A Quick History of Film Music
How many of you out there listen to soundtracks/film scores when working or studying? I know I do, a lot. I sometimes think there’s more of them in my music library than songs with lyrics. There’s just something so uplifting and inspiring in listening to just music on its own. Same goes for classical music, really. It’s my soul food.
There is a fascinating history to film music (and soundtracks in general) that I want to delve into in this post, and hopefully you’ll learn something new today. Of course, I will not and cannot resist putting some soundtracks for you to listen to in here. Here, have a listen.
The idea of having musical accompaniment to a story isn’t new — just think of ballet or opera. The story of film music and soundtracks begins much later however, in the early 1900s with the first ever films being shown — such as the famous reel of a train approaching by Lumiere Brothers. The music would usually be played live on a piano or organ, hidden at the front of the cinema. Often, the music would be improvised — or there would be generic ‘cue sheets’ that the musician had to follow. Interestingly, not only was this done to add to the atmosphere, but also to mask the loud metallic clanking of the early projectors. However, even back then film-makers recognised the immense power and value instrumental music could have as an addition to any film. Though paying musicians and sometimes even orchestras was expensive — and finally in 1923, a film named “Thief of Baghdad” had a soundtrack by Mortimer Wilson which was used to be “woven into a colorful fabric of harmony to serve as background for players and action.” This is actually a great definition for a film score.
Soon, the practice of having soundtracks became the norm, just as films started featuring recorded speech rather than silent films. The first complete soundtrack is considered to be 1933's “King Kong” written by an Austrian composer named Max Steiner (have a listen below). He would later go on to write film scores for “Gone With the Wind” and “Casablanca”. The first commercially available soundtrack was to Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”, released in 1937.
Instead of improvised pieces, soundtracks began to have much more purpose, and not only to add to the film’s atmosphere and emotion without distracting the viewer from the action. It was also used as marketing.
In the 1950s and 1960s, soundtrack sales were booming. These more often than not included singing however (thus differ slightly to purely instrumental pieces), and artists such as Elvis Presley, Simon and Garfunkel and even the Beatles all contributed to film scores and increased their sales, promoting themselves and the film. We don’t see this to the same extent now, but soundtracks and popular artists still often link — think of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” for his film “8 Mile” and AC/DC’s songs featuring in Iron Man 2. Whitney Houston’s song for “The Bodyguard” made it a best-selling soundtrack of its time.
As films evolved in scope and genre, film scores evolved with them — a score for a Hitchcock film would be vastly different to a romantic comedy. More and more instruments were utilised, and sounds created digitally also evolved, just like when electronic pop became popular. Composers also began explore the various themes and music genres of other countries for their scores (such as Hans Zimmer’s score for “The Last Samurai” which incorporated various Japanese instruments).
The art of creating music for film was beginning to be recognised more and more, too. The first awards for best original score in 1934–1937 were given for the head of the music department rather than the actual composer. From then on, however, film score composers such as Alfred Newman, John Williams, Alexandre Desplat, Hans Zimmer, Howard Shore, James Newton Howard and many others rose to fame because of their compositions, and many of them are easily recognisable today. I’m sure if I told you to think of the main theme to Harry Potter, Jaws, Lord of the Rings, Terminator, Star Wars or even Pulp Fiction for example, I’m sure a tune would start playing in your head. That’s their genius, and once again shows that a film score goes far beyond simply adding to the film’s overall ‘feel’.
When we think of soundtracks, they no longer apply just to films. Pixar, Dreamworks and Disney films have utilised the power of accompanying music themselves, with amazing results. I used to watch “Fantasia” when I was a kid, which featured Disney cartoons with classical music playing in the background. Today, cartoons and animated films feature completely original and often beautiful scores of their own. Again, I can’t resist, have another soundtrack.
Another medium in which soundtracks have fit right in are videogames. Just like you’ll easily have the eerie tone of Jaws playing in your head, so will the staccato sounds of Super Mario Bros games. I’m sure some of you still have the theme songs for Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, or maybe even Halo or Skyrim in your heads. Just like with films, the scores are created not to distract the player from the game, but add to the overall emotion and enjoyment of the game itself, and they are incredibly important to any game. Very high-profile soundtrack composers have worked on video game soundtracks, such as Brian Tyler (Iron Man 3, Thor) working on Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag — which I personally think is a great score. Another example is the famous (and incredible) Hans Zimmer writing an opening theme for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.
To conclude, film scores/soundtracks have evolved greatly over the years, mostly hand-in-hand with developments in the film and recording industry, intersecting with famous performers and making sure their films are unforgettable. The industry now is booming, soundtracks readily available on services such as the iTunes store, and the soundtracks themselves massively popular — for example, the full Star Wars theme on YouTube is currently on 2,480,000 views.
Finally, making film scores doesn’t require an orchestra (or even physical instruments) any more, with the advances in creating music from scratch on computers. Many self-made studios famous for their film scores (such as Two Steps From Hell and Audio Machine, have a listen to both) are on the rise, as well as individuals who are passionate about music are ready and able to make film scores themselves. YouTube and SoundCloud are services where you can find many amateur and professional film score makers, and a lot of them are really worth listening to! So if you’re interested, go out there and explore! (A good place to start is a channel named ThePrimeCronus).
One last soundtrack (I promise) that I always work/read to, incredibly calming, ambient and immersive (and from a great game, too).
Thanks for reading! I’d love to hear your feedback, and what film score is your favourite.
Have a great day!
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