An Introduction to Film Music

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Music has always been closely associated with film. From Saint-Saëns in 1908 to John Williams in the present day, the history of music and film is a long and interesting story intricately connected with the plight of art in the modern world.

It raises a multitude of interesting questions: How is music created for film? What factors must it take into consideration? What should one look for in film music? How does it relate to the mainstream of 'concert hall' composition?

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Professor Roger Parker



I stand before you as Gresham Professor of Music, in my third year of service, but of course with more than four hundred years of tradition to look back on. I thus have innumerable authoritative and, if I dared examine them closely, doubtless intimidating predecessors. As it happens, I was reading about one of them recently, a certain Edward Taylor. He made quite a splash in recent times (well, it was 1838, which on the Gresham clock is almost yesterday) by trying to liven his lectures up. Taylor had the radical idea that "the real benefit of music lectures consists in the extension and enlightenment of the musical public". Before that, Music Professors seem to have regarded it as their duty to lay emphasis on the driest matter available, and might spend hours debating the proper tonal behaviour of the second subject in a fugal exposition, or some other burning issue of pre-Victorian musicology. As a result, their audiences were embarrassingly small, a fact that may not have worried them very much, but did worry others, particularly those privy to the salaries the Professors were receiving. I can't resist quoting to you a diatribe about all this from a contemporary music magazine:

"The new management of the Gresham music lectures, forms one of the most striking events of the musical year in the metropolis. It is well known into what an utterly useless, absurd, and contemptible formality, the liberal design of the founder had dwindled; and nothing could have supported the lecturer through the farce of commenting on some technical point of composition, in an obscure room of the Royal Exchange, in the middle of the day and the heart of business hours, to an audience of three or four ladies - but ancient precedent .. and the affectionate respect with which the English people have hitherto viewed the pocketing of a sinecure."

Professor Taylor changed all this, and his opening lecture of 1838, given on St Cecelia's Day, was "attended to overflowing" and, perhaps surprising in our more restrained times, was "interrupted by frequent and hearty applause". Those were the days.

So: Gresham College's attitudes to delivering musical education in 1838 changed with the changing times; and quite right too. At least, that's my hope, because my subject in this series of lectures-while not, I would guess, constituting as radical a change as that effected by Professor Taylor-is a little out of the ordinary. It concerns film music, which means that it involves the last hundred years of musical history, but addresses an area that has typically been classed as part of popular rather than elite culture. That point is important, because it explains why film music has only recently become of much interest to musicologists. While twentieth-century music has long been an important sub-discipline of musicology, the barriers between the elite and the popular have long been upheld, and have carried with them the implication that popular music can, by and large, look after itself. Those barriers are now coming down, and with them a whole host of accompanying assumptions have been called into question: about difficulty and complexity as a sign of musical seriousness or even quality; about whether the musical score of a work (rather than its realisation in performance) should be the essential object of musical study; about whether the composer's intentions concerning his work-how it might sound and sometimes even what it might mean-should always be deemed of great or even sacred importance.

I stress these changes partly because they will inevitably impinge on what follows. To study film music is to enter a world very different from that occupied by the works of the musicological canon: it's predominantly a world of mass culture, in which difficulty is usually discouraged and immediate appeal to a broad public is usually necessary; a world in which musical scores are often absent or incomplete, thus obliging us to deal with the work in performance and so discouraging elaborate technical analysis. Most important, it is a world in which the composer plays only a small part in a larger project, and often has little authority: his intentions, even about such basic matters as the duration and content of what he writes, are frequently overruled by others (in particular by the film's director). All this means that musicologists who elect to talk about film music must abandon much of what they have learned elsewhere in the field.

There is, though, another obstacle, one I might as well make clear right at the start. The study of elite music is now an old discipline, with an elaborate canon of masterworks, and with sub-fields galore in which one can become an authority. Were I standing before you to lecture about, say, Italian opera (as I did in the first year of my tenure), I could be confident of a long-acquired fund of knowledge and experience behind the remarks I made. Lecturing on film music, I have no such confidence: indeed, I'm painfully aware that, although like most of us here I've spent endless hours of my life watching films, not much of that time has been spent in any sense analytically or critically. In some ways, and we'll touch on this a little later, most films are constructed to discourage such analysis: they go to some lengths (with music as a prime agent) to erase the artifice of their making, to draw spectators into their narrative world. But it means that my previous experience is not worth as much as it might be. More than this, though, I also have the painful awareness that there are thousands upon thousands of films of which I have no knowledge whatsoever. The trick, I think, is to make this ignorance liberating rather than constricting: to use it as a means of stimulating new ways of looking and listening, while always being aware that the next discovery may dash your latest interpretation to pieces. That, at least, is the theory. Whether this method works in practice will be for you to judge.

First, though, it is only proper to sketch in a little history. When did film music begin? The great dividing line in film history is often said to occur in 1927, when a film called The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, put an end to the era of "silent film". This is misleading in many ways. The Jazz Singerdid indeed have speech, music and the visual element all co-ordinated (by means of a pioneering technique of mechanically linking film projection and gramophone equipment, marketed by a Warner Brothers offshoot called Vitaphone); but many films before that had experimented with various means of co-ordination, particularly co-ordination of the visual and musical elements. More important, though, the very idea of "silent film" is a giant misnomer. From its beginnings in the 1890s, projections of films routinely involved more or less elaborate musical accompaniment, as had the nineteenth-century vaudeville and melodrama from which it evolved. By the 1920s, what had started life as music typically supplied by a solitary organist or pianist had developed into full-scale orchestral accompaniments to the grandest films. There were also original film scores, but the more usual technique was to make an accompaniment by cobbling together musical extracts that would underpin individual scenes. These extracts were collected together in large compendia, and could include popular classical extracts as well as especially-composed numbers. Their appearance to accompany narrative drama would already have been familiar from melodrama and opera, as would many of the musical clichés they employed-string pizzicatos and dissonant tremolos for the villain, solo violin melodies for the lovelorn heroine, and so on.

One might imagine that the advent of Vitaphone's synchronisation technique made this use of music in "silent" films just that much easier. But technological advances are rarely seamless in this way, and almost always entail changes in behaviour, ones often not predicted by the inventors. On the human level for example, one should not underestimate the economic upheaval that the new technology brought with it, and hence the resistance it encountered: imagine an orchestra in every large theatre, and smaller groups in lesser venues. What happened to all those musicians when a single recording could be played over and over again, in multiple venues? But there were also what we might call aesthetic problems. People had learned to accept that live music in the theatre could accompany a mechanically reproduced film: indeed an entire industry had grown up around this practice. But when the music also became mechanical, it is clear that creators and their audiences needed to think again about the whole business of verisimilitude, the problem that had pursued opera (Western music's most elite form of musical drama) ever since its beginnings in sixteenth-century Italy. Used to the sight and sound of live music in the theatre, film-makers and audiences confronted with the new technology became newly worried about a basic question: where, in terms of the story, were audience supposed to imagine the music was coming from-

It was partly for this reason that the earliest sound films tended to be conservative about their use of music: much more so than the boldest of the "silent" film composers and compilers. Basically this meant using music as a frame at the start and finish of the film, and apart from that only in cases where it might plausibly be heard as part of the narrative. And so the late 1920s saw the marked popularity of film "musicals" (The Jazz Singer was one of them) in which people sang and danced, with orchestras and pianos in full view, showing that the characters "needed" music to help them along. Another fascinating offshoot of this early conservatism was the promotion of opera singers (often borrowed from New York's Metropolitan Opera) as film stars, frequently by way of "shorts" that would precede or follow the main feature.

I'd like to show you an example of a Vitaphone "short" from the early 1930s, made by one of the most successful of these Metropolitan migrants, the tenor Giovanni Martinelli (1885-1969). At the start of the clip there is a brief interview with Martinelli, made towards the end of his life. He talks charmingly about the incongruity of a somewhat chunky Italian tenor such as himself becoming the rival of (his pronunciation of their names is priceless) romantic heroes such as Fairbanks, Barrymore and Rodolfo Valentino. The first short excerpt, the start of "Celeste Aida" from Verdi's Egyptian epic, seems to demonstrate the point: Martinelli stands on an obvious stage set, and makes no attempt at "filmic" acting, simply reproducing the comparatively leisurely gestures that presumably he practised day-in, day-out at the Met. There is a single camera, dead ahead. Occasionally, the expansiveness of his gestures seems to take them unintentionally outside the frame of the picture.

   PLAY DVD 1, TRACK 3 (1'48")

The second Martinelli excerpt, a version of De Curtis's Neapolitan song "Torna a Surriento", was made a little later and is more elaborate. It might almost be said to sketch a narrative: Martinelli is rigged out as a gondolier (I'm sure they have those in Naples too) and makes the occasional realist gesture with his oar. These stop, though, when he gets to the high notes: he has more serious business to attend to and we must assume that the boat is from then on propelled by vocal power alone. It's also significant that the single change in camera angle occurs at the point when we get to the vocal climax and we move to an inevitable close-up for what they call in the trade the "money notes". But the most interesting (because, for us today, most disconcerting) moment occurs at the very end. Often these Vitaphone shorts closed with alienating silence: the aria comes to an end, and the singer bows in ghostly silence. At least, that's how it seems now: it's very likely that the film audiences of the time would have applauded, just as they do at Met HD broadcasts today. But in "Torna a Surriento" the narrative aspect I mentioned a moment ago is instead developed: we suddenly, and with no preparation, close with a precipitate return to the film world; a parting shot of Martinelli, now rowing in filmic earnest.

   PLAY DVD 1, TRACK 4 (1'53")

I have been gently lampooning these clips, but there is a serious point behind their now-comic effect. They were not intended to be comic when first made and (so far as we can tell) were not received in that way by contemporary audiences. In other words, our sense of their strangeness (manifested now in laughter) can be a reminder of the distance we have travelled in our expectations about how music and film can and should interact. Although we may not think about it often, we now have an elaborate series of codes embedded in our consciousness: about how images and music will mesh together; what is smooth and "realistic", what is alienating. Departures from those codes will be met with laughter and/or incomprehension.

One sure thing about film audiences in the late 1920s, though, was that conventions about what constituted an acceptable music-visual mix were moving at tremendous speed, just as the technology that enabled such change was also moving. The most important breakthrough was the development of a technique whereby sound could be recorded directly on the same celluloid that carried the visual information. While this breakthrough was at first compromised by the need to record sound and visual image simultaneously (everyone who has seen Stanley Donen's 1952 musical Singin' in the Rain, set in the early days of sound, will recall the obstacles this presented), very soon the sound could be dubbed in at a later point, thus releasing it from having to be created there and then, and opening it up to possibilities of subtle interaction with the visual element-ones that have remained and been refined ever since. Even given these rapid advances, it is still remarkable that, by the early 1930s, a very different tolerance of music and film interaction was emerging, one which has some similarities with the older, live music aesthetic of the mid-1920s and before, but which also boasted important differences. It is to this brave new world that we should now turn: a world which in many ways set in place a kind of music-film syntax that has remained with us ever since. In search of an example, I'll head for a mysterious, exotic location called Skull Island, home of a character once described as "the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood".

Even mildly-afflicted film buffs will know that I'm talking about Merion C. Cooper's and Ernest B. Schoedsack's 1933 film King Kong, starring the "Queen of Scream" Fay Wray and a tall, dark but no means handsome partner. The music was composed by the Austrian émigré Max Steiner, and is often billed as the first "symphonic" score of the sound era. That adjective begs a lot of questions, questions I don't have time to go into; but, whether or not it is an authentic "first", Steiner's score is remains a remarkable achievement.

Steiner's career before King Kong has interesting resonances in the context of our mini film history. Arriving in New York in 1914 (he was escaping from London, where the war threatened him with internment), he spent the next decade and a half working on Broadway as a composer, orchestrator and MD, but the success of sound movie musicals, combined with the Depression of 1929 caused a precipitate fall in Broadway activity, and caused him, among many others, to move out to Hollywood in search of employment. He was well aware-he mentioned the point in published reminiscences-that, as discussed a moment ago, the first wave of sound-integrated films we conservative about where music could be believable. Apart from inevitable opening and closing title sequences, the rule about featuring music only when it was justified by the stage action was mostly maintained. Steiner recalls bizarre scenes in conventional film dramas: during a love scene in the woods, for example, a wandering violinist might suddenly appear in the background (and then, as if by magic, seem to coax forth the sound of an entire orchestra by playing his instrument). However, and as always, tastes changed: producers and spectators soon got used to recorded music in films and began to use it more imaginatively. Kong was an immensely important step in this process.

How in broad terms can we define the music Steiner used? Let's immediately dive into the opening credits, which (then as now) tend to be a prime moment in which both the film director and composer lay out their wares. Although the directors of Kong seem to go out of their way to highlight the artificiality of their medium, with that intense spotlight framing the text, note the curiously "retro" feel of the credits, with the cast announced as "The Players"; and note also the very special musical motive for that tall, dark leading man. We'll run the excerpt on into the first scene, and I'd like you to pay particular attention to what happens in terms of co-ordination between sight and sound as the credits end and the drama proper begins.


So: what can one say about Steiner's musical style? We need to be aware that he didn't orchestrate the score (he was quite capable of doing so, but as so often, this task was left to someone other than the composer, simply to save time); he did, though, supply copious instructions about what orchestral sounds he wanted at any given time. In terms of his musical genealogy, probably the best summing-up would be of a free amalgam of those styles Steiner had been principally exposed to in his upbringing, which included both the symphonic music of his Austro-German past, more popular operetta styles (Lehar, Johann Strauss, etc.) and their various transmogrifications in the US, and-probably the dominant style here-something more self-consciously modern, perhaps most reminiscent of Stravinsky.

I suggested that you listen closely to the merging of the credits into the story proper, which as you saw happened by means of a bridge-the appearance of some (of course fateful) words by an "Arabian Prophet". There are two points I'd like to stress. The first is that the music suddenly takes on a very different character here, its changed tone clearly acting as another kind of "bridge"-moving the atmosphere quickly away from the high melodrama of the credits and, by means of its maritime gestures on harp and strings, leading into the setting of the film proper, which begins at a sea-port. You may have noticed that the music continued through the "cut" from the proverb to the sea port, sounding over the so-called "establishing shot" of the sea-port. This technique of binding together the various scenes of a film, making the necessarily sudden "cut" from one scene to another seem less extreme and artificial, is very rudimentary here; but clearly music has a very big part to play in this "binding" process. The other point concerns the ambient noise that appeared on cue with the sea-port scene; you may not have noticed it, so used are we now to hearing such noise, but it's a critical part of film sound. What was just becoming available technologically around this time was film sound divided into three separate, and usually separately produced, tracks: one for the speech, one for the music, and a third for all the other sounds we hear-the ambient sounds that collect around a drama. Here, and in most subsequent films to the present day, never assume that the ambient sounds you hear-in this case the lapping of water and tug-boat horns-are merely accidental, picked up by chance as the characters were recorded; these ambient sounds were confected, and are often as important to the sound world of the film as the music or speech.

After this opening, what we might call the film's narrative exposition then ensues, and it takes place entirely without music: about 18 minutes of just talk and ambient noise. There are at least seven different "scenes", but one merges into the next by means of a simple fade out, as so often in silent film scene-changes. This music-less expanse seems very strange to us now, but it would have been normal for early sound-film goers. I'd better fill in the plot. We are in New York during the Depression and film director Carl Denham (played by Robert Armstrong) has planned an expedition to a mysterious island in order to film one of his notoriously daring expedition movies. But the leading lady has backed out, and he recruits as a replacement down-and-out Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), literally finding her on the street. They set sail and eventually arrive at the vicinity of the island; but there is thick fog. This is where the music begins again, and it is similar in tone to the music that faded at the end of the credits. But very soon we also here the sound of drums, clearly coming from the island. The question might immediately arise: which sound track do the drums belong to? Are they ambient noise or are they part of the musical score? One assumes at this stage that they are ambient noise, particularly because the characters remark upon them; and so in a certain sense Steiner is keeping, partially at least, to that sense of using music only when demanded by the narrative. In the next scene, we see that the fog has lifted, and the drums are still there. However, they are now accompanied by an impressive array of orchestral brass instruments, an ensemble rather unlikely to be present on a remote island, previously unknown to the developed world. What has happened is a subtle and unobtrusive modulation from ambient-noise track to music track, one of the most common devices used by film composers, then and now, in order to draw us in to accepting elaborate music as "part of the story".

I'll play you that moment of transition, but I want to start the clip a little before the fog descends and the music starts. The immediately preceding scene stages a kind of onboard screen test in which the director is trying out his leading lady's acting skills. At the climax of this scene, he gets her to emit a series of piercing screams, a portent of what is to come, but also, perhaps, a kind of para-musical sign. We have had 18 minutes of talking, and then Ann Darrow's loud screams herald an important structural moment: immediately after, the fog descends, the music and then the drums start up; the story proper begins.

   PLAY KING KONG: 18:30-21:30

From this point onwards in the film, music is an almost continuous presence. Talking technically, you could say that it forms a kind of symphonic web accompanying the narrative, complete with identifying motifs for each of the main strands of the drama: a technique clearly derived from opera, in particular in this case from Richard Wagner, who has been a constant influence on film music composers. Another way of putting it, though, would be to say that the exotic island on which much of the rest of action takes place is made doubly exotic by being constantly drenched in music: and with, as we heard a moment ago, its ambient noises immediately become enmeshed in this flood of sound.    

A little more plot. The explorers transfer to the island, and are witness to a native ceremony in which a young woman is about to be sacrificed. The native chief asks the party if they can have Ann for a similar purpose; when his request is refused, things look nasty and the expedition beats a hasty retreat to the ship. The very next scene, which I'd like to play you, develops the film's love interest. The director's friend Jack Driscoll (played by Bruce Cabot) makes a move on Ann, with results you'll see in a moment. But concentrate on the musical development. At the start you'll hear another skilful transition from ambient noise to music: the drums are there at the start, but gradually the sounds of strings overwhelms them. This use of music is radical for its time in that it has no plot justification-there is no wandering cellist or violinist in the background; what's more, it seems to choreograph the stages of the love scene, gradually arriving at a developed melody, one that will from now on be a powerful recurring musical symbol in the film. All this is quite modern. What is strange for us today, though, is the strict co-ordination of visual gestures and musical ones. Most surprising of all in this respect is a moment at the end of the scene, when there is an exchange between Jack and some characters on the bridge: as we see the bridge, the love music abruptly stops, continuing only when we return to the embracing couple. This extreme co-ordination would be unlikely to occur in a modern film, which is why it looks so strange to us. Again, we might get a sense of conventions forming themselves through experiment: conventions that are meant to deal with that still lingering worry about "where is the music coming from?". This love theme is in some way "owned" by the lovers, and as soon as the camera quits them, it must stop.       

   PLAY KING KONG: 30:00-32:35

After this scene, the plot thickens fast: natives stream silently on board and kidnap Ann; her disappearance is discovered; the ship's company arm themselves and return to the island to rescue her. When they arrive, they are greeted by a ceremony even more frenzied than the last, this time with Ann as the sacrificial victim. In this scene everything in the Steiner musical arsenal is unleashed in a massive symphonic ensemble. In part, as you'll hear, it recapitulates music from the credits sequence; but there is so much more, and all of it (as in the love scene) closely tied to the visual narrative. Those drums are still there (and notice how their sound increases when the camera focuses on the drummers), reminding us that in one sense we are hearing "actual" music. There's also prominent motivic work: note the hyper-intense, fragmented versions of the "love" theme each time the camera pauses on poor struggling Ann. And lastly, pay attention to the (for us rather risible) manner in which the natives' movements are mimetically echoed in the score: as they rise up the steps to deposit their victim, up goes the music with them; as they descend, down goes the music; as they then rise to the battlements, up it goes again. This entire sequence is finished by a massive gesture which again binds ambient noise to the music: the native chief orders a huge gong to be sounded. This is the calm centre of the storm, which then comes to its climax with the long-awaited entry of our tall, dark leading man, an entrance greeted by a magnificent, piercing aria for the heroine: those repeated screams she had practised earlier and now uses in earnest.

   PLAY KING KONG: 36:17-41:45

If you want to know what happens next, I'm afraid you'll have to rent the movie. Let me warn you, though, that it doesn't end well for the big guy.

I hope that these brief excerpts have managed to suggest some of the ways in which music and film interacted in the earliest days of sound. As I've said, in some respects the interaction is surprisingly modern. But the most interesting difference from modern practice is, I think, the sense in which so many aspects of Steiner's music move in such close co-ordination with the visual narrative: the recurring motives that precisely co-ordinate with camera shots; the naïve way in which melodic and harmonic direction mimics the movements of the natives; the dutiful attempts to remind us periodically that at least some elements of the music are being made by onscreen characters. All of these devices remain in modern films, but they would be piled one on top of the other only for comic effect. This reminds us how expectations have changed in the eighty or so years since Kong was made. The burning question then, the one about where music comes from, is no longer so acute: we are now sophisticated film watchers and listeners, and the codes that govern what is acceptable and what is not can be manipulated-to increase our pleasure and sometimes to shock us out of complacency.

The shock element will be much to the fore in the next lecture, which takes us forward nearly thirty years. The setting is a motel through whose windows strange voices can be heard, and in which taking a shower suddenly becomes... But I anticipate. It's better to end today with the sounds of Max Steiner's orchestra still ringing in our ears, sounds whose energy and exuberance bring back to us, with uncommon immediacy, a time long gone: a time when music and drama were yet again negotiating a new, technology-fuelled, ever-unstable, ever-exciting coexistence.



©Professor Roger Parker, Gresham College, 17 September 2008

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This event was on Wed, 17 Sep 2008

roger parker

Professor Roger Parker FBA

Professor of Music

Professor Parker was the Gresham Professor of Music between 2006 and 2010. He is currently the Thurston Dart Professor of Music at King’s College London...

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