The Evolution of Music in Movies

Updated on February 27, 2019

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(Photo by Hamidreza Ahmadi)(Photo by Hamidreza Ahmadi)

First Films, Lumiere Brothers

In the beginning, there were the Lumière brothers, who made short moving pictures of normal occurrences: crowds, trains, people in lines. The camera they developed in 1895 captured the first moving pictures ever.

How exciting must that have been?

How, then, did we get from their completely silent, grainy images to our movies filled with and driven by full-force soundtracks?

Psychology Against Silence

Interestingly enough, there is a psychological reason that many scholars of film believe the improvised music was added to “silent” films. They assert that watching the actors, in black and white, speak with absolutely no sound would make us feel, on some base level, “unalive.”

Silent Films and Expressionism

The artistic movement of Expressionism arrived at around the time that silent films became widely popular. As a result of this, many of the early silent films are either comedies (see Charlie Chaplin) or Expressionist (see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, video at right).

Either way, these films would be projected on a large screen in front of an audience. But sitting in silence probably wouldn’t go over too well, and they couldn’t add music to the film itself, so they had live music played at each showing of the film.

This would be anything from an upright piano to a full string quartet, and there would be no written score! That’s right, they made it up as they went along and watched the movie. When Chaplin’s character fell down (and obviously the musicians would get to memorize the films after several performances a day for weeks), they’d mirror that with a similar sound in the music.

They would have some written music sometimes, but it was usually a starting point for their improvisation. The written music would be published in books and was always ripped off from dead or obscure composers. Then there would be a page or two of “Circus Music” that could give the pianist an idea of where to start his improv in a carnival scene, et cetera. It was a fluid type of performing, and each showing of the film would be a bit different.

Early Talkies

Charlie Chaplin, unfortunately, didn’t really survive the transition to films with sound, or “talkies.” Suddenly hearing his voice and associating it with all the images of him they had seen silently proved to be too much of a shock to audiences! (The house musicians for the theaters were undoubtedly less than thrilled about the switch, as well.)

So instead of slapstick comedies, musicals began to flood the scene at the end of the ’20s. In musicals, of course, everything seems to stop when a song begins so that the character can sing. Clearly directors and writers were very aware of the fact that they were adding music to their movies and were unsure of how to do it in a subtler way. That would come.

The Jazz Singer in 1927 was the first feature film to include speech synchronized to the actors on the screen. This means that the first words spoken on film were the first words of this movie:

“Wait a minute! You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”

Classical Scoring Technique

You know all about this one; you just might not realize it. After the (admittedly brief) era of mainly musicals came the Classical Scoring Technique, which is still one of the most popular ways that music comes into film. It is the subtlest and often most powerful way for music to influence a movie.

In 1933, the original King Kong was released with Max Steiner’s original score (meaning “written music”). It was one of the first movies to have comprehensive scoring throughout the whole plot, and Steiner wrote it using the Classical Scoring Technique.

To explain it in the simplest way: the Classical Scoring Technique just sounds like an orchestra playing in the background of the movie. When there’s an intense scene, the music is intense. When there’s a happy scene, the music sounds happy.

On a more complicated level, the composer uses themes (a whole melody to represent something like love or war) and leitmotifs (a couple notes in a recognizable pattern to represent one character or small idea). They hold the whole score together without the audience even noticing that their ears are recognizing the repeated patterns in the music.

Classical Scoring, creating a great deal of music in the background of the movie, also smooths over scene cuts or any other awkwardness of the film by continuing the idea from one scene to another.

Max Steiner is one of the most prolific and famous Classical Scoring writers, with 26 Academy Award nominations (and 3 wins). He scored Gone With The Wind and Casablanca, among tens of others.

Today, you’ll probably recognize the name of John Williams. He is even more prolific than Steiner was and has scored most of the cinematic giants, such as Star Wars and Harry Potter. I don’t have enough space here to tell you how many awards he’s won, so… Wikipedia it.

A Jazzy Aside…

Jazz, as almost everything else in the 1930s, became racially divided in the movies of the time: there was “black jazz” and “white jazz.” White jazz was almost like swing and was played on violins and other symphonic instruments. It was used in movies to represent fun, usually. Black jazz was much more gritty and more purely “jazz” with trumpets and saxophones. It often represented women of ill repute, immoral character, or a general interruption of normalcy.

Streetcar: Blanche Meets Stanley

Enter: Jazz

Jazz music was the first time “popular” culture had entered into movies, and people liked it! Hollywood used it as a tool to instantly characterize the parts of the movies with jazz, as it has very specific associations to certain places and people.

For example, in A Streetcar Named Desire, the jazzy (admittedly symphonic) score helps cement the setting of New Orleans and the morally questionable actions of the characters.

Jazz had long been a part of pop culture, with many jazz clubs in the hip parts of town. It was the first truly American genre of music.

Unfortunately and awkwardly enough, jazz was considered “African American music” and had to be “sanitized” before it was put into white movies (see A Jazzy Aside to the right). We see much less (if any) racial coding in our movies today, obviously, as racism becomes less rampant.

Spaghetti Westerns

The days of spaghetti Westerns (popular in the ’50s and ’60s) brought back symphonic scoring, to an extent. They used the same ideas as the Classical Scoring Technique and similar orchestral instruments but added the “Western” sound with a twangy guitar and/or a Spanish trumpet.

The music was broad, long, drawn-out like the scenery. It had to be big to fill all the empty space the movies were showing, so the composers wrote for full orchestras. This music was used to intensify gun battles and horse chases and to help paint the image of the scenery in 360 degrees around the audience. Many of the themes from the more popular movies (see The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly from 1967) are constantly parodied or quoted in today’s cartoons.

Ennio Morricone is one of the most famous Italian composers for the “spaghetti” Westerns, and he almost always paired with director Sergio Leone. Their collaboration was unprecedented, with Leone playing Morricone’s music as he was filming the scene so the actors could hear it. These movies, of course, were the ones for which Clint Eastwood became so famous.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly – Duel Scene

Dissonant Scores

Westerns gave way to science fiction and suspense movies, which had eerie, unsettling music. The scores were influenced by avant-garde and the twelve-tone music of Arnold Schoenberg.

This music heightens negative emotions by using notes that don’t particularly sound great together. The composers would call for instruments to be used in new, unorthodox ways (“extended techniques”), like banging on the back of a guitar like a drum instead of strumming the strings. This way, the audience would be unable to identify the sounds, which heightens discomfort even further.

Famous movies with this technique include Psycho (1960), Planet of the Apes (1968), and Apocalypse Now (1979).

Classical Scoring Comes Back

In 1977, John Williams revived the Classical Scoring technique with his infamous score of Star Wars. He brought back to life the legacy of composers like Max Steiner by creating full scores with themes and recognizable leitmotifs. “Luke’s Theme” remains one of the most generally familiar in film history.

Danny Elfman (famous now for writing The Simpsons theme) appeared not too long after and scored Tim Burton’s Batman in the classical scoring style.

Even though the origins of this classical music are from Germany in the 1880s, our ears now recognize it as generic background music. Because of this, it is called the “default idiom;” even though we’re hearing it while Batman zooms around Gotham, no one is asking, “Why is this German classical music playing?” It has been rendered timeless by movie scores.

Musicals Revived

Of course, musicals never went away through all of this, but they became much less popular than they were in the days of, say, Gene Kelly. The periodical musical came out and became popular — The Sound of Music (1965), Cabaret (1972), Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) — and, no doubt, this is the way the legacy of musicals will continue.

More recently, we enjoyed the movie version of the musical Chicago (2002) and the original (though based on previously completed music, making it also partially a “song score”) and overwhelmingly popular Moulin Rouge! (2001). I’m willing to bet that musicals will continue to be released every few years but will never catch on like wildfire again.

Film Music Today: Song Scores

Around the time we put the first pop music into movies (jazz, remember?), directors began to realize that they could advertise and sell the theme song of their film in an entirely separate market: the music industry. This was the origins of “soundtracks,” which are released separately from the movie and contain only the music from the movie.

For the most part, soundtracks tend to be from movies with “song scores,” which means that the music heard in them isn’t classical and doesn’t have similar themes throughout; instead the score is made up of many songs, some of which may be written for the movie and some aren’t.

The Graduate (1967) is an incredibly famous movie- with- a- song- score, with popular Simon & Garfunkel songs like “Scarborough Fair,” “Mrs. Robinson,” and “Sound of Silence.”

The aim of the song score is to produce nearly twice the revenue: they can sell and market the movie, hoping it does well, and they can sell and market the songs/album and hope that does well, too. Sometimes a song popularizes a movie, and sometimes a movie popularizes a song, but either way, Hollywood wins out twice as big.

Undoubtedly, we’ll continue to hear song scores (as well as the classical scoring technique for epic and more classic movies) in movies for quite some time.


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