KING KONG comes at a crucial moment in film history: the transition to sound. Most films before KING KONG relied on either diegetic sound (sound that happens within the scene and that characters can hear) or non-diegetic music (a soundtrack that the characters clearly cannot hear). KING KONG was one of the first films to play with a blend of both.
KING KONG begins with a groundbreaking 4 minute overture. Prior to KING KONG, many films used popular music for a score, for example, classic waltz standards. The soundtrack composed by Max Steiner was created in part as a corrective to a film the producers thought had little promise. The studio was unconvinced of the creature’s aesthetic real-ness and so the score was used to bolster the creature’s enormity. Essentially the music was supposed to “save” the film.
But because an original score had never been tried before, there are moments in the film where the characters attempt to justify the presence of music in the foreground so the audience is not confused by the presence of music without a clear visible source.
For example, harps play as Carl Denham’s ship approaches Skull Island. Slowly, drums become audible. Jack Driscoll exclaims that he can hear drums — and the audience receives a justification for their presence in the film (while being misdirected from the harps with no visible source).
KING KONG is the progenitor of the blockbuster, the creature film, and the modern film score. Its importance in film history cannot be overstated.
— Diana Martinez, Film Streams Education Director