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AAA Music | 30 May 2020

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Track the Evolution: A Short History of Film Music

| On 17, Apr 2020

Group of people in theater with popcorn and drinks. Young friends watching movie in cinema.

When you talk about your favorite movies and why you like them, how often does the musical score or soundtrack figure into your conversation?

Of course, some films have iconic soundtracks that speak of the era from which they hailed, including The Graduate and Saturday Night Fever.

Others have highly recognizable musical scores such as Ben Hur and Star Wars.

Whatever the case, music is a crucial component in filmmaking – even if you don’t notice it.

But how did music in film evolve? We’ll take a look at a compact history of film music.

Pre-1920s

Before the invention of “talkies,” there were only silent movies. But they weren’t completely silent.

Filmmakers of that time knew that the audience would need something to add depth to the two-dimensional images appearing on the screen.

Since it wasn’t possible to add music to the film at that time, they incorporated live music – just as was the case in theater at that time. This music also helped cover the sound of the loud projectors.

The live music could be anything from an upright piano to a full string quartet. And the musicians usually made the music up as they went along, although after playing for repeated performances, they began to memorize the films.

Live music lent itself well to comedies since musicians could match sounds with the slapstick movements of this era’s films.

The 1920s

As technology advanced through the 1920s, it became possible to add sound to film. This meant not only dialogue but music as well.

While slapstick comedies still dominated at the beginning of this decade, they were replaced by musicals by the late 1920s.

These early musicals were far from subtle. Every action had to stop when a song began so they could incorporate the music and the actors could sing.

At the time though, this was revolutionary and audiences didn’t mind this herky-jerky lack of continuity. In the following decade, music in film would make some serious strides.

The 1930s

At the beginning of the 1930s, there was a little drift away from musicals as filmmakers started figuring out how to use music as an emotional component. They began to use classical music to support the film’s plot and character actions.

As the decade proceeded, directors began working with composers to create music that would be completely original to their film. The first completely original score was written by the legendary Max Steiner for King Kong in 1933.

By the latter half of the decade, filmmakers were collaborating with composers in a much more seamless fashion. It had become common practice to create provocative musical scores that went far beyond the old compiled “western music” used at the beginning of the decade.

It’s a practice that’s still used today as filmmakers seek out musicians who are highly-skilled in writing original scores. You can find out more about that here.

The 1940s

It was actually the late 1930s when filmmakers discovered the power of jazz in their films. But it would become much more commonplace in the 1940s.

There was a definitive racial divide when it came to utilizing jazz for film though.

When filmmakers wanted to depict moments of fun and celebration, they would use more swing-like jazz that used violins and other symphonic instruments. This homogenized version was known as “white jazz” and it introduced white audiences to this otherwise exotic form of music.

This allowed them to, over time, incorporate the more purist and gritty form of jazz with trumpets and saxophones. This was referred to as “black jazz” and it was used to represent characters lacking in morals or in times of strife.

The 1950s

Although symphonic scoring still existed during the 1940s, it made a huge comeback in the 1950s with the popularity of spaghetti Westerns.

Composers had to write music that was broad and drawn-out like the scenes, but big enough to fill the empty space the movies showed.

So the composers wrote for full orchestras but added twangy guitars and Spanish trumpets to give the scores a Western sound. The music was used as a backdrop for horse chases and gun battles, and some of it is even parodied in cartoons today.

The 1960s

The 1960s was the era of eerie and unsettling music. This was due in part to the popularity of science fiction and suspense movies during this decade.

Avant-garde composers were utilizing instruments in new and unorthodox ways. For example, they would bang on the back of a guitar rather than strum it to create an unusual sound that was unidentifiable. This added to the discomfort and suspense.

Meanwhile, musicals made a bit of a comeback.

This decade also ushered in the use of rock in film that was becoming wildly popular in the music world.

The 1970s

The experimentalism of the 1960s didn’t fizzle out in the 1970s. But there was a return to the classical scoring technique that was so favored decades earlier.

Composer John Williams was pivotal in this. When he wrote the score for Star Wars in 1977, he brought back to life the legacy of famous composers like Max Steiner. Soon, there was a whole class of composers returning to these early roots to compose musical scores.

Meanwhile, musicals were falling out of favor. It should be noted, however, that this was the decade when film-goers got their first dose of Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1975.

The 1980s and Beyond

Synthesized sound in films first occurred in the 1980s and it revolutionized film scoring. This meant that an entire film could be scored using just one performer. It also enabled popular songs – especially contemporary rock – to become the basis for entire scores.

Today, with continued advancements in technology, music can so accurately accent a movie’s plot and characters that it makes watching a film a true experience.

The History of Film Music is Expansive

Hopefully, our shortened version of the history of film music inspires you to find out more about this fascinating topic.

There’s so much more to learn!

And if it feels like you can’t ever get enough of reading about music, have no fear. Keep checking back with our regularly updated blog to get your fix.

We won’t leave you hanging.