The repetitive nature of film scoring

This post is a result of combining my academic work (oh no, not again…) with the recent lecture about originality. My thoughts are quite clear on the subject of being original:

You do not create a brand new language to write original poem. You use the language that is hundreds of years old, but use it creatively in a new way. And I don’t think anyone needs any more convincing that using and re-using art, music or image, in a creative way, is the most original originality possible to achieve. Especially in music and film, as both music and film have their own specific language.

Music is the most potent form of non-verbal communication. It conveys a meaning that strikes the verry deep, emotional strings of human psyche. There’s no stronger, more manipulative emotional charge, then in film music (K. J. Donelly, 2005). The very role of music for motion picture is to evoke emotions, create psychological tension and show the deepest thoughts of characters on the screen.

                   ‘(…) the power of film music is not simplistic (…) nevertheless it encourages us to emote and to think what it wants’ us to think.’

       ‘Music in films might be thought of as working in much the same way as the buzzer in Pavlov’s famous experiment with dogs. Whereas the buzzer was a device that elucidated a reaction (salivation), music in films functions within the cinematic context as a device for eliciting of emotion and mental reaction in the audience.’21


The power of nondiegetic music (music which is not produced by any device or character existing in the reality of the film) comes from the fact, that it disseminates meaning, without being actively noticed by the conscious ways of perception. This can be easily proved, as most film fans rarely recognize music without image, whereas image is instantly identified.  That is because music, when accompanying the image, operates within the unconscious sphere of the psyche. It hypnotizes and deludes the audience into the fantasy world of the film. Nondiagetic music seems to cross the boundary between the audience and diagetic world of the film. It comes from everywhere, and from nowhere, lives inside the actor’s head or communicates meaning straight into the film watcher’s ears, sharing with him a secret about the characters’ fate. Musical meaning can empower viewer, giving him clues to the future events, or take control over his thoughts and feelings, making him cry, scared or sentimental, even against his conscious mind. In the words of K. J. Donnelly:

We tend to react on music whether we desire to or not and if we don’t wish to be moved by it we resent its presence for making us begin to loose control of our rational, “sophisticated” defences. While music’s emotional effect seems “irrational”, this “irrational” association is redoubled in film by its appearance “irrationally” from nowhere in relation to the on-screen action.’22


Many music theorists dismiss the fact of strictly physical influence of music, although it is evident, especially in the horror film genre. The semiotic approach describes music as a set of signs which we simply learn to react to, acknowledging their meaning. On the other hand the psychological approach suggests that human reaction to music and sound is more intuitive, primary and unconscious. Scores for Horror films are a perfect example that both theories are right. The ‘stingers’– sudden, loud musical explosions, are proved to scare children and animals, who are obviously unaware of the cinematic codes or tension build up in the particular scene, whereas the usage of, for example, gothic, religious music is always associated with Evil, by the adult audience, eligible to recognize the ‘musical codes’ of the genre. The most common is a message of doom created by the use of ‘Dies Irae’Gregorian, religious, chanted poem which describes the ‘wrath of God’, the ‘judgement day’. This medieval Hymn reappears in different forms in many film scores. We can hear it, for example, at the beginning of Shining’, where it is played by Wendy Carlos on a synthesizer, increasing the feeling of unease and notion of something being terribly wrong, terribly out of place. According to Donnelly (2005, p47) the same effect was achieved by Bernard Hermann in the opening scene of ‘Citizen Kane’, where a characteristics of ‘Dies Irae’ can be identified. Other films, in which this Gregorian chant, or the ‘Mass for the Dead’, (as it is also called) appears include: ‘Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (by Stephen Sondheim), ‘I confess’ (Tiomkin), ‘Escalation‘ (Morricone), ‘Poltergheist’ (Goldsmith), ‘Demolition Man’ (Goldenthall) and also ‘Metropolis‘, ‘The Matrix’, ‘The Lion King’ , ‘Witches’ and so many other films that it would take years to mention all. The ‘Mass for the Dead’ has always been a part of the collective consciousness; it has also become a part of universally established musical language of the cinema. Like many other musical themes it is, and forever will be, used in film scores over, and over, and over again.



How Hollywood created ‘original film score’ that is not so original at all…

The role of music in film can be described in many ways, as it has many different purposes, and incorporates many different techniques of‘ creating atmosphere, highlighting the psychological state of the characters; providing neutral background filler, building a sense of continuity; sustaining tension and then rounding it off with the sense of closure’ 15

From the historical point of view music has always been a part of the film experience. Films were never shown publicly without some sort of sound accompaniment; either instrumental sound effects or music. 9*

During the ‘silent film’ era theatre owners aspired to provide the best possible entertainment for their audience. By hiring a quartet, instead of a soloist, theatre owner could provide better, more exciting experience, bringing more audience to his theatre. The music accompaniment for films soon evolved into full orchestral scores inspired by classical music of nineteenth- century Europe. The accompaniment for ‘silent‘ film grew onto big, symphonic orchestrations, taking from other narrative arts, like ballet and opera, providing music loaded with sentimentalism and emotion, in the likes of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninow. The early sound films, on the other hand, could not provide the quality of sound comparable to the in-house orchestras of the ‘silent‘ theatres. The technological limitations, like unselective microphones and noisy cameras, made it virtually impossible for the music and dialog to appear simultaneously on one sound track, unless they had been recorded simultaneously. Along with the development of recording techniques it become a standard practise, in Hollywood, to record the music separately, in an environment suitable for a large orchestra, and then play it back, while actors spoke their dialogs.

The orchestras were quite expensive to hire and record, especially during the financial crisis. In the early 1930’s Hollywood film producers favoured music already recorded and popular, especially pieces by classical composers, like Mozart or Beethoven. There were no copyrights on compositions created by long dead masters.

                   ‘Such ‘Legitimate’ music added a sense of upmarket sophistication and class to films that have been made cheaply, a process that is still very much alive in more recent cinema’16

Not all of the producers seemed to believe that the widely known repertoire contributed to the films it accompanied. David O. Selznick of The RKO concluded that any music piece that is already known distracts the viewer from the plot. Max Steiner, a master composer said:

            ‘Selznick, who was extremely sensitive musically,  also said he thought music should fit the precise action, mood and even words in a screen play, and obviously should be especially composed.’17

Max Steiners’ original, symphonic score for ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ (released in 1932), commissioned by Selznicks, became a model for ‘classical-style’ scoring in Hollywood. The pompous, sentimental scores of the so called ‘Golden Age’ of film music weren’t to everyone’s tastes. Alberto Cavalcanti, European film director and mentor, wrote in the early 1940’s:

‘Nine times out of ten it is the same as the music of the last film I saw’, no matter what the subject of the film might be. It is a grate swelling theme suggesting that the photoplay  to be presented is the best, the weightiest, the most profound, that the world has ever seen’.18

The sheer amount of films that were being made in Hollywood established the ‘symphonic-yet original’ way of film scoring as the ruling method in world cinema.

Taking directly from classical music, music in film developed its own codes and meanings, universally known by cinema-goers. According to George Antheil:

Your musical tastes become moulded by this scores, heard without knowing it. You see love, and you hear it. Simultaneously. It makes sense. Music suddenly becomes a language for you, without you knowing it.’19

Film composers also took over the use of illustrative sound effects and implemented them into the score itself, giving birth to the modern art of film music. Nowadays, for most people, film provides the only orchestral music they will ever hear. The ‘language’ of film music takes directly from Western-European compositions of the Romantic period. Even the term ‘Leitmotif’, which has become a standard in describing short musical themes associated with places or reoccurring ideas in the film plot, was first used by Wagner in the 19th century. The influence of Wagnerian Operas on modern film composers is undisputed.  Bernard Herman- one of the most notable film composers of the  20th century, best known for his score to Hitchcock’s  Psycho’  and ‘Citizen Kane’– directed by Orson Welles, shows a Wagnerian influence in many of his scores. The best example would be the love theme from ‘Vertigo‘, which definitely shows similarities with Wagner’s ‘Tristan and Isolde’ (Donnelly, 2005, p. 96). The music for ‘Psycho‘, (one of the most easily identifiable piece of film music ever written), on the other hand, lacks empathetic, romantic and heavily orchestrated elements. Herrmann wrote the music only for strings, purposely limiting the sound palette. He also used high pitch strings, clearly as a reflection of the physical stabbing moves of the killer’s knife. Although most 20th century Horror film scores seem influenced by ‘Psycho’ and the Art Music genres, in the likes of Minimalism, Aelatoric Music or Music Concrete, there are also many films scored differently. ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’, a film directed by Francis Ford Coppola, has a score composed by Wojciech Killar, a Polish film composer responsible also for the score to Polanski’s ‘Ninth Gate’ . The music for ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’ is far from traditional horror music of the 20th century. On the contrary, it has been highly influenced by romantic compositions of 19th century Europe, taking as back to the Wagnerian influences. It also notably shows characteristics of traditional Slavonic music, valued by notable composers like Frédéric Chopin, Béla Bartók, Krzysztof Penderecki or Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The choice of this sort of score underlines the romantic love theme in Coppola’s film and the sadness, suffering and loneliness of the characters.

After the Second World War musical styles changed. Many film composers experimented with modernist art music, like electronic music, Minimalism and Serialism. Others compiled scores out of pop-songs or using old classical pieces. There are many films, and many different scoring techniques that should at least be mentioned. Some of the scores influenced the film music so strongly, that they should not be overlooked. For example‘ The Planet of the Apes’- first entirely electronic Twelve Tone score or ‘Halloween’ with Carpenter’s ‘stripped down’, minimalistic music and disturbing ‘oscinati‘, made out of only two principal themes. I will summarize with the words of a master film director Francis Ford Coppola, who, in my humble opinion, is the father of modern sound design:

            ‘In the late 60’s, when we used to sit around and talked about movies, one area that we would always emphasize was the sound. ‘Sound is 50 percent of the whole cinema experience’, we’d say. ‘It is your best friend, because it works on the audience secretly”.20


And how exactly does the sound evoke the unconscious reactions of the film audience? By using recognizable motifs over and over again





15. Donnelly K. J., ‘The Spectre of Sound: Music in Film and Television’, 2005,    British       Film Institute Publishing, London, page 1

17.  ‘Film Music. A History’, A. Wierzbicki, Taylor&Francis, 2009, UK, page 129

18. Film Sound theory and practice’, E Weiss, J. Belton, 1985 Columbia University                Press, page 106.

19. Kassabian, A., ‘Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary            Hollywood Film Music’, 2001, Routledge, UK, page 8,

20. Forlenza J., Stone T., ‘Sound for Picture’- MixPro Audio Series, 1993,             MixBooks, foreword.

21. Donnelly, K. J., ‘The Spectre of Sound: Music in Film and Television’, 2005,   British Film Institute Publishing, London, pages 5 and 6

22. ‘The Spectre of Sound: Music in Film and Television’, K. J. Donnelly, British    Film Institute Publishing, London, 2005, page 10

23. Sonnenschein D., ‘Sound Design. The Expressive Power of Music, Voice and Sound Effects in Cinema’, 2001, Michael Wiese Productions, U.S. A., page                 108


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The repetitive nature of film scoring

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