills. An observant musician, who easily grasped the emotional beats of a film and who was able to apply a high level of playing skill to the task, would certainly give the audience a more satisfying viewing experience than an inattentive player with poor timing and limited skills. And what if your cinema pianist was just having a bad day at the job! Theater accompaniment could be a mixed bag.
In the next section, we're going to talk about some of the ways films were scored in the early days. This will include some of the ways that the conventions of film music--the language of film music--came to be established.
Early Scoring Practices
By the end of this section you will be able to:
- Describe the earliest methods of adding music to film
- Identify the challenges in improvised film scores
- Describe the development of cue sheets and compilation scores
The Early Days
Film as a genre is over a century old, and music has always been part of the film-going experience, but modern film scores as we understand them--sometimes featuring newly written music, pre-existent music, or a combination of both--took a few decades to develop. We need to understand why that is and how it happened.
It’s an often-told anecdote that music was part of film from the beginning in part because something was needed to cover the noise of the projector. The earliest machines that allowed for the projection of film onto large blank spaces were hand cranked and noisy. In his book on film music, Kurt London said: “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.” (London, 28)
In time, the projectors would move from spaces where the audience sat to projection rooms with soundproofing. But by then, music was part of the film experience, fulfilling many important functions beyond just masking noise. We will talk about the functions of film music in another section. Right now, let’s talk about the different ways a silent film might have music.
A musician (or musicians) improvised music along with a film. These improvisations might have been entirely new music, or the musical selections might have been drawn from pre-existent pieces. In the early 1920s, some enterprising folks like Erno Rapée published collections of music for cinema pianists. His Motion Picture Moods (1924) was a valuable resource for a solo musician who wanted a quick and easy way to sight-read music that had been categorized into “fifty-two moods and situations,” according to the title page. Some of these moods and situations included: “battle,” “gruesome,” “Misterioso,” and “sadness,” and included a host of dance forms and national songs (organized by nation or ethnic group). It had the added benefit of being a “Rapid-Reference” collection, and this was achieved by a handy list on the outer margin of each page, which would quickly send you to the next mood or situation you needed to accompany.
If you’re interested in seeing more of Motion Picture Moods, the Silent Film Sound and Music Archive has the entire book beautifully scanned at their website.
Now, Rapée’s book was a great resource, but it also required that the musician in the cinema quickly (and correctly) interpret the visuals on screen. There was no way to control what they chose. Enter cue sheets! The cue sheet was a list of musical cues (either pre-existent or newly written) suggested for scenes in a specific film. The idea for such a thing is usually credited to Max Winkler (although others assembled cue sheets as well), clerk at Carl Fischer, Inc. a music publisher based in New York.
In his account of the development of cue sheets, Winkler explained that one of the important credos of the film industry was this: “On the silent screen music must take the place of the spoken word.” (Cooke 6) When you think of it like that, it really drives home how important it was to get the music right. Winkler described the situation before cue sheets:
“Only in a few isolated theaters in big cities was any effort made to coordinate the goings-on on the screen with the sounds in the musical pit. Thousands of musicians never had a chance to see a picture before they were called upon to play music for it! There they were sitting in the dark, watching the screen, trying to follow the rapidly unfolding events with their music: sad music, funny music, slow music—sinister, agitated, stormy, dramatic, funereal, pursuit, and amorous music. They had to improvise, playing whatever repertoire came to their worried minds, or whatever they made up themselves on the spur of a short moment. It was a terrible predicament—and so, usually, was the music.” (Cooke 6-7)
To fix this, Winkler proposed making a list to go with a film (and selling the sheet music from Carl Fischer, of course). He drew this example up for an imaginary movie: (Cooke 8)
MUSIC CUE SHEET
The Magic Valley
Selected and compiled by M. Winkler
- Opening—play Minuet No. 2 in G by Beethoven for ninety seconds until title on screen “Follow me dear.”
- Play—“Dramatic Andante” by Vely for two minutes and ten seconds. Note: Play soft during scene where mother enters. Play Cue No. 2 until scene “hero leaving room.”
- Play—“Love Theme” by Lorenze-for one minute and twenty seconds. Note: Play soft and slow during conversations until title on screen “There they go.”
- Play—“Stampede” by Simon for fifty-five seconds. Note: Play fast and decrease or increase speed of gallop in accordance with action on the screen.
In 1912 Winkler wrote to Universal Film Company and shared his idea for the cue sheet. Soon, he was being shown screenings of films before they were distributed, and he was suggesting pre-existent pieces for the various scenes and moods. You can imagine that many musical cliches were forged in this process—some of which we still live with today. Orchestras who played in movie houses were concerned about repeating music, so once you used, say, Brahms’ Lullaby for a movie, it was out as a choice for a few months after. This meant that new music was going to have to help meet the demand. Composers were hired to write the cues music that the rapid distribution of films required. Still unable to meet the extremely high demand, they took to arranging works that weren’t under copyright. As Winkler puts it: “We began to murder the works of Beethoven, Mozart, Grieg, J.S. Bach, Verdi…” (Cooke 11). Simply put, it was a frenzy. And the sudden popularity of cue sheets died out suddenly as well, with the advent of sound film. More on that later.
This is a somewhat glorified version of the cue sheet, but one that was not tied to a publishing house. Instead, the “most ambitious musical accompaniments for silent films were those offered by the huge picture palaces in major cities.” (Cooke 16) These theaters had enormous orchestras and many musicians at their disposal. Also, the practice of creating scores in this manner roughly coincided with Hollywood epic films like the controversial Birth of a Nation. When Birth of a Nation premiered in 1915, Joseph Carl Breil’s “compilation score” replaced the classical pieces chosen by Carli Elinor. These types of scores, facilitated by the music directors at major theaters, used pre-existent music and newly written music. According to a 1920 article in American Organist, music directors took great pains to choose music that would support the dramatic action without pulling focus from the action on screen. They would cut, arrange, and time out musical selections to fit a film. They might also require that certain aspects—like opening titles—be projected at a faster or slower rate to fit the musical selections. This was a time-consuming art form. (Cooke 19) In extreme cases (like Birth of a Nation), a group of musicians might actually travel along with a film, like a tour. (New Grove, "Film Music," 549)
In the 1980 New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (a well-respected music encyclopedia) article on “Film Music” talks about these scores and their influence:
“The music director studied the film with his librarian, selecting music and arranging the cues for changes of scene. He was helped by a suggestion list (sent with the film); the pieces recommended were obtainable in arrangements for all sizes of orchestra from 50 players (in the larger theaters) down to five (the usual size of the band that relieved the orchestra for brief intervals). The silent film thus acquainted millions of people with ‘classical’ music, even if in modified form, and created lucrative employment for many performing musicians.” (New Grove, "Film Music" 549)
Things would begin to change with “talkies,” or motion pictures with synchronized sound. This happened in 1927, and we’ll take up the historical thread in the next section. For now, let's get a little deeper into scoring methods for silent films.
Early Sound Film
By the end of this module you will be able to:
- Describe briefly the Kinetophone and Vitaphone systems and how they worked
- Explain how the Movietone system allowed for sound in film
- Describe the quirks of scoring early comedies including the practice of "Mickey Mousing"
Suggested Viewing for this section:
- F.W. Murnau's Sunrise (free through the public library or on YouTube)
- Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (free through the public library or on YouTube)
Suggested Assignment - Musical Landscape
1. Choose a film [You can offer a list to choose from or you may view something together as a class. You may also suggest using library resources for streaming or finding whole movies that are available on YouTube for free.]
2. For the film you choose, watch the film in its entirety and make note of some important factors:
- Is the music in the film primarily newly written? Is it primarily pre-existent songs? Is it a combination of both?
- If the film has a newly written score, who is the composer? What other films has this person done?
- If the film has a newly written score, what instruments did the composer use? An orchestra? A band? A solo piano? Synthesizers?
- Describe what the music does in the film. Does it support the action? Provide emotional cues? Does it appear in contexts where the characters can hear it? Choose at least two scenes and tell me about the music in those scenes.
- Do you feel the music was effective?
We have established that most silent films were shown with some kind of musical accompaniment. Even today, the vast majority of films are made with at least some music. Before the technology existed to encode a musical track onto the actual film, there were attempts to sync up sound and visuals. Thomas Edison's Kinetophone was an early experiment in linking up sound and picture, but it was designed for the single viewer. The next Edison system took things a step further. In 1926, Edison's Vitaphone system (remember that his projector was called the Vitascope) paired up sound recorded on a phonograph record with projected visual images. Each reel was designed to be the length of one side of a record.
Anyway, recording technology was still very much in its infancy, and in order to record speech one had to stand near the microphone. It did not lend itself to naturalistic acting performances. When the Vitaphone system premiered in 1926, it showed short films that were synced up to the recordings (basically music videos). The big feature performance of the Vitaphone premiere was essentially a silent film, Don Juan. Its musical accompaniment was synced to it, but it still used intertitles--the frames of film with words written on them. We suggest finding a clip from Don Juan to illustrate the use of these intertitles.
If you want to know a bit more about the Vitaphone system, Consider reading the Wikipedia page on the topic. If you want to read an excellent review of the film from a 21st-century critic (2013), check out this blog called Movies Silently.
What was notable about the music for Don Juan was the score which was written and assembled by William Axt and played by the New York Philharmonic. Between 1921 and 1943 Axt composed more than two hundred film scores. Axt's score for Don Juan consisted of original themes and other musical ideas derived from pre-existent sources. The score also utilized leitmotifs (also spelled leimotives), short musical ideas that can represent characters, objects, feelings, and other ideas in a film. The leitmotif technique comes from nineteenth-century opera, specifically the operas of German composer, Richard Wagner. We'll get more into leitmotifs in a later section.
The next giant step came with 1927's The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson. This was also a Vitaphone production. Most of it was a silent film like Don Juan, but the narrative concerned a vaudeville singer, so scenes of Jolson singing were synced up using the discs. In a famous scene, Jolson said these fateful first words spoken in a sound film: "Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You ain't heard nothing yet!" We recommend watching at least this clip if it's available on Vimeo or YouTube. Please note: Jolson also did some singing in the minstrel tradition in this film, which meant that he wore blackface. This practice, which was considered acceptable by audiences are just abhorrent now. As we are stuyding history, we must acknowledge these things existed and contextualize them, even if it feels uncomfortable to do so.
There were four synchronized sound systems being developed in the United States during the 1920s. We've been talking about Edison's (and Warner Bros.') Vitaphone, but there were also: RCA's Photophone and Movietone. The Movietone system is the one we're going to focus on. The technology was developed through the work of Theodore Case, who began experimenting with modulated light that could carry sound. (I don't really understand the science of this, but there's a link to an engineering site below that will help if you're interested in this idea.) Case and his assistant Earl I. Sponable teamed up with Lee de Forest, who was working (rather unsuccessfully) on a system called Phonofilm. Turns out de Forest was a bit of a jerk, and he tried to take credit for the science that Case had developed. So Case and Sponable called their system Movietone. "The Movietone system is an optical sound-on-film method of recording sound for motion pictures that guarantees synchronization between sound and picture. It achieves this by recording the sound as a variable-density optical track on the same strip of film that records the pictures." (Movietone Wikipedia page.) If you're interested in the nuts and bolts of the technology and the major milestones in the timeline, check out this archived website from the Audio Engineering Society. Fox Studios was the exclusive home of the Moveitone system, and it created Fox Movietone News, which created and widely distributed sound film of newsworthy events.
The very first feature film to use an optical sound-on-film system was Sunrise, which was created by German filmmaker, F.W. Murnau. Want to know the weirdest thing about this film? It doesn't use the sound for dialogue! It's essentially a silent film with synchronized music. If you're interested in seeing it, it's available on YouTube for free. There are numerous examples of innovative camera work, made all the more impressive by being literally THE FIRST time some these things were ever done in service of a dramatic film.
As for the score, there were basically two different versions. One, created by Erno Rapée, was a list of music to be played live along with the film (if the movie house didn't have the technology to play the synchronized sound version). Hugo Riesenfeld created the musical score for the synchronized version. Sunrise shows that we were in a little bit of an "in-between" place with film music at this time. Riesenfeld's score--which is a combination of original music and nineteenth-century classical music--creates mood through key choices and tempos. There are some leitmotifs in the score, and Riesenfeld relied a lot on melodies to create tone. There are a lot of cool uses of sound and music in this film: there are multiple sound layered to create nuanced meanings (like different thoughts happening at once) or musical depictions of sounds instead of sound effects themselves.
Certainly you've heard of Charlie Chaplin, who was a huge star of silent film. The interesting thing is that Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp character stayed without dialogue through 1936. In fact, City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) are considered "the last great silent films" (Hickman 103). Chaplin not only acted and directed these films, he also wrote the music. He had help from a young composer at the time named David Raksin (who would go on to score many films in his very long career). One of his first jobs was working with Charlie Chaplin on Modern Times, helping to write out the music and flesh out ideas. Chaplin's score used a borrowed melody as a leitmotif (José Padilla's "La violetera"), quoted funny/punny songs (like using "How Dry I Am" to accompany a scene where people fall in some water), and had some newly written music. Modern Times holds up as a pretty entertaining film, so we recommend watching it, or at least finding clips of it online.
Because it was a slapstick comedy, there are moments of "mickey-mousing," a practice wherein music accents actions or movements, as you would in a cartoon. The term has a negative connotation, but it's done very often in comedy. Please check out the Mickey Mousing Wikipedia page for more information.
European Film Centers c.1920-1930
Learning outcomes for this section
By the end of this section you will be able to:
- Describe three main European cinema traditions from the 1920s
- Give examples of the ways music was part of these cinema traditions
- Explain what "montage" is in both Soviet Cinema
Suggested Viewing for this week:
- Man with Movie Camera (versions with different scores free on YouTube)
- Battleship Potemkin
- Metropolis (many versions exist with different scores)
In the last module we covered the transition from silent film into sound film. Before we really delve into the ways film music functions, we need to discuss a few other important contributions from the silent era.
After World War I ended in 1918, there was a flourishing of cinema centers in many European countries, especially France, Germany, and the Soviet Union. (Hickman 107) France in the 1920s was a vibrant place for artists. The post-war economy provided a decade of prosperity from 1921 to 1931. While the United States had its “roaring twenties,” Paris had le années folles—“the crazy years.” The general mood and spirit of creativity (and somewhat reasonable cost of living) attracted many people you may have heard of like painters Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí, sculptors Alberto Giacometti and Alexander Calder, writers Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, and composers Erik Satie, Maurice Ravel, and Igor Stravinsky (and many others!). Movies were a big business in Paris. There were almost 200 theaters in 1930 and that number grew to over 300 after the advent of sound film. While many of the films made and shown at this time in France were narrative productions designed for mass audiences, there was also a lot of experimentation happening in the avant garde circles.
Film in France in the 1920s was dominated by directors like René Clair and Jean Renoir, whose famous father was a painter in the Impressionist style. In 1924, Clair collaborated with composer Erik Satie on an experimental short film called Entr’acte. The film—as its name suggests—showed in the intermission between acts of a ballet (Satie also wrote the music for the ballet). This film is an example of a style of art called dadaism. The Wikipedia definition of the Dada movement says it “consisted of artists who rejected the logic, reason, an aestheticism of modern capitalist society, instead expressing nonsense, irrationality, and anti-bourgeois protest in their works. The art of the movement spanned visual, literary, and sound media, including collage, sound poetry, cut-up writing, and sculpture.” The visuals include sections in slow motion or shown in reverse. Using editing, Clair had people disappear or provided interesting quick cuts like an egg becoming a bird. Satie’s score had repetitive sections which could be played any number of times by the cinema pianist, and he specified ten melodies that would correspond with ten sections of the film. Because he wrote everything out in this way, the music could be synchronized to the film.
Other, more “serious” French and Swiss composers were getting into writing film scores including members of a group of young composers known as Les Six. Outside of film music Arthur Honegger (French-Swiss) endeavored to make modern art music more widely accessible. If you’ve taken a Music Appreciation or a Music History class, you may know that the art music of the 1920s included some hard-to-swallow styles like atonality. Honegger wanted to get away from those esoteric styles and create music that regular (read: not over-educated in music) audiences could really enjoy. In addition to some really awesome concert music, he also composed the scores for over forty films, both silent and sound. He would then often arrange his scores into suites which could be performed in the concert hall, separated from its film. As for his overall scoring style, Hickman notes: “Honegger’s music sets overall moods rather than mirroring dramatic action; there is little contrast within any particular section. This general detachment from the drama would characterize the musical approach of many European film makers well into the 1970s.” (Hickman 110)
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, European filmmakers—like their American counterparts—were experimenting with synchronization. Two films using synchronized music (the earlier one using separate recordings at first, and the later one using sound-on-film tech) were surrealist collaborations between Spanish director Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dalí: Un chien Andalou (1929)—Andalusian Dog, and L’age d’or (1930)—The Golden Age. Surrealism refers to a style which blurs the line between reality and irrationality, resulting in a visual presentation that is sometimes illogical, perhaps disturbing, or just strange. The synchronized music in both films came from the classical tradition primarily (although there are some tangos in Un chien andalou), including excerpts from Wagnerian opera, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn. (Hickman 110-111). We recommend viewing Un chien Andalou, but caution that some of the imagery may be disturbing.
The Soviet Union
Over in the Soviet Union, leader Vladimir Lenin saw the power of the film to influence the masses. The world's first film school was established in the Soviet Union, and renowned teacher, Lev Kuleshov discovered that meaning is created when two different shots are placed next to each other. In the video below, please note how "the Kuleshov Effect" works (2:21-3:42).
Lenin also entreated the help of director Sergei Eisenstein to develop a Soviet cinema style that built on the techniques found in D.W. Griffith’s films, especially Intolerance (1916). To do this, Eisenstein pioneered the technique of Soviet Montage. This is actually a really cool thing. If you don't have time to watch this entire video (please make the time; it's awesome), I suggest watching at least the bit about Eisenstein, which begins at around 7:40. (Bonus points for watching through the following section on Dziga Vertov.)
This video specifically mentions Eisenstein’s film Batteship Potemkin (1925), which featured music by Austrian composer, Edmund Meisel. American journalist Herman G. Weinberg described the music like this:
“as powerful, as vital, as galvanic and electrifying as the film. It is written in the extreme modern vein, cacophonies run riot, harmonies grate, crackle, jar; there are abrupt changes and shifts in the rhythm; tremendous chords crashing down, dizzying flights of runs, snatches of half-forgotten melodies, fragments, a short interpolation of jazz on a piano and a melody in the central part of the film [the Odessa steps scene]…It soars and endears itself to the heart. It is full of gratitude and the love of man for man. It is one of the warmest, tenderest passages that has found its way into the cinema-music repertoire.” (in Hickman 112-113)
We recommend taking a look and listen to Meisel's score for the "Odessa Steps" scene from Battleship Potemkin. Warnings: death, blood, gunfire, trampling, violence, baby in danger.
We will revisit Eisenstein in an upcoming section where we will discuss his collaboration with composer, Sergei Prokofiev.
Finally, we shift to Germany, which also experienced a creative boom in the 1920s. In visual art, music, and film, a movement known as Expressionism was a dominant force. The thing being expressed in Expressionism is probably best described as the deepest and darkest realm of the subconscious. This nightmarish, expressionist style is clear in one of the most important German films of this time, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) from 1920. The film, directed by Robert Wiene, is told through the point of view of a madman in an asylum. The film had an original score by Giuseppe Becce, but much of the score is lost. (Some excerpts exist in an anthology.) When the film premiered in the United States, at the Capitol Cinema in New York, theater owner Samuel “Roxy” Rothapfel enlisted the help of good old Erno Rapée to assemble a score of pre-existent music including selections from Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, among others. With this music, Rapée created leitmotifs for characters and wove a score that earned critical acclaim. There are stunning visuals to this film, but most clips that exist online do not have the original score, so keep that in mind if you watch any available clips.
We cannot talk about the 1920s and German cinema without mentioning Fritz Lang. Lang’s Metropolis is one of the first science fiction films, but one that also touches upon issues of class and inequity. The original score for the film was composed by Gottfried Huppertz. The film has an extremely complicated history. If you’re interested at all in how this film was cut down, recut, rescored (at least 15 times), re-found, and eventually restored—over the course of nearly 90 years, check out the Wikipedia page for the film.
In a great short review on Huppertz’s score from npr.org from 2011 author Bob McQuiston describes the score like this:
“Unlike most film scores, this music can stand on its own. The brilliant orchestration and the use of leitmotifs (a la Wagner) hold the listener's attention, precluding the music's need for any visual sustenance. Huppertz incorporates impressionistic, expressionistic and even jazz elements. The richness of the score undoubtedly served as an example to such European expatriate Hollywood composers as Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Franz Waxman.”
Our next section deals with film music as it became codified.
Codifying Sound and Music in Film
Learning outcomes for this section:
By the end of this module you will be able to:
- Analyze ways in which film music and sound were codified in the 1930s
- Describe Max Steiner's contribution to this codification
- Explain what a leitmotif is and how it functions in film music
In the last section we covered the development of film music in France, Germany, and Russia. This week, we get into cracking the code of film music, breaking down where it appears and how it functions in most films.
Sound Becomes Part of Movies
A Little Bit of Context
As we talked about earlier silent and sound film coexisted for a few years. This was due in part to a slow roll-out of the technology that made it possible for moviehouses to show sound film. There were also artists (most notably Charlie Chaplin) who kept making films in the silent tradition because it suited their art better. Adding to the problem was the Great Depression (beginning in 1929), which brought financial troubles to all parts of society both in the U.S. and abroad.
There was also the establishment of the Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the Hays Code), which was a series of standards that began to censor movies for certain infractions (nudity, immoral situations, etc.). If you have a minute, and you’re curious, check out the things that the Hays code didn’t allow. It’s a list of prohibitions that—to the modern eye—are racist, misogynist, homophobic, puritanical, and authoritarian. The code began to fall out of fashion once movies had the competition of TV in the 1950s. TV had its own restrictive code, and to compete (and offer something that TV couldn’t), movies started to be slightly more permissive. Eventually, the Hays code was abandoned, and the Motion Picture Association of America started giving ratings to films. It’s an interesting side story, but one we don’t have time for here.
Now That We Have Sound...
In the late 1920s we see the emergence of technology that includes a synchronized soundtrack. There are now three main sonic elements to deal with: speech, sound effects, and music. In the discussion on the role of sound in film, Buhler et al. states: “the sound track shapes or interprets the image track for us: It encourages us to look at the images in a certain way, to notice particular things, and to remember them.” Just as the director chooses camera angles and shots that bring certain characters to the forefront or draw your attention to what’s happening in the background, sound can function similarly. The sound mixing may foreground dialogue in one scene, while in another, background character chatter is seen but not heard, as music or sound effects become more noticeable. Sound, like visual sets and costumes, forms an element of continuity. Just as a character wouldn’t suddenly appear in a different outfit and then switch back again in the course of a scene, the recording of a line of dialogue likewise wouldn’t change dramatically. Let's pause to cover some basics on sound in film. Here’s a “Crash Course” videos on the sound element of film. Music is mentioned of course…way at the end, when music usually becomes part of a film:
A Note About Genres
As film music was becoming codified, it was also further consolidated into musical conventions that were reliant on the type of film being presented. We speak about film genres here, a term that allows us to categorize film based on elements of plot, setting, and narrative. Genre may also be defined in part by its intended audience (think "kids' movies" or films for "tweens"). Some established genres in the Golden Age of Sound were westerns, horror, romance, comedy, action/adventure, epic, and musical. These established types also had established musical practices, many of them used so often they became clichés.
As sound film took hold and the technology for recording (on-set) and re-producing sound (in theaters) became more refined, certain practices came to be expected from the film-viewing experience. According to Roger Hickman, some general characteristics of film music were established (Hickman 12):
- Extensive use of music (often referred to as “wall-to-wall” music)
- Exploitation of the full range of orchestral colors
- Reliance on the melody-dominated style of the late nineteenth century
- Frequent borrowing of familiar melodies
- Musical support for dramatic moods, settings, characters, and action
- Unity through leitmotifs and thematic transformation
Where Do We Put Music in Film?
Films often open with some sort of musical presentation to accompany the opening credits. You may see the characters from the film or other elements of the setting. The visuals and music are often establishing the world of the film--is it space, modern day New York, London in the nineteenth-century, an alien world, a factory? In modern films, this opening music can be a pre-existent song, but from the 30s to the 50s it was often a newly composed cue. We recommend the opening sequence of King Kong (1933), with music by Max Steiner. We'll talk more about this score and Steiner in a later section.
In epic films and musicals, the opening music might perform the same functions as an opera overture would have done in the nineteenth century, namely, it's a short medley of some of the main musical themes that will be presented in the film. One great example of this is from the opening of The Wizard of Oz (1939).
The opening of the action/adventure film, Captain Blood, with music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold features the use of brass and heavy fanfare-like gestures for this style. If you listen to this music, you may detect (correctly) that this music was extremely influential on the music of John Williams.
Closing Scenes and End Credits
We also expect that a film will end with music. In the early years of sound film, the credits were usually quite short: just enough music to show a brief cast list, and a lively enough tempo to get everyone up and out of the theater...or onto the next film.
Of course these days, credits run 4-5 minutes for big movies (any movies with CGI effects have LOTS of people to credit). Most of the time, most people in the theater get up and leave during the credits. The Marvel franchise changed that by compelling us to stay for the post-credit sequence. The music for the credits can be a combination of pre-existent song and newly written music. But credits are often overlooked. Even now when you're watching a film on a streaming service, it'll cut the credits short so it can start playing something else--unless you explicitly tell it not to do that. Oftentimes, the end credits are a really good opportunity to listen to the music a little more carefully.
Music is a huge part of emotional scenes. Whether it's a romantic kiss that took the whole movie to achieve, or an emotional discovery, or some incredible achievement, the score often surges at those important moments. Think of the emotional climax of a film you love. Maybe even find a clip of it to watch while you ask yourself these questions: Can the music be heard by the characters or is it just part of the score? What other sounds exist? What is foregrounded and what is in the background? What role do the sound effects play? Is there dialogue or voiceover? When does the music surge?
Music helps to heighten the tension of action and chase scenes, and also helps to keep continuity when there are lots of quick cuts. In a classic chase from the original Terminator film from 1984, the music in the chase is frantic (to reflect the efforts of Reese and Sara Connor to escape) and relentless (like the Terminator himself).
This is not an exhaustive list, of course. Music might also be part of scenes of tension, comedic activities, transitions, and montages. We are talking here about the beginnings of a standardized system. None of us can remember a time when this wasn't the way movies were scored. So it's interesting to think about how we got here.
Suggested Assignment for this section:
Choose a movie. Any movie. It could be something you've seen many times, or something entirely new to you. Make sure it's something you're able to view easily more than once. Pay close attention to the places we mentioned in the module: opening and closing credits, emotional climaxes, and action scenes. Formulate a post of 100-300 words telling us the following:
- Does the movie you chose have music in these places?
- Does it have extensive music in other situations (what are those situations?)
- Is the music pre-existent or written for the film? (remember to look this up - don't guess)
- How does the opening credit music set the scene for the film?
- What kind of feeling does the music give you at the end of the film?
- How does music support the emotional scenes in the film?
If it's possible, please share a scene from the movie you chose. Opening sequences are sometimes the best to share because they reveal the overall tone of the film, but I'm open to seeing anything you feel is appropriate. Don't forget to warn us if there are elements in your chosen scene that are triggering.
The Steiner "Superculture"
Film music scholar Mark Slobin coined the term "superculture" in an article on the global music system (Slobin 2000). He defines it as "the dominant, mainstream musical content of a society, in effect, everything people take for granted as being 'normal.'" (Slobin 2008, 3) For us in this class, the "superculture" refers to film music as it developed through the 1930s. The central figure in this development is a composer named Max Steiner. So this part will be a short encapsulation of his contribution to the art of film music.
Max Steiner (1888-1971) was born in Vienna. A child prodigy, he was conducting operettas when he was twelve, and he graduated from the Vienna Imperial Academy of Music at thirteen. He immigrated to the United States in 1914 with the help of Broadway impresario, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. Ziegfeld wanted Steiner to work on Broadway productions, which he did. In 1929, Steiner had an opportunity to work on the filmed version of a Broadway show called Rio Rita. He continued to work for the film company, RKO Pictures, for eight years. He then worked for Warner Bros. from 1937 to 1953. Hickman notes: “In 1933 alone he worked on thirty-three films, and he would become one of Hollywood’s most prolific composers, scoring over three hundred films.” (Hickman 126)
Slobin explains that Steiner “mostly drew on what he knew to cobble together a new tradition. Those materials were very Eurocentric and, by the 1930s, kind of musty….Steiner’s range of references, at the beginning, was pretty narrow. Only later did he branch out to bring in more Americanisms and innovations. He himself belonged to a popular music tradition with deep roots in Vienna, home of Mozart, Beethoven, Johann Strauss (“the waltz king”), and the postromantic modernist Mahler….His inventory of styles ran from Richard Wagner’s vast melodramatic German operas through French impressionism to the jaunty modernism of the European cabaret tradition.” (Slobin 5-6)
In short, the reason why film music so closely resembles the art music of the Romantic period in Europe is twofold: 1) the prevalence of that musical tradition in the pre-existent music used by cinema pianists and codified by anthologies and cue sheets, and 2) Max Steiner's influence, which drew on his deep connections to the (specifically) Viennese and (more generally) Germanic music traditions of the nineteenth century. One of the important parts of this tradition came from the operas of Richard Wagner.
Richard Wagner (1813-1883) was a towering figure in the nineteenth-century opera tradition. He died before film was invented, but his idea of a "total work of art" that would encompass all other art forms (Gesamtkunstwerk) would have translated perfectly to film. But because film didn't exist yet, opera was, for him, the best way to meld drama, music, dance, visual art, etc. into one artform. The reason why we're even mentioning him in this class is because of the way he used the orchestra in his operas to help convey character and subtext. He developed what a popular music history textbook calls "a system of conveying meanings through motivic associations, later termed leitmotives." (Burkholder 682) In simple terms, Wagner decided to associate short musical ideas with characters, concepts, objects, etc., and to weave these musical ideas into the orchestral parts of his opera. He would construct the music around these themes, and they could transform and change--as a character might grow or change during the drama. The word "leitmotiv" uses "leit,"which in German means "lead" or "guide." So these are musical ideas that lead or guide. (The coiner of the term, Hans von Wolgozen, was a problematic figure--as were many associated with Wagner, as was Wagner himself.)
This is how it worked in his operas: Wagner would create the association between the character/thing/emotion and the musical idea when the character/thing/emotion first appeared on stage. The motif repeated when the thing re-appeared, and even when a character thought or referred to the thing. This is where it's brilliant: because the leitmotives occur mostly in the orchestra (and far less frequently in sung lines), it's a way to provide subtext to what's actually happening in the scene. As Burkholder et al. points out: "it becomes much more than a [musical label] through its symphonic treatment in the music drama: it accumulates significance as it recurs in new contexts; it may recall an object in situations where the object itself is not present; it may be varied, developed, or transformed as the plot develops; similar motives may suggest a connection between things to which they refer, especially if if one leitmotive morphs into another....Leitmotives are often characterized by particular instruments, registers, harmonies, or keys, which may also suggest meanings or associations." (Burkholder 682)
These musical ideas could extend throughout multiple operas, as Wagner did with his four-opera Ring Cycle (Der Ring des Nibelungen). The ring of the title has its own theme, as does the Rhine River, the god Wotan, a sword, some giants, and many other characters, objects, and even a couple of abstract concepts ("redemption through love"). A few of the more complex characters have multiple themes. The leitmotives in the Ring Cycle have consistency, and they may develop and transform, but they do not change meanings. Using leitmotives over multiple operas helped to unify the works thematically. It is a concept we see in John Williams' scores to the nine Star Wars movies (and even sneaks into works like Rogue One even though Williams didn't compose the music), the Lord of the Rings tetralogy, and even the Marvel franchise. But, I'm getting ahead of myself so let's pause for a bit to talk about leitmotives or leitmotifs. (I'm trying to be consistent with the spelling, but different sources use different spellings, so bear with me.)
Before we get further into this, remember that using leitmotives is just one way to score a film; there are many others. But since this was the way that took hold in the 1930s, we need to discuss it. In film, the use of leitmotives is usually at a very basic level in comparison to Wagner's usage. This little tune represents X, and it may never change or develop. Leitmotivic film scores usually employ just a few of them. Think: hero's theme, villain theme, love theme, and object theme. There can be more or fewer, of course. Furthermore, most film composers do not have 60 leitmotives going at once, like Wagner did with the Ring Cycle. Here I want to interject that John Williams, who is arguably the reigning champion of film music leitmotives has reportedly written 62 leitmotives in the Star Wars franchise of nine films. That's according to Frank Lehman, who built a guide to all of them online. If you're interested In this topic, I also suggest that if you are able, you read this terrific article in the New Yorker from 2018, which talks about Star Wars in particular, and leitmotives in Wagner and film more generally.
Now, obviously, in the wrong hands, the leitmotive can be completely overused. And for many composers just starting out, it may feel extremely old fashioned, and that it because it very much is. But that doesn't mean it can't still work. One just needs to be careful with it. Some composers write leitmotives that never change throughout the course of the film, and that's a valid way to go, but it doesn't harness the real power of the leitmotive: reflecting development and transformation in the music.
Steiner and Beyond
Max Steiner's score for King Kong (1933) was an extremely important milestone in the codification of film music. It was not Steiner's first score, nor was it the only score he wrote that year (as I mentioned above, it was one of over 30). There are a couple of interesting things to note about this score:
- Steiner was hired to write the score after test screenings had audience members laughing at King Kong instead of being scared of him (the producer paid him $50,000 of his own money for the score and the recording).
- The film has opening credit music, but then music is absent for the first twenty minutes of the movie.
- When the music does come in, it's "wall-to-wall."
- The score features lots of brass and percussion.
- There are leitmotives that are transformed.
- Steiner sometimes used "mickey-mousing."
- There is an attempt to create "native" music that evokes the distant island where Kong lives.
In a modern-day review of this score, Craig Lysy says this:
"This film was a seminal event in the history of Hollywood filmmaking where Steiner boldly crossed the Rubicon and in so doing forever changed the course of the film industry. His score, one of the finest ever written, infused the film with a call to adventure, a sense of mystery, romance and ultimately savage primal terror. All this served to reinforce the film’s amazing imagery and story telling by catalyzing a stronger and more lasting emotional reaction by the audience. There was no longer a case for denying the value of a film score. A cash poor public, now reeling from the economic collapse of the Great Depression, repeatedly came to the theater in droves thus filling to overflowing the studio’s coffers. As such, Steiner can be viewed as a transformative agent since henceforth musical scores would be woven into the basic tapestry of each film; there was no turning back. Music would now both inform us of critical film elements, but also act synergistically in partnership to support the film’s narrative." Read the entire review here.
If you've seen the King Kong from 2005, you might be interested in this article that compares Steiner's score to the one by James Newton Howard.
If you have the means to watch King Kong (1933), I highly recommend you do so. As of this writing, it's streaming on Max and it's rentable from Google Play, Vudu, and Youtube for $3-4.
How Does Film Scoring Work?
It's useful to talk about the general outline of how film scoring works in most modern film traditions. For most films, the addition of a newly written score happens in a phase of production called post production.
Here are the basic steps in the Post-Production "workflow" of a Hollywood film:
- Picture editing
- Sound editing - adding ADR and foley
- Adding music
- Sound mixing
- Adding visual effects
- Color Correction
- Adding titles, credits, etc.
- Preparing materials for distribution
- Cut a trailer
Now, when we say "adding music," I'm glossing over a whole bunch of smaller steps, so we're going to break things down. For our purposes, we're going to cover the basic way film scoring happens in most studio films. There are other ways and other traditions, but for the sake of time, let's just go through some common practices.
Principle shooting of a film is completed. The film then gets edited into what's called a "rough cut." This cut is often accompanied by some music that already exists. This is called a "temp track." The music on the temp track may be made up of songs, classical pieces, or other film music. When a piece of music is chosen for the temp track it can be because the director wants this specific piece (which the music supervisor and co. then have to purchase the rights to) or it could be that they just want new music that "sounds like" the chosen piece. The director may want the composer to capture a specific mood, an overall tone, or a tempo, or the director may want to mimic the instrumentation, the melody, or some other quality in the music.
The temp track also hints to another crucial piece of information: where the director wants music. Depending on the director (and, more importantly, the collaboration between composer and director), this aspect might be part of a larger discussion. There is also usually something called a "spotting session," which is an opportunity for the director and composer to watch a film together and talk about where musical cues will go and where silence will be. Now, this is an extreme simplification of the process because the director and composer might each have their own philosophy of how music should function in a film. There are many different ways to score a film or a scene. We'll break down a couple of the most famous collaborations to see how certain directors and composers collaborate.
Composers nowadays might score the whole film in a DAW (digital audio workstation), or use a notation software to complete written scores and create parts for your musicians. In olden times, composers wrote things out on paper for orchestrators to turn into full scores (John Williams still works this way but he's in his 90s). If there are many musicians hired to complete the score, there will likely be recording sessions where the composer (or assistant) will conduct the ensemble to fit to a more finely tuned edit of the film.
In addition to music, sound effects, foley, and ADR (automated dialogue replacement) are added in post production and mixed by a sound mixer. If you're at all interested in sound mixing, we recommend a documentary called Making Waves.
In addition to a newly written score, sometimes films use pre-existent songs. We'll cover the meaningful implications of this in a later section, but for now let's talk about what pre-existent music means for production. Some composers write their movies with particular songs in mind. Quentin Tarantino, for example, has explained that he writes his movies while listening to selections from his own collection of albums. Those songs can then be woven into the film because someone in production handles getting the legal rights to play them in the movie. Depending on the song, the license to play a song in a film can run to $10,000 or more. Sometimes directors will cut corners somewhere else in the film so they can get the exact recording they want for a film. This is especially true on lower budget films.
Many times, though, a Music Supervisor will suggest songs or musical pieces for a particular place in a film. Broadly speaking, any Music Supervisor--whether they work in film, tv, advertising, video game, etc.--is the person who combines music and visuals. The Guild of Music Supervisors' website defines the job as being for "A qualified professional who oversees all music related aspects of film, television, advertising, video games and any other existing or emerging visual media platforms as required." They further describe the job:
"The Music Supervisor must possess a comprehensive knowledge of how music impacts the visual medium. The Music Supervisor works with the key decision makers and/or designated creative team to collectively determine the musical vision, tone and style that best suits the project."
Here are the main responsibilities for the job (and this language is all from the Guild site). I will bold the important bits and include my own interpretation of the responsibility in italics in brackets:
1. Identify, secure, and collaborate with any and all music related talent, which includes composers, songwriters, recording artists, on-camera performers, musicians, orchestrators, arrangers, copyists, contractors, music producers, engineers, etc.: liaise and negotiate with talent representation, including legal, label, talent management, agency, business management, etc. [Find all of the people to work with and work with them. This includes the artist but also all of their legal people.]
2. Liaise and effectively communicate with other related and involved professionals & support staff, i.e. directorial, production, editorial, sound (production & post), camera, choreography, studio & network executives, advertising agencies, clients, label executives, game designers, distributors and cross-promotional marketing partners. [Be the point person for communication between everyone and everyone else.]
3. Possess an accurate knowledge of all costs associated with delivery of music elements. Determine and advise on financial needs of project and generate realistic budget with respect to all music related costs. Deliver all required music elements within the established budgetary parameters. [Know what it will cost and deliver it for that price or less.]
4. Advise on feasibility of schedule based on release, broadcast, campaign or product delivery. Deliver all music elements consistent with specific technical requirements. Manage and/or secure legal rights of new and existing recordings, clearances of Synchronization and Master use licenses of pre-existing music, credits, cue sheets, etc. within scheduling parameters. [Keep an eye on the calendar and make sure we can have the product when we need it--not just for the film release but for the soundtrack release and the commercials; deal with all legal stuff and make sure it's cleared in plenty of time.]
5. Determine the viability of, creation of and securing exposure or distribution of any music related ancillary product, i.e. soundtrack, single, video, internet downloads, etc. for the purpose of promotion or additional revenue streams. [Find out if we can use the music for other revenue streams.]
For a basic overview, there's always the Wikipedia page for Music Supervision to begin your deep dive.
Modes of Analysis
Proposed assignment for this section:
Choose a scene from one of your favorite films. Rewatch that scene 2-3 times. Write about (or make a video about) the music in the scene using whatever tools you have. Here are some different ways you can engage with the music. Feel free to use more than one way to react to/reflect on the music. You can talk about:
- the technical aspects of the music if you know about them (harmonies, melodies, instrumentation, rhythm, tempo, etc.)
- how this music works with the images or the narrative
- how the music in this scene compares to scenes you may have seen that are like it
- the way the music illuminates the emotions of the character or the way the music guides the audience to understand the emotional content of the scene
- how the music makes you feel or think
- whatever else seems appropriate for this analysis
Please write 150-200 words in your analysis (or make a video of 2-3 minutes).
If possible, include a clip of the scene.
How Do We Analyze Music in Film?
Going forward, you will be asked in different ways to react to music as it supports visual images. In this class we come from all different backgrounds and experiences, so it's likely that one method of analysis will not fit all. I'm going to discuss some of the ways we can share our thoughts about music along with some issues we may encounter.
Analyzing Film Music through Theory
For people who have studied music formally in school, the automatic reaction to the word "analysis" is music theory. This means identifying what is happening musically through labeling chords and harmony, identifying melodic contours, and making note of instrumentation and orchestration (and other things). There are two issues with this method of analysis. First, it requires extremely specialized training and is therefore not available to everyone. And second: ideally, analysis of this type is done with written scores, which are usually next-to-impossible to get for most film scores.
It is also possible to talk about music as it relates to aspects of filmmaking, which has multiple technical and artistic things to pay attention to (angles, shots, editing, sound design, etc.).
Analyzing Film Music through History and Comparison
We can also analyze a score based on comparisons with other film scores that already exist. Within this sub-category, we can examine what techniques are being used (for example: are there functional leitmotifs like in a Max Steiner score?). We can also see how the score measures up next to scores for films in the same genre. (How does the score for this action movie compare to the score for that action movie?) This is definitely more accessible, but in the larger comparisons, it requires that the viewer have a wider knowledge of film scores in general and a working understanding of film music as it has developed historically.
In this category, I would also include the analysis of film scores that use pre-existent music and songs as part of the musical landscape. We can also talk here about how song lyrics may add meaning when a song appears in a film.
Analyzing Film Music through Emotional, Psychological, and Intellectual Impact
We may analyze a score based on how we react to it. We can draw upon what it makes us think or feel. We can understand what a film composer is attempting to do, and we can judge how effectively they have achieved this. Because we are speaking from our own personal experience, this is the most accessible mode of analysis. We all have personal feelings about the music in our media, and we can speak about these. The advantage of this mode is that you don't need to do a lot of research; you just need to say how you feel or react. But it's extremely personal. Your reaction may be totally different from someone else's.
Under this subheading, we can also talk about the emotions of the characters and how they are supported by the music. Even if the viewer doesn't feel the same emotion, we can understand that the music is telling us what the character feels. And this is helpful when we are watching a movie, especially for the first time.
Analyzing Film Music through a Combination of Methods
An analysis of a scene or a score may use aspects of all the methods above. Valid analyses may touch upon emotions, history, visceral reactions, music theory, filmmaking techniques, recognition of specific musical instruments, descriptions of what the music sounds like, a discussion of the lyrics heard in a song in a scene, the music of different film genres, etc.
I've gone through my own writing on film music and pulled out some examples of different kinds of analyses. These are fairly short examples, but I'm just giving you a paragraph so you can get the idea of what I'm talking about:
The opening credit sequence for Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956) - this one has some history and some music theory in it. I was able to see the written score of this film in an archive in Wyoming:
"There is a main musical theme of The Killing, and it is what Gerald Fried called his trademark: “a rhythmic clash of confrontation. I had half the orchestra playing a four figure. The other half of the orchestra played a three figure.” So over a steady four pattern in the bass drum and timpani, the strings and brass have their rhythmic clash. The sonic discord between the three and the four patterns builds tension….Once the initial conflict of the opening theme resolves somewhat, the snare drum provides cadences under the woodwinds, who play a low repetitive melody. Muted brass horn calls with the snare rolls create a pseudo-militaristic sound. While the credits play on-screen, horses and their jockeys ride to the starting gate. As they pause, waiting for the start of the race, Fried ends the musical cue on a dissonant chord.”
A scene in Back to the Future (1985) - this one uses the history of the pre-existent songs to talk about how the music helps the audience understand what is happening:
"In the second phase of Back to the Future—Marty’s experiences in the 1950s—we hear a number of tunes that cue us into the time period. Marty’s entrance into Hill Valley is heralded by the Four Aces’ “Mr. Sandman” (and no Marty, this isn’t a dream). “Mr. Sandman” is sourced, playing from a loudspeaker mounted on the outside of the record store. This is awfully convenient for the viewer, because it plays throughout the main square and follows Marty as he walks through the 1955 version of his town. (The diegetic music is eventually overshadowed by Silvestri’s “The Town Square” cue.) Fess Parker’s “The Ballad of Davey Crockett” plays on the jukebox in the diner. These musical cues stand alongside other cultural artifacts to show Marty that he is out of his own time.”
A scene in Barry Lyndon (1975) which focuses on the emotional feelings brought on by the music. These are feelings the characters have, and we may feel them as well:
"The harp version of “Women of Ireland” is heard a second time in the film. This time it appears when Redmond—after having escaped from the British service—meets up with a woman on his way to Holland, a neutral place during the Seven Years’ War. The harp version of the song plays as they join hands, and she asks him to stay with her for a few days. They share a tearful goodbye some unspecified time later. There is a melancholy air about the music, and it perfectly complements the sadness of Redmond and the woman parting ways. An earlier scene which also features this song uses the yearning quality of the music to evokes the frustrations of two lovers who cannot be together."
A general note on the construction of the score of Pan's Labyrinth (2006):
“The lullaby is an important musical touchstone in Rosemary’s Baby, Hide and Seek, and Pan’s Labyrinth. In Pan’s Labyrinth, however, the lullaby is but one part of a rich sonic tapestry. Although the music for the film maybe placed into the tradition of essentially scores with single themes such as David Raksin’s Laura and Gerald Fried’s Killers Kiss, Javier Navarrete’s score for Pan’s Labyrinth is lush and present in many of the scenes. Pan’s Labyrinth features a variety of figures and variations of the main melody which provide continued interest in the score throughout….In Pan’s Labyrinth the lullaby is the connective tissue that draws together the two story lines: the fantasy world of Ofelia and the real world on the military base.”
Learning outcomes for this section:
By the end of this module you will be able to:
- Explain briefly the post-production process and where the addition of music often falls in that process
- Describe a few important/well-known collaborations between directors and composers
- Describe some of the varied ways that composers and directors collaborate with each other to create the music for a film or tv
Filmmaking is a collaborative art. No matter how brilliant a director is, they rely on the work of many people to bring a film to life. Obviously the collaborative work between director and composer is of central importance to what we do here, in this class. In later modules we'll talk more about other ways to score (using pre-existent music, for example) but this week is all about creative collaboration between filmmakers and music-makers. We will explore some different collaborations in this module.
What Does Collaboration Mean in Film Scoring?
It can be a difficult process to find a language for collaboration between the director and the composer. Each person will have their own philosophy about how music should be in a film. Ideally, the two philosophies are at least parallel, and the two people are on the same page. Ideally, the two people respect each other's art and want the music and visuals to enrich each other. In the documentary Score: A Film Music Documentary (which one can rent for $3-4 on various services), many contemporary composers weigh in on the process. Composer Mervyn Warren describes the process as "trying to come up with music that supports the scene and complements it in an unobtrusive way.” In Score, director James Cameron says:
"The goal of a spotting session is to have a dialogue with the composer that you probably been postponing. I’ve done my work. I've done my design. I’ve cast the movie. I’ve shot it. We've done all our beautiful photography. We've done all our super brilliant editing. Now it's going through and trying to communicate what I've heard in my mind....Most directors don't know how to convert emotions…into music. So the composer has to...act almost like a therapist and go through all this mishmash of what the director’s saying and get the essence of it.”
This is a fascinating documentary, and if you have the time and money to watch it, please do. It gets into the process of composing for film, it touches on the psychology of it, it shows different aspects of how this art is achieved in Hollywood.
Usually, the bulk of the conversation might come from the director to the composer. After all, the director is supposedly the one with the vision that's being fulfilled. But here's the problem: sometimes directors lack the technical knowledge or terminology to ask for what they want. Sometimes they don't know what they want--but they know it when they hear it.
How the composer interprets what a director asks for has everything to do with their understanding of the film, their personal style, and their relationship with the director. Depending on the time frame, the budget, and the relationship, a composer may have a chance to try themes out, present them to the director, play through them on a piano or with MIDI instruments. Things are more or less "figured out" by the time musicians in to record the music. This is especially important when an orchestra is involved; orchestras are extremely expensive and all of the musicians are typically members of the union, which means if there's overtime, it might cost thousands of dollars a minute. Everyone is just there to lock it all down as efficiently as possible.
Choosing the Collaborations
This was extremely difficult. There are so many great composer/director combinations out there, and we had to narrow it down to a handful. We tried to balance it between ones from the past and ones currently working. We also tried to balance it among different film genres and scoring techniques. This list also leans heavily on Hollywood, big-budget films, with a couple of exceptions.
Collaboration #1 - Eisenstein and Prokofiev
Suggested viewing: Alexander Nevsky (1938)
One of the first, great collaborations in film music is the relationship between Sergei Eisenstein (who we talked about in the section on Soviet Montage) and composer Sergei Prokofiev.
Since we covered a bit about Eisenstein already, let me tell you a little more about Sergei Prokofiev. If ever in elementary school, you heard a piece about the musical instruments called Peter and the Wolf, then you know this composer. He was a major talent, bursting onto the world scene from Russia in 1917. He was a sought-after pianist and composer. He made a huge splash with his "Classical" Symphony (which was kind of a snarky parody of Mozart-era symphonies), and earned a reputation for being something of a young maverick. He toured around, playing, composing, and conducting, and he lived in Germany and in the U.S. until the mid-1930s. He returned to Russia in 1936 permanently, hoping to continue touring and traveling to play his music, but the government confiscated his passport, and he was effectively stuck in Moscow. He no longer had total freedom to write what he wished, but instead, his work was subjected to Soviet approval. The same thing had happened to filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. In this 2017 article on the collaboration between Eisenstein and Prokofiev, author Jorge Baeza Stanicic states:
"The imminence of the Second World War and the dark menace of Germany required a major shoring up of the national spirit, and in the process of exaltation of the nation’s leadership and peoples, Stalin focused his gaze onto film as the medium through which to call the masses to attention. There was now an obvious choice: Eisenstein had to rehabilitated. Without further ado, the Politburo entrusted him with the task of creating a film on the subject of one of the greatest Russian national heroes, Alexander Nevsky (1220-1263)."
His usual composer, Gavriil Popov, had been dismissed, so Eisenstein was matched with Prokofiev on the project. Rather than just give the film to Prokofiev in post-production, "Eisenstein decided to involve Prokofiev in all aspects of the production of the film." For example, Eisenstein thought it might be a good idea to include ancient chants in the Battle on the Ice sequence. Prokofiev disagreed, reasoning that the audience wouldn't be familiar enough with it. "For describing the Russian defenders, he would compose music with which the people would identify, whereas the representation of the invaders required music that was repulsive, distorted; once again, he would achieve this by experimenting with instruments and microphones." Eisenstein was reportedly respectful of Prokofiev's cues; he might re-cut a scene to accommodate the music--not the other way around.
Collaboration #2 - Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone
Suggested viewing: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966) and Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
One of the most legendary collaborations was between Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone. Leone was a prolific Italian director who developed a genre of westerns that came to be known in the U.S. as the "Spaghetti Western." These westerns owed a debt of gratitude to the American western, but also to the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa. Leone deconstructed some of the tropes in old American westerns (for example, good guys in light colored clothes, bad guys in darker clothes) and made them a little less obvious. The most famous of these comprised a trilogy that featured Clint Eastwood: A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966). Morricone and Leone had gone to school together when they were children. Like Eisenstein and Prokofiev before them, Morricone and Leone worked together earlier in the film process than just in post-production. In fact, according to some reports, Leone had some input on the musical themes, and also liked to play Morricone's music on set. The music fit so well into the productions that the music and visual images have become inseparable. Each man's unique style meshed well with the other's. In addition to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, we also recommend one of their later collaborations, Once Upon a Time in America (1984), which deconstructed the gangster film, bringing in themes of greed and ethnic identity.
Collaboration #3 - John Williams and Steven Spielberg
Suggested viewing: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Unlike Eisenstein/Prokofiev and Morricone/Leone, the duo of Spielberg/Williams does not really consult until post-production. In an article in the LA Times from 2012, journalist Rebecca Keegan states: "Williams said he rarely sees any film he’s working on until it is nearly finished, preferring to wait until a movie’s rhythm has been well-established in the editing room." In general, Williams likes to know as little as possible about the movie until he can see it. He scored the first three Harry Potter films, but he didn't read the books. In that 2012 article, Williams himself is quoted as saying:
“I need to know how [the film] breathes and where I can help to accelerate it or retard it or create an expectancy or defuse one. We discuss where to put the music and what its function will be in the scenes. I’ll play Steven a few little half-developed themes on the piano. In the 40 years we’ve been working together, he’s never said to me, ‘I don’t like that’ or ‘That’s not good.’ He offers just by his body language and his eyes and his face a sense of encouragement in this direction or that direction.”
This is not to say that Spielberg gets final say on everything. He deeply respects what John Williams has brought to his movies over the years. In an AFI (American Film Institute) "Master Class," Spielberg mentioned that he has directed (and one would imagine, edited) scenes with Williams in mind. He specifically mentioned Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) noting: “[In] the entire last 25 to 30 minutes of ‘Close Encounters’ I opened the shots up so John would be able to create a more operatic sound." If you've never seen this film before, we highly recommend watching at least the last 20-30 minutes of the film. Williams ability to create the music played by the mothership as communication (diegetic music) and turn it into the score (non-diegetic music) is arguably one of the most incredible transitions in film music.
Collaboration #4 - Tim Burton and Danny Elfman
Recommended viewing: Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985), Beetlejuice (1988), The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Danny Elfman was already a successful musician in a band called Oingo Boingo, when director Tim Burton asked him to score Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985). Elfman was not trained in a formal way, but he had already been writing and arranging music for Oingo Boingo (and the performance troop the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo) for years. He sent Burton some samples and enlisted the help of Oingo Boingo bandmate, Steve Bartek to help with the orchestrations of his musical ideas. Elfman began working in film scoring, taking on projects here and there. Burton and Elfman's second collaboration was Beetlejuice (1988). They are truly impressive scores, considering how new Elfman was to scoring. Clearly he understood the assignment, but he didn't have the experiences of John Williams, who had spent his early career playing the scores of other people and absorbing the techniques of the art form. Elfman did, however, have the experience of growing up a huge fan of films, especially monster movies (sci-fi and horror as well).
The quirky styles of Elfman and Burton have proved over the years to be a perfect match. From Edward Scissorhands to The Nightmare Before Christmas and even Planet of the Apes, these artists have really grown up together. For a discussion and ranking of their collaborations check out this article on their work together.
Collaboration #5 - Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross and David Fincher
Suggested viewing: The Social Network (2010), Gone Girl (2014)
Trent Reznor emerged onto the music scene in 1989 with Nine Inch Nails' debut album, Pretty Hate Machine. Nine Inch Nails (which started out with Reznor doing just about everything in the band) reinvented itself with each new album, and Reznor began expanding into film scores. He collaborated with many artists over the years, producing the soundtracks to Natural Born Killers (1994) and Lost Highway (1997). In those cases, he also recorded songs used in the films.
These early efforts were interesting, but things really opened up when Reznor teamed up with Atticus Ross (whom Reznor worked with in a couple of projects, including Nine Inch Nails) and wrote music for David Fincher's 2010 film, The Social Network. It was a learning process. Reznor said of the method: The way David puts a film together is not unlike how I make music. He’ll have 30, 50, a hundred takes in his arsenal and the ability in the editing room to consider the tone and the momentum....We had to redo the music probably 40 times." (full article here).
The following year, Reznor and Ross teamed up with Fincher again, this time on the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011). Unlike the traditional ways of scoring after the film has been edited into a rough cut, for this film, the music was written as the film was being shot. This is possible because Ross and Reznor can create the music with just the two of them, without having to write out parts for an orchestra, hire an orchestra and record music, etc. About this particular method of writing for the film, Reznor said, " We thought, “What if we give you music the minute you start to edit stuff together?” It was a lot more work, which I don’t mind, but I would be hesitant to go as far in that direction in the future." The three men worked together again on Gone Girl (2014) and Mank (2020). The music tends to be more atmospheric and ambient than conforming to the orchestral tropes we're so used to hearing. If you're interested in all the scores of Ross/Reznor (and not just the Fincher ones) here's a great article from Collider ranking them.
Collaboration #6 - Ryan Coogler and Ludvig Göransson
Suggested viewing: Fruitvale Station (2013), the Creed films, and Black Panther (2018)
Ryan Coogler and Ludwig Göransson met when they attended the University of Southern California. In addition to some short films, the two have worked together on Fruitvale Station (2013), the Creed films, and Black Panther (2018) and Wakanda Forever (2021). They often work with sound designer Steve Boeddeker. In this article from the Sundance Institute about their collaboration, they discuss their process:
"Coogler advocates bringing in the composer as early as possible, even during the writing of the screenplay, to sync on the tone and message. The director admits he “kind of” knows what he wants, but not how to get there. What he does know for certain is how he wants the music and effects to make him feel. “I am very sensitive to sound and music,” Coogler says. “I think most people are.”
When possible, Göransson strives to be on the set during shooting. “It’s inspirational to see Ryan in his directorial element,” the composer says. Experiencing the tempo of the scenes is helpful — even if he finds it sometimes works best to write the music without a scene directly in front of him, reflecting on the overall feeling instead."
The music Ludwig Göransson composed and arranged for the first Black Panther film is particularly fascinating. There was a stated intention to be authentic and to create something that would honor African traditions. He wasn't content to just do a score based on his own Euro-centric idea of what "African music" sounded like, but wanted to speak to African musicians, story-tellers, and artists to write music that spoke to real African music. For further reading, here is an article on the process used to create the first Black Panther score, and here is an article on the score for Wakanda Forever and the sound resources Göransson used.
Note: It is notable that there are no women on this list (either as composer or director) and few people of color. While women and people of color are making progress as film composers in Hollywood, it is still very much a white, male-dominated industry. Please take the time to read this article about female film composers and the Academy Awards. Or read about 12 Black Film and TV Composers You Should Know, or The Black Composers Behind Today's Biggest Films.
Genre Studies: The Film Musical
By the end of this section you will be able to:
- Explain briefly the basic structure of the 20th-century musical
- Describe the way music functions in the Hollywood Musical of the 1940s and 50s
- Describe the way music functions in contemporary Bollywood productions
Just about every musical has an "I want" song. They usually appear early in the production so it's easy to understand what's going on. In this assignment, you will choose two different "I Want" songs from two different film musicals and compare them. In your analysis of each scene, talk specifically about what you see or hear that conveys what that character wants. Obviously you'll find some of this answer in the lyrics, but what about the acting, the movements, the music, and the setting?
For example, Ariel in The Little Mermaid sings "Part of Your World." She wants to be where the people are. She wants to see, wants to see 'em dancin', and so on. But other aspects of the scene convey this desire. She clutches her heart. She gazes toward the sunlight and the sky. She reaches upwards. Her eyes are big. The music starts softly and gets louder with urgency. She hits the highest and loudest notes when she sings about exploring the shore up above. More instruments get added...and so on.
- Find two "I want" songs from two different film musicals. For each you will describe what the character wants and also how they express this (through specific stuff you see and hear), If you don't know where to begin, check out this list of "I Want" songs. But feel free to choose something else, even something in another language. As long as it's from a film musical, and it's an "I Want" song, you're good.
- Create a paragraph-long analysis for EACH "I Want" scene. Use the "Part of Your World" example from above to help you.
- Decide which one (your opinion) is more clear or effective or moving. Why do you think this?
- If possible, include YouTube links to your chosen songs.
In this section we start getting deeper into the music of specific genres of film. We start this off with the film musical. The idea of characters in a drama singing about their stories is nothing new. There are numerous traditions around the world that allow for characters to sing about their problems, their triumphs, and everything in between. We will start out with a brief history of "the musical" as we have come to know it in the 20th century. Then, we talk about the classic Hollywood Musical of the first half of the 20th century. Think big dance numbers and excellent production values. We then talk about musicals in the Disney/Pixar tradition since these films are popular with kids (and adults) around the world. Because of Disney's ubiquity, it makes sense to study it in a little bit of detail. Finally, we will talk about Bollywood musicals, a thriving, lucrative industry that has created a powerful and popular formula for music and drama on film.
What is a Musical?
Since most films have music, what makes a musical unique? Well, first and foremost, you probably have characters who sing in the context of the diegesis. Characters not only speak their lines but sing them as well. People who do not like musicals often cite the unreality of musicals as their biggest issue: "People don't just break into song randomly," they'll say.
In some early musicals, the songs had little to do with what the characters were thinking and feeling. The lyrics didn't push the story forward, but they were fun and enjoyable to listen to. But when Broadway had a hit with 1943's Oklahoma!, would-be producers spent some time tying to figure out what made this musical tick. One thing they came up with was the way the songs were integrated into the fabric of the drama. The characters could use regular speech to move the plot along, but songs could also help them work through plot points, or just reflect on the emotions they were feeling in the moment.
Check out this video on the Broadway musical from Crash Course. The bit about the innovations of Oklahoma! are from about 6:55-10:00, but feel free to watch the whole thing if you choose:
The narratives of musicals are quite varied, and the style of music varies as well. But there are some structural things that most musicals seem to have in common. This has been laid out by numerous people, but I'm referring to a list compiled by author Jack Viertel, in his 2016 book The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows are Built. If your experience with musicals is limited to watching Disney musicals as a kid, you'll still get this.
Some things that musicals often have:
- a song that establishes the time and place of the story (a provincial town in France; a skid row flower shop; the turf of a gang war; revolutionary-times New York)
- a song that introduces the protagonist - this often takes the form of an "I want" song. ("I wanna be where the people are..." from "Part of Your World" Little Mermaid, "My Shot" from Hamilton)
- a song that introduces the villain ("Mother Knows Best" from Tangled)
- a Love Duet ("If I Loved You" from Carousel)
- a song in which a character has to decide what to do/has a realization ("Suppertime" from Little Shop of Horrors)
- a big number with everyone involved ("Do You Hear the People Sing" Les Miserables)
Now these things go for Broadway musicals, but also filmed musicals as well. There are some small tweaks, of course, because the medium is different, but overall, filmed musicals retain similar structures. And this makes sense because many of the great successes of film musical were adapted from Broadway: Showboat, Oklahoma!, West Side Story, Chicago, etc. Of course, now it goes the other way, where Beauty as the Beast and Lion King begin as an animated musicals but are then adapted with much ado to the Broadway stage. And you even have Addams Family, Shrek the Musical, Beetlejuice, and Mean Girls (and many others) that started out as non-musicals but are now (or have been) musicals on Broadway.
The Hollywood Musical
In 1929, one of the first movie musicals was shot in just under a month. In an advertising poster for The Broadway Melody, you can see that the big draw was that the film had: TALKING, SINGING, and DANCING:
This film was a huge success for MGM and a huge sensation. It even took home the Best Picture Oscar at the 1928-29 Academy Awards. It was the first sound film to do that and the first musical. (It was only the 2nd Academy Awards, so you can make of that what you will.) It was during production on the film that they figured out it was better (and cheaper) to pre-record the musical numbers and then dance and sing along to them using a playback. This allowed the cameras much more flexibility in how they could move around because they weren't worried about capturing sound. Just an aside, because cameras made so much noise, and because microphone technology was still developing, cameras were placed in soundproof boxes on set. They called these boxes "sweat-boxes" for obvious reasons. But you didn't need the sweat-box when using playback!
Competing studio Warner Bros. came back with Gold Diggers of Broadway from 1929. This was another very big success, and the studios went bananas. In 1930, the various studios produced and released 100 musicals. One hundred musicals in one year! Predictably, audiences were soon bored with the genre. The musicals that followed (in 1931 there were just over a dozen musicals released) had to be really special to succeed. Hollywood flooded the market at the beginning, and audiences needed to acquire a taste for them again.
Enter Busby Berkeley! Berkeley was the choreographer for 42nd Street, a so-called "backstage" musical, because it took place in the context of a show. This concept added to the "realism" of a musical because some of the musical numbers were literally numbers from the show-within-the-show. Berkeley was a choreographer who had worked on precision formation and drills in the military. (Check out his Wikipedia page here for a quick intro.) He brought his knowledge of moving large groups of people in precise formations to the Hollywood musical and started a whole subgenre of musicals: the Busby Berkeley musical. With each film, Berkeley pushed the envelope of what could be done in big "production numbers." The big advantage of using film over a live stage show here is that Berkeley could use the camera in awesome and innovative ways to bring the audience into the experience. As the video below states, no audience had ever been able to see a group of dancers like this before. He had to keep coming up with more and more complex and interesting ways to make geometric shapes with women's bodies. (He also occasionally threw men into the mix.) This is a short video from the Warner Bros. archive about Berkeley. Please note that many of his set pieces were done on stage, but to find new and different ways to make things special, there are even some dance numbers in water:
While these musicals went bigger and bigger, there were also smaller, more intimate musicals. Some featured well-known personalities like Gene Autry, "the singing cowboy." There were also the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers ones. The big numbers on these didn't feature the dancing of a hundred nearly-identical ladies, but instead the intimate duets of two talented professionals.
Disney musicals are something that generations of children grew up on. There's something about the animation (even from the earliest days) that seems somewhat timeless, and even today's kids find something to love about both Cinderella and Moana. And Frozen. And Encanto. There's a very useful breakdown of the different eras of Disney films published by the British Film Institute. The current era is known as the "Revival" era, and the BFI has this to say about it.
"The current revival era has been seen by many as a return to form for Disney animation. Having fully embraced CGI animation (similar to the business models of Pixar and DreamWorks), stories are reviving the popular Broadway musical formula within fantasy settings. Uniquely, the films of this era are less about the quest for romantic love and more about protagonists’ inner journeys towards self-discovery and confidence. The era has also seen a rising trend in a new type of ‘twist-villain’, an antagonist who initially appears harmless or even friendly. These stories have resonated strongly with modern audiences – so far this is the most profitable of any period of Disney animation."
One of the most notable parts of this quote is this: "the films of this era are less about the quest for romantic love and more about protagonists’ inner journeys towards self-discovery and confidence." It puts things like Frozen, Moana, and Encanto in a bit of a different light when you see them from that perspective.
Wrapping up the Hollywood Musical
Musicals sometimes impress mightily (like 2002's Chicago, which won 6 Oscars including best Picture), and sometimes they fizzle (Cats, Les Miserables). Here's a 2023 article from Movieweb that asks if we're ready to be "all in" on musicals again. While many of the musicals mentioned in this article are "integrated" musicals (in that the music is integrated into the story and written specifically for it), one of the biggest recent successes both on Broadway and in the theaters is a "jukebox musical." A jukebox musical is a musical that's cobbled together from pre-existing songs--often by a single artist, but not always--and shoehorned into a new narrative. Mama Mia (2008) invented a narrative set to a bunch of songs by Swedish pop group Abba, and struck Box Office gold (plus a sequel). This whole concept is somewhat controversial to the musical "purist" who believes that songs should be written specifically for the narrative. Another jukebox musical that made the leap to film was Rock of Ages (2012), which featured 80s pop, rock, and hair metal hits. It didn't do well at the box office, but still opened well for a musical. (Other jukebox musicals on Broadway have been American Idiot, featuring the music of Green Day, Jagged Little Pill, featuring the music of Alanis Morisette, and Movin' Out, which features the music of Billy Joel.)
Every once in a while, musicals will become hot properties in Hollywood. They never really go away...they just fall out of favor for a while, or a really terrible flop will make studios worried (like Cats in 2019). But don't worry: they always come back.
Another huge industry that leans heavily on musicals is the Indian movie industry that produces Hindi-language musicals, known to many in the West and elsewhere as "Bollywood" (more on the name in a minute). Much of the information in this section comes from Bollywood Sounds: the Cosmopolitan Mediations of Hindi Film Song by Jayson Beaster-Jones, published by Oxford University Press in 2015. If this is a topic that's particularly interesting to you, please check out the companion website for the book, which has descriptions of the book itself, but also clips of music and video that accompany the text.
First, "Bollywood" is a term that most people take to mean the entire Indian film industry, but that is incorrect. "Bollywood" refers specifically to the Hindi-language film industry. The word is a portmanteau of "Bombay" and "Hollywood." India has a staggering 22 national languages and many of them have their own film traditions--like Kollywood for the Tamil-language film industry or Mollywood for the Malayalam-language industry. The Indian film tradition that has seeped into American perception is the Hindi-language tradition of musicals, which we may see on television or YouTube either in their authentic form (with subtitles) or in parody versions. In a word, "Bollywood." This industry has done the best at packaging and branding itself for audiences outside of India, which is probably why it is the best-known. The term "Bollywood" might also suggest that this film tradition is something of a "knock-off" or sad imitation of Hollywood, but this is also grossly incorrect. Although there are some formulaic similarities here and there, Bollywood has established traditions, tropes, and internal references that are completely different from those of Hollywood.
A couple of things to keep in mind about Bollywood. It is, first and foremost, a commercial venture; people are trying to make money. This means that the emphasis is on popularity and the bottom line. It's not about breaking the mold or exploring new territory. It's about appealing to the greatest number of audience members, not just in ticket sales, but in music sales. Leading up to the release of a musical movie, certain songs will be released and played on the radio and on television. They are a huge part of the marketing and promotional strategies of these films. The catchier a song is, the more the public will crave to know the narrative framework that the song fits into. Most Hindi films contain "six or more songs that seemingly interrupt the flow of the film narrative in ways that are superficially similar to the "musical" genre of Hollywood." (Beaster-Jones 5) Songs often reflect the inner thoughts and feelings of characters. Another thing to keep in mind is that these films also have traditional scores as well, and these are written not by the song composers, but by other artists. Their contributions are minimized and seemingly valued far less than the songs. As Beaster-Jones explains: "the underscore is "frequently composed by music assistants who receive comparatively little credit and remuneration for their compositions, whereas music directors who composer film songs--but might or might not composer film music--receive maximal status and remuneration for their role in music production." (Beaster-Jones xiv)
And based on the discourse around Bollywood films, they might not even belong in this section of the text. Bollywood movies may not be musicals at all, but rather movies with songs. One might be able to make an argument showing the nuances, but from a distance, they seem very...musical-like. This is an interesting article from DESIblitz that talks about the narrative circumstances that require songs. For example, rather than showing a love scene--which American movies are fine doing--a Bollywood film might show a mildly suggestive musical number instead. This is probably to make them more universally appealing, but there are also obscenity laws to consider.
The article also says this: "There is a clear dividing line between Hollywood and Bollywood when it comes to differentiating between the two. The most prominent difference of all is that Hollywood movies are usually full of action. Whereas, in Bollywood movies, music and dance dominate the movie."
Musically, the songs in Bollywood films draw upon multiple Indian traditions that include folk, classical, and religious music. They also may refer to song types adapted from international traditions. For example, if a character realizes that they have fallen in love, they might sing a song that mimics a type of musical work called a ghazal, which has its origins in Arabic poetry. Love songs may refer to or utilize an instrument called the shenhai (a double reed instrument with a nasal sound) because this instrument is traditionally played as part of a wedding ceremony.
In looking for some perspectives on Bollywood films, I happened upon multiple YouTube videos that talk about the current Bollywood culture and how it perpetuates unimaginative movies that focus mostly on spectacle and star power, and how it punishes films (and stars) that try to weave complex, coherent stories. The reason often cited for this is the commercial aspect of the films. Selling tickets, selling music, and giving audiences something they want to see leads filmmakers to rehash things that have worked before. Truly original ideas take a back seat to the stars, ideas, and (in Hollywood especially) franchises that have drawn audiences in the past.
Converging and Diverting from Western Influences
Placing Hollywood musicals next to Bollywood movies (with songs), we may consider how much western/Hollywood influences are wrapped up in the tradition. They seem to be in this middle ground where no critic is happy. I mean, on the one hand, they are thoroughly a piece of their culture. They portray "traditional" roles of men and women (sometimes with nods to expanded roles of women in the 21st century). They refer to a rich series of musical and cultural symbols. Yet, the film industry itself embodies a spirit of consumerism and capitalism that likely feels very "American." Jayson Beaster-Jones explains it this way:
"The films have been accused of being formulaic and grossly violent, objectifying women, offering a homogenized commercial paradigm, glorifying consumerism, and appealing to the lowest common denominator of Indian society. Other critics have accused commercial Hindi films of being the embodiment of everything wrong with the Western influence upon society." (5)
A Bollywood "classic" Shree 420 (The Fraudster) (1955) is available in full on YouTube (although not subtitled). It's the highest grossing Indian film of all time. The main character resembles a Charlie Chaplin-esque "little tramp," who has nothing but his charm. It stars Raj Kapoor (who, like Chaplin, also directed and produced). The 420 of the title refers to Indian Penal Code 420, which refers to the punishment of people who cheat. People call a cheat "Mr. 420." (Or so the Wikipedia article on the film explains.)
As in the early days of sound in Hollywood, early Hindi films had singer-actors who sang live on set. But in the late 1940s, Bollywood moved to using "playback" on set, and a system emerged wherein professional singers recorded the songs in studios and the actors lip-synced to them on set. (Beaster-Jones 56) At first audiences didn't like this practice, but eventually felt comfortable with seeing the attractive actors they loved and hearing beautiful singing voices--even if those voices belonged to different people. Some "playback singers" as they were known were paired up with a famous actors, and their success and salaries went up in parallel with their visual counterparts. A voice became attached to the face, if that makes sense. Once the recordings featured both the name of the playback singer AND the picture of the actor in the movie (along with their name), Indian audiences were 100% into the system. They came to know the actors and the singers and fully accepted the marriage between the face and voice. In more modern times, Indian pop stars have broken into the film industry, and since they were singers to begin with, they do both the singing and the acting--although not at the same time. :)
Let's discuss one of the most famous songs from Shree 420: a song to introduce the protagonist and his situation. It's called "Mera Joota Hai Japani" ("My Shoes Are Japanese"). Here, Raj lip-syncs to the voice of famous singer, Mukesh. The song has patriotic themes, and the significance of this can only be understood if one remembers that British rule of India ended in 1947, and a constitution for the Republic of India was adopted in 1950. Since this film is from 1955, it's likely that colonial rule was still fresh in everyone's memory. The words of this song took on a cultural resonance outside of the film. The chorus of the song says: "My shoes are Japanese, these trousers are English;/The red cap on my head is Russian, but still my heart is Indian." The Wikipedia page for this song asserts: "this song depicted the casting off of the colonialist yoke and the recognition of the internationalist aim of uniting to make India and the world a better place. " Final thought on Shree 420, and the power of the musical in post-colonial India:
"Shree 420 addresses the economic disparities in the new post-colonial India, and suggests that the wealthy maintain their privileges largely through deceit and fraud. In both cases, these films are emblematic of the kinds of socialist messages propagated by Indian filmmakers after Independence." (Beaster-Jones 68)
What better way to spread the word and make the idea go viral than to write a patriotic song that would stick in the minds of the public and have a life outside the film?
Genre Studies: Music in Animation
By the end of this module you will be able to:
- Describe some early traditions of music in animated shorts in the twentieth century
- Discuss the development of music in Japanese animation
This section introduces music in animation. We touched upon this topic in the section on the Movie Musical, but now we're looking through the lens of how music became a part of animation in two areas: animated shorts like Warner Bros. cartoons, and Japanese animation. Music is part of many animation traditions around the world, but we are choosing these two as case studies.
We begin with Hollywood since many film traditions got their start here. This page will contain a brief overview of various important points of music in Hollywood animation. For this overview, I am indebted to an article in The Oxford Handbook of Film Music Studies (2014) by cartoon music expert, Daniel Goldmark. This article is itself a brief overview called "Drawing a New Narrative for Cartoon Music." This is a follow-up to Goldmark's wildly successful book on the subject: Tunes for Toons: Music and the Hollywood Cartoon. (University of California Press, 2007). His intro to that book can be read here.
The Early Days
You may already know that Steamboat Willie (1928) is an important cartoon because it was the first appearance of Mickey (and Minnie) Mouse and because it's the first Disney cartoon with synchronized sound. Remember that The Jazz Singer's synchronized musical numbers were from 1927, and it was this film that inspired Disney to produce a cartoon with synchronized sound.
What made this film different from other animation that had music is that in it: "the animation is not just supported by the music...but is entirely interdependent with the soundtrack." (Goldmark 231) The animation was completed first, with the music and sound synchronized to it afterwards (it took two tries to get it right). Most of the actions and movements are supported by sounds, music, or both. In many cases, the animation reflects the phrasing of music (whether whistled or "played"), and although there is little "dialogue," the sounds made by the characters are rendered and synchronized to their body and mouth movements.
What Steamboat Willie brings out is the interdependence of music and image in animation, especially in the early days, when big studios sent out cartoon short films with their live-action feature films. And in contrast with traditional underscoring for live action movies--in which the score comes in during post-production, animation often recorded things (like voice tracks and singing) before the drawings were done. Goldmark explains it this way:
"Many of the studios also worked with their composers to time out in advance the music for scenes. Each director and studio had different viewpoints on timing, but Warner Bros., Disney, and MGM were all closely wedded to the practice of close timing. At Warner Bros., for instance, the director would work with the composer to determine the specific tempo (with a metronome) of the music for each scene—and even individual gags—in relation to the ongoing pacing (frames per beat) in the animation. Through this process, the composer could go and write the music on his own, having developed a very specific chronometric road map of the entire cartoon." (230)
So not only was music a part of the very beginning of the production of an animated short, the scores for cartoons were far more likely to draw the audience's attention to the music, which is something regular film music often tries hard to avoid.
Silly Symphonies and Merrie Melodies
In the early days, some animation was used to help promote popular tunes. Because the animated short films were coming from big studios that had access to huge libraries of popular music, animation could be used to help sell recordings and sheet music from artists or movies associated with the studio. Fleischer Studios, which was known for its original character, Betty Boop, promoted popular music through their short films which featured a "bouncing ball" to encourage sing-alongs.
Because using popular song to increased a studio's revenue (the cartoons became almost like commercials for the songs), the cartoon title might be the title of the song. The structure as well owed something to the structure of the song. This reliance on music for structural and narrative ideas was basically the whole reason that Warner Bros. created the Merrie Melodies. Well, that and they wanted to compete with Disney's Silly Symphonies.
In Silly Symphonies, the music came first (unlike Steamboat Willie). The first one, Skeleton Dance (1929), is probably the most famous. Carl Stalling wrote the music for this. He would leave to work with Warner Bros. and he became best known for his work on Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies animated shorts.
Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies series was developed "to promote songs owned by the larger Warner conglomerate." (Goldmark 233) The series began in 1931 and it was a partner to the Looney Tunes series. This is a Merrie Melodies short from 1931 featuring a character named "Foxy" who bears a resemblance with a certain mouse...
The most famous of the Merrie Melodies series is arguably What's Opera, Doc? (1957), which has a musical score adapted from the 19th-century operas of Richard Wagner. Arranger Milt Franklin weaved together multiple strands of Wagnerian melodies from the operas The Flying Dutchman, The Valkyrie, a little bit of Rienzi, and Tannhäuser. Warner Bros. has posted about half of this short on its YouTube Channel, WB Kids:
This is pretty much the tip of the top for this era of animated shorts. Many would argue that it's the best animated short put out by Warner Bros. It was the first cartoon that was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress, consequently preserved in the National Film Registry.
Scott Bradley was an interesting composer who worked at MGM, and who scored over 100 Tom and Jerry shorts. While MGM had access to a lot of popular songs, Bradley was not enthusiastic about using them for animated shorts. To Bradley "the cartoon score [was] a vast blank canvas on which composers could develop the next great movement in modern music." He used modern scoring techniques in his music (drawn from compositional practices of Béla Bartók and Arnold Schoenberg) while also adhering to the musical quotations and parodies expected of him. (Goldmark 237)
The Walter Lantz studio (famous for Woody Woodpecker) also started musically-themed shorts in the 1940s. One series was for classical music (Musical Miniatures) and the other took advantage of the studio's connections to the LA Jazz scene (Swing Symphonies).
The Move to Television
In 1948, a lawsuit (United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc.) broke up the studios' monopoly on making, showing, and distributing films. The basic problem was that studios owned every part of the filmmaking process (a scheme called "vertical integration"). The Wikipedia page for the case explains: "The studios created the films, had the writers, directors, producers and actors on staff (under contract), owned the film processing and laboratories, created the prints and distributed them through the theaters that they owned: In other words, the studios were vertically integrated, creating a de facto oligopoly." The decision broke up the oligopoly (an entire industry owned by just a few sellers), thus ending what's known as "the studio system." This meant that studios could no longer compel theaters to buy and show their short films. This, and the advent of television, changed the game for animation.
At first, "film studios began selling packages of their cartoons to television stations to fill empty programming slots in the morning hours as fodder for children, especially when programmers realized the degree to which children were consumers for animated cartoons, even those that were not brand new." (Goldmark 238) Once it was clear that there was a market for this kind of thing, a lot of cheaply made animated shows written specifically for television proliferated. Many of them used library music rather than newly written scores. This is especially true for the Hanna-Barbera company. The Huckleberry Hound Show (1958-1962), for example, licensed musical cues from the Capitol Records library. Hanna-Barbera, incidentally, was founded by two former animation directors from MGM. The duo also created Tom and Jerry, and brought The Flintstones to prime time.
Music in television animation in the 1970s and 80s was a far cry from the bespoke Golden Age scores of Scott Bradley and Carl Stalling. It wasn't until the 1980s and 90s when Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network began to up the game again with the music for animation. Both networks reached back to the old library of shorts from Warner Bros. and MGM, but also commissioned their own shows. This is how we got Rugrats, Ren and Stimpy, Johnny Bravo, Dexter's Laboratory, and The Powerpuff Girls (and others, of course). More care was taken with the music in these shows, partially owing to a nostalgia for the old ways. Also, someone could write an entire book on the music of The Simpsons and Family Guy. These shows have been made by the people who grew up on the Golden Age animated shorts and the cheaply made shows like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. They have used big orchestras to record their original cues (which are then reused), but they've also done song parodies, made musical jokes, and had episodes structured like integrated musicals.
Music in non-musical animated films starting with Bambi (1942) used scoring practices that mirrored how narrative live action films are scored. This has been especially true in recent years with the scores for Pixar films. Goldmark says: "The scores for these films are as rich, provoking, and complex as any live-action Hollywood film and yet still (occasionally) dip into some good old-fashioned cartoonisms, with bits of mickey-mousing or none-too-subtle links between a gag and a song on the soundtrack adding a bit of semiconscious humor." (241)
A Word About the Word "Anime"
Anime is an umbrella term in Japanese that means all animated works regardless of sub-style. Outside of Japan, "anime" refers specifically to animation produced in Japan. The oldest anime films are from the earliest decades of the twentieth century. There are some very early examples (dating back to 1907 or 1912), but the universally accepted year of the first anime is 1917. There were three key people working in anime at the time: Ōten Shimokawa, Seitarou Kitayama, and Junichi Kouchi. We're still not sure which one of them created the first animated film, because there are conflicting sources as which premiered first. Whatever happened in the following years, we are not sure, probably because so much was lost in the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923.
Namakura Gatana (1917) (Blunt Sword) is one of the oldest surviving anime films that was shown in a public Japanese theater. There's no music, of course, because this pre-dates films with soundtrack. Because celluloid was very expensive to use, many of the first animated films in Japan used paper cutouts. Namakura Gatana utilizes some paper cutout animation. But once Disney's cel animation style went out to the world, it began to heavily influence the animation of many cultures. The first Japanese animated short using cel animation is Chagama Ondo (The Dance of the Chagamas) (1935) directed by Kenzô Masaoka. The scoring principles seem quite familiar, although the music itself (when not quoting Western classical works) reflects Japanese traditions.
The production of animated shorts was not supported by a studio system as it was in Hollywood, so it was much harder to find the financial means to make a quality product that could complete on the world market. The Japanese government saw anime's potential for propaganda, so animated military propaganda and educational anime were supported. Some nationalistic short films were shown in theaters. The first full-length feature was actually a propaganda film for the Japanese navy. The film was Momotarō: Umi no Shinpei (Momotaro: Sacred Sailors) (1945), directed by Mitsuyo Seo. To inspire Seo's work, he was shown Disney's Fantasia. The score is in the Hollywood mold, with a full orchestra playing cues. There are also songs in certain moments throughout the film. The entire film is available to watch online.
Chances are that if you know even a little bit about anime, it's likely that your knowledge starts with the work of Osamu Tezuka. His Wikipedia page is here. When Tezuka was fifteen, he saw Momotaro: Umi no Shinpei, and it was a formative experience for him. He began drawing manga in the late 1940s, and his creativity, style, and innovations have led many to compare him to Walt Disney. Tezuka was a huge fan of Disney's work. He reportedly saw Bambi 80 times. Using what he knew of Disney practices, he devised ways to produce animation quickly and with low cost. These "limited animation" techniques are probably familiar to you if you've ever seen television cartoons from the 70s and 80s. The animators would create scenes where only part of the image was in motion, allowing them to reuse parts of drawings. They would also save drawings to reuse in other episodes This allowed them to make fewer drawings and recycle images, resulting in a production that was both cheaper and quicker.
As you might imagine, spending a lot of money on the music for such productions was not a priority. Just as in the early television cartoons of Hanna-Barbera, using stock library music became the norm. Tezuka's first big success in anime was Tetsuwan Atom (Mighty Atom), known in the U.S. as Astroboy. It premiered in 1963, but was based on Tezuka's manga [comic book] which had been around since 1952. You can read more about the basic premise on the show's Wikipedia page, but thematically, it reflected Tezuka's beliefs in peace, preservation and conservation of the natural world, and inclusion (these feelings came from Tezuka's experiences as a child/teen during World War II). While it did not do much to innovate music within the narrative of the show, it did have a catchy theme song. This theme song began a new genre: anime theme songs. In 2017 (the 100th anniversary of anime, based on some interpretations the historical evidence), Time Out Tokyo published "A Short History of Anime Music," which was essentially a list of five genre-defining songs. "Atom March" from Tetsuwan Atom is the first song on the list. Tezuka's work in anime influenced numerous artists, many of whom went on to found their own studios and create their own shows. If you'd like to see the opening to the Tetsuwan Atom and hear the theme song, please view it here.
The 1970s continued the tradition of having catchy, popular theme songs. We recommend listening to the epic opening to Uchū Senkan Yamato (Space Battle Ship Yamato or Starblazers in the U.S.) from 1974. The music for the anime was created by Hiroshi Miyagawa. The show was extremely influential, showing that an anime series could tell a single story with multiple arcs over many episodes (instead of stand-alone episodes), and it spawned many spinoffs, films, sequels, and other related content. In the 1980s, a prosperous economy spurred better production in anime, and this included improvements in music. One of the most influential of these quality scores was Shigeaki Seagusa's symphonic score for 1985's anime Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam. Seagusa is best known for his concert work. He's written two operas, numerous chamber works, an oratorio, a couple of film scores, and a few works for full symphony, including a suite of his works for the anime called Symphonic Suite Z Gundam.
Another important composer of scores for anime (not just opening songs) is Kenji Kawai, who composed music for many anime series including Blue Seed and Ranma 1/2. It was also in the mid-80s that a director and composer collaboration formed that many of you may know and appreciate: director Hayao Miyazaki and composer Joe Hisaishi. (A word about them in a minute.) It was in the late 1980s and early 1990s that audiences came to expect high quality scores along with their catchy theme songs. The scores tended to function in ways similar to those in traditional narrative film, supporting drama, representing characters, smoothing transitions, etc. Catchy theme songs are still a big draw, of course.
Many of these series are exported to other places. The U.S. loves anime, and many series are dubbed or "subbed" (subtitles) into English. Using apps and streaming services, one can watch new and classic anime. Some provide access to thousands of hours of anime that you can watch for free with adds, or pay a subscription fee to watch ad-free. Paid users may also see new episodes of shows broadcast at the same time they appear in Japan. Episodes are usually dubbed into English within weeks of their premiere.
We could spend a whole semester on the work of the film and animation studio, Studio Ghibli, which was founded in 1985 by Hayao Miyazaki and three others. It produces primarily feature-length animated films, but has also made some short films and commercials. Some of the films of Studio Ghibli have been wildly popular, making up half of the list of Japan's top ten highest-grossing animated films. The mascot for the studio is a giant catlike spirit (Totoro) from their 1988 hit film, My Neighbor Totoro. This film was directed by Miyazaki and scored by Joe Hisaishi. The two have worked together on all of Miyazaki's films except one (Miyazaki's first feature film). Hisaishi is sometimes called the "John Williams of Japan." Interestingly, his music has become such an important part of these productions that the studio actually asks for musical cues during pre-production to inspire their direction and narrative. If you are interested in Hisaishi's work, please check out this article in Dazed Digital and this one from Pitchfork, which charts his work in 9 songs, including music from his very first album.
Recommend viewing: Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke, and My Neighbor Totoro.
This is a list of sources I have used to create this text. Please feel free to peruse these sources for more in-depth information.
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Bradley, Scott. "Personality on the Soundtrack" in The Hollywood Film Music Reader. Mervyn Cooke, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010: 101-106.
Buhler, James, David Neumeyer, Rob Deemer. Hearing the Movies: Music and Sound in Film History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
Cooke, Mervyn. The Hollywood Film Music Reader. New York: Oxford University Press: 2010.
Gorbman, Claudia. Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987.
Hickman, Roger. Reel Music (New York: W.W. Norton, 2016).
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Kalinak, Katheryn. Settling the Score: Music and the Classical Hollywood Film. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.
London, Kurt. Film Music: A Summary of the Characteristic Features of Its History, Aesthetics, Techniques, and Its Possible Developments. London, 1936. Reprint, New York, 1970.
Marks, Martin Miller. Music and the Silent Film: Contexts and Case Studies 1895-1924. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Neumeyer, David, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Film Music Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Rapee, Erno. Motion Picture Moods access here.
Slobin, Mark, ed. Global Soundtracks: Worlds of Film Music. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008.
Spring, Katherine. Saying it with Songs: Popular Music and the Coming of Sound to Hollywood. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Thomas, Tony. Film Score: The View from the Podium. New York: A.S. Barnes and Company, 1979.
Timm, Larry M. Film Music: the Soul of Cinema. New Jersey: Pearson, 2003.
"Film Music" New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (London: Macmillan, 1980), Vol, 6, p. 549.