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Film Music

FIlm Music

What is the Purpose of Film Music?

To enhance dramatic narrative [e.g. chase scenes in adventure movies].

To enhance the emotional impact of a scene [e.g. slushy romantic music in a love scene, or tense edgy music in a horror scene].

To create a sense of place [e.g. Bond movies with scenes in exotic locations].

To add quality and a sense of scale to a movie [a big orchestra gives the impression of a big budget].

What is the Nature of Film Music?

Film Scores can include a vast range of styles of music, depending on the nature of the films for which they are provided.

Many film scores, and especially those of John Williams, are rooted in Western Classical Music, but music for film has also incorporated many other styles such as jazz, rock, pop, blues and modern popular dance styles as well as experimental music:


The earliest film music scores, beginning in the mid-1920s when technological developments made film sound possible, made use of the popular band music style of the time [The Jazz Singer (1927) was the first film with synchronized soundtrack:]

Before then, music to ‘silent’ films was provided by live musicians in the movie theatre – pianists, theatre organists who improvised music accompaniments, or possibly a small band who would play selections from a set of suitable pieces from classical and popular music that would fit the mood of the film. As filming techniques and technology developed further in the 1930s and 40s with more epic storylines and imagery, then larger-scale orchestral music became the norm. The 1930s and 40s also saw a number of composers from Europe moving to America. Many were Jewish and were fleeing the Nazi oppression of the Jews in Germany. Composers such as Max Steiner (1888-1971) and Erich Korngold (1897-1957) were highly trained and capable composers rooted in the Western Classical tradition, and were quickly employed by the rapidly expanding and lucrative film industry based in Hollywood, California. Listen to:
  • Erich Korngold’s superb film music for The Sea Hawk (1940) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
  • Max Steiner’s exciting score for King Kong (1933)  and his evocative music for the classic Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman wartime movie Casablanca (1942).
Film music has always been quick to move with contemporary styles of music, and from the 1950s and 60s onwards, film composers made use of the sort of electronic instruments associated with the emerging rock and pop music scene of the time, and more recently the opportunities presented by digital music technology with its high quality virtual instrument sounds and editing and manipulation potential. Modern film composers like Hans Zimmer and Thomas Newman now compose using the kind of sequencing and Notation software that might well be available in your music classroom today (e.g. Logic, Cubase, Finale & Sibelius) and younger film composers are exploring ever-new sound worlds and musical styles in their soundtracks. The creation of a movie is a long and complex process and the composer (or composers – sometimes there is more than one) usually makes his or her appearance relatively late on in the journey, after or towards the end of filming. The composer(s) will work in close partnership with the Director &/or Producer to identify what musical cues are needed and how long they should last, and also the style / impact that the music needs to make at various points. To see composers and directors working together, check out the following:

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