To say that music plays a large role in our society would not do justice to one of the most important and popular art forms of yesterday and today. We underestimate the effectiveness and power that music, in any form , can have over even the most insensitive of people. In almost everything we do and see music is involved in some form or another. Be it a piece played at a wedding, a song played on the radio or even the music played in the background in a television commercial. The music is always there, reminding us of past experiences, making us smile and feel exhilaration and sometimes even making us cry.
It is this power that music has over us that film score composers take advantage of when they are writing the music to accompany the movies. As listeners we often do not appreciate that the music that is scored for films or played in films is put there on purpose to create a certain feeling, emphasize a point, give more life to a character or sometimes to simply add humour. What the average moviegoer does not usually realize is that a great deal of time and thought goes into writing the score for a film and choosing the background music for a scene.
None of the music is arbitrary; themes and sub themes have been reated with specific ideas in mind and have been put in place only to add to the story and the characters. It is also important to acknowledge that the evolution into the type of film scoring that we are accustomed to today was not a quick or easy transition. It has taken almost a century to develop the specific techniques that are used in todays films. When the first moving pictures were seen they were known as silent films, although they were not actually silent.
They contained a very primitive type of musical accompaniment that laid the foundation for what was to later develop. As time passed the type f music found in films developed into a fine art containing specific guidelines and techniques that most composers tend to follow. The average person does not usually pay astute attention to the music that is being used in a film, however, if it were to not be there the films would seem empty and as if something was missing. The actors, the writing and the direction is what is primarily noticed in a film but the music is the inconspicuous supporter of all of these elements.
To create a film that will be effective it is essential that the film have a thoughtful score, and, as the audience, it is our duty to cknowledge the music in order to fully understand all that is being displayed to us in the film. To realize fully the foundation of what we now recognize as an effective film score it is important to examine the music behind a silent film. No film was actually ever completely silent. There may not have been a soundtrack that we are accustomed to, however, the music was always essential to a movie, no matter how primitive it may be.
In the earliest days of film the music was played on a phonograph. This was around the time of Edison. The phonograph was an invention that did not last long in the world of film. The next step was the use of a vitaphone, which also did not play a lasting role in the movie industry. The next step was not the use of a recorded soundtrack but rather it was the use of live musicians. The live music came about as the movies were becoming a little more common. The films began to be played commercially in Vaudeville houses, cafes, and music halls where musicians were already hired to play in the musical concerts that evening.
Because the musicians were already there they were asked if they would play along with the film. In the Vaudeville houses there was no specific place for them to sit so hey sat seated at the front , in front of the screen. Even after theatres were built to show the moving pictures a space was created at the front where the musicians were to sit. Because the musicians were inexperienced with accompanying films they played what they liked or what they knew. This made it uncommon that the music actually fit with the action on the screen. The musicians paid little attention to the film and played arbitrarily.
This meant that often a serious or dramatic scene would be occurring on the screen wile the musician played something comical or something that belonged to a scene with a ar chase. Sound-effects men were soon added to the sounds behind a film. This would be a man that created noises, erg. train whistles and bells, fire engine bells, gun shots, explosions, cannon fire, etc. in order to add realism to the film. This made movie-going more popular which in turn bettered the standard of movie-making. It was at this point that the musicians hired to accompany the films began to take the music more seriously.
Set standards were created but the musicians job was to make sure that these standards did not become monotonous. They also began the use of simple motif that would introduce a haracter or foreshadow an event. The motifs are the elements of the music that are extremely important in shaping the characters and the theme of the film. It was the use of these motifs that made the music much more sophisticated and people began to take the films more seriously. The idea of motifs did not disintegrate but rather became an important technique in the scoring of films in the years to come.
By this time the music was ceasing to be merely and extra job for Vaudeville musicians and had actually become an art that needed and was given thought. The house musician, which later became a small ensemble and sometimes even a large orchestra, was a valued addition to the movie industry and they could be found in hundreds of movie houses across America. It was from this point on that films were to always be accompanied by some sort of music. The house musician remained in movie houses for many years, however they eventually disappeared to make way for the recorded film score, known as a talkie or canned music.
The 1930’s was the time that saw the rise of the symphonic film score. This was the time in which many great composers began to write the cores for films. The scores were not simple little symphonies or pieces but rather enormous projects that took a great deal of time and thought. It was also in this era that the click track was developed. This was a technique first used in the scoring of cartoons, however as the scoring for life action movies became more complex the click track became vital to the preciseness of the score. A click track works to synchronize the music with the action of the film with the use of mathematics.
The exposure of films is measured in frames and there are 24 frames a second, 1440 frames a minute. Holes are punched into the film to click at any given metronome beat. The composer measures this beat by dividing the figure, 1440, by whatever metronome speed that he wants and the resulting figure is the frame click beat. For example, if the composer want the metronome beat to be at 144, than he divides the figure 1440 by 144 and the resulting figure is 10. This means that the holes punched in the film should click every 10 frames.
The studio musicians would wear headsets through which they would hear a constant clicking sound, thus keeping them precisely with the score. The major film score composers of this time were actually European, arriving in Hollywood to compose great works for film. The European influence gave the films scores that many of the elements found in the romantic style of the Viennese opera, eg. large orchestras, complex parts, lush harmonies, doubling of parts and full string parts, as well a influence from many European composers, for example, Richard Strauss.
The composers that sat at the forefront of film scoring at this time were Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Bertrand Hermann. These men wrote the scores for many of the amous films that came out of that era, eg. The Informer, Since You Went Away, King Kong, Casablanca, and Gone With The Wind (Max Steiner), The Prince and the Pauper, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, and A Midsummer’s Nights Dream (Erich Wolfgang Korngold), and by Bertrand Hermann the infamous Citizen Kane.
The films required a great use of leitmotifs, themes, and sub themes. It was these characteristics that gave the music such importance and helped make these films of the thirties become the memorable classics that they are. Some examples of the effective use of themes and sub hemes can be found in the scores of Max Steiner’s The Informer, Since You Went Away, and Gone With The Wind. Each of the scores that accompany these films have an enormous orchestration and key motifs as well as a blend of different types of music that creates a particular feeling or accentuates a point.
The Informer is a film set in Ireland and tells the story of Gypo Nolan who is the tragic main character who is ultimately gunned down in the street. The motifs used in this film are of this tragic genre with Irish folk melodies intertwined with many of the main themes. One of the most effective uses of symbolism in the music of this film is found at the end when Gypo finally meets his death. After he is shot he makes his way to a small church nearby with the sound of heavy brass chords imitating his every plodding step.
When he reaches the inside of the church he collapses only to see a nun who he thinks in the Virgin Mary. At the this point his face moves from darkness into the light and a soft hymn, Sancta Maria, written by Steiner himself emerges as the more dominant of the musical sounds. This whole scene symbolizes the passing of Gypo into heaven nd the final acceptance of his soul by God. It would lose all effectiveness if the music was not as dominant as it is. The film, Since You Went Away, has many similar elements in the music that make us feel and understand the feelings of the characters.
This film contains a scene in which a young woman, Jennifer Jones, races along the railway platform alongside the train that is carrying her true love off to war. Steiner chose to use elements from familiar songs, I’ll Be Home For Christmas, and Irving Berlin’s Together, intertwined with a military sounding symphony part o exemplify to us the thoughts that were racing through the minds of these two character as they left each other , not knowing if it was to be for the last time. The effect that this music had on those who saw the film was unforgettable as Steiner portrayed emotions so poignantly through his orchestration.
Probably the most memorable film score to arise out of the 1930’s was the music to the epic Gone With the Wind. This film begins with many different themes being introduced, the most famous of which is the theme for Tara, intertwined with the strains of the Old South. Steiner worked closely ith the producer David O. Selznick when he was writing the score for this film, however little of what Selznick asked for in the score actually appeared in the final movie. Selznick encouraged Steiner to use little original score but rather use prerecorded classical music with some Old South tunes mixed in; Steiner disagreed with his ideas.
This was and is a common occurrence with the producers and the composers of movies, they rarely agree on the same ideas for how the movie will be scored. The producer wants to put his ideas forth but really, as producers, they are not adequately qualified and the composers just ant to be left alone to do their what they were hired to do as effectively as they can. This disagreement during the scoring of Gone With The Wind became so intense that Selznick actually hired an additional composer to write another score in case he did not approve if what Steiner had written.
In the end Steiner’s extraordinary composing ability prevailed and it is his fantastic score that appears in this epic drama. In this score Steiner manages to create seven themes for the important elements of this film: Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, Melanie, a love theme for Melanie and Ashley, another love theme for Scarlett and Ashley, Scarlett’s father (Gerald O’Hara), and finally a theme for Tara. The theme for Tara is the most effective because this old plantation and it’s collapse in essence symbolizes the collapse of the Old South after the Civil War.
This theme recurs throughout the film each time is is modified slightly to show to the audience the undying strength and endurance of the proud tradition of the Old South in the minds of the Southerners, even if it’s foundation had crumbled. The music of this film is extremely effective and important even if we do not always notice that it is there. From the beginning of the film until more than twenty minutes into the picture the music does not stop. We often do not notice the music when it is there, however, we would surely notice it if were to be gone.
To construct an effective film score there are no real rules but rather a patterned set of guidelines that have become tradition over time. Certain types of musical themes have been used time and time again to create the style, mood or feeling of the film. For example, the type of music that would be used in a Western, or a Suspense-Drama or a Love Story varies very little from picture to picture. A theme found in a Love Story will not always be the same as the one before it, however, it will have the same style or feeling to it that creates the emotion of love in our minds.
These ideas are often modified because of the intensity or seriousness of the film, however, they are essentially similar. The key to a memorable score is the creation of an effective main theme with equally effective sub themes. This main theme should be the connecting link between scenes but should not be over used as not to saturate the audience with it’s melody so they become bored and annoyed with it. The introduction of the main theme followed by lesser sub theme that are juxtaposed and varied enough to teas the audience until it reaches a climactic final statement of the theme in it’s entirety.
The use of leitmotifs to represent characters and the intertwining of one character’s theme with another is instrumental in telling the story of the film and giving a full portrait of the character and their relationship with others. It is also important to realize that different instruments and different colours of music are used to create a certain feeling. There are certain sounds that we are used to hearing hat are effective in adding to the mood or feeling of the film.
Nothing in the creation of a film score is arbitrary all of the music that we hear has been composed specifically to accentuate or punctuate what the main idea that the writing, acting and directing of the film is trying to show to us. Another aspect of the soundtrack to a film that is not randomly chosen is the use of source music and the unoriginal score. Source music is the music that can be heard coming from a radio, a dance club band , a marching band, etc. The music that is chosen to be played in these scenes is put there o accentuate the point of the scene, to add humour or even to make the scene seem ironic.
This source music can also be used to foreshadow upcoming events and prepare us for the next scene. The unoriginal score is music that has been written by somebody else but has been placed in the scene to add effect. The music can be a part of the scene as in the scene with Tom Hanks explaining the story of La Mamma Morta to Denzel Washington in Philadelphia. The music in this scene has been added to create depth in Tom Hank’s character and to create a new special bond between the two men.
The other way that the unoriginal score can be used effectively is if the music is not actually in the scene but is still playing in the background as if it were in the minds of the characters in the scene. An example of this can be found in the film True Romance where Dennis Hopper’s character is speaking to Chrisopher Walken and we know that Dennis Hopper’s characters going to die. The music that is being played in the background of this scene is a faint opera, that adds peace to a scene that should not feel peaceful. The beauty of the music adds a certain grace to the cene and gives it more character.
To listen to the score of a film is to appreciate fully exactly what the film makers were trying to point out to us. The acting and directing and the writing are the element that primarily we remember, however, subconsciously we remember more that we give ourselves credit for. A movie can be seen once and already the themes are ingrained in our minds and if we were to hear them elsewhere we could identify them.
Many themes of films today are so memorable that we can often sing them on cue, for example, the themes to The Godfather, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Jaws, Jurassic Park, etc. Each of these films has a theme that we remember even if we do not make a conscious decision to do so. It is far to often that the power of music is underestimated and not enough credit is given to the thought that was put into creating an effective film score. As an audience it is our duty, not necessarily to always enjoy, but to at least appreciate all elements of the film making process. The scoring of the film has always been a cornerstone to the success of the film, no matter how primitive the music may be.