To say that music plays a large role in our society would not dojustice to one of the most important and popular art forms of yesterday andtoday. We underestimate the effectiveness and power that music, in any form ,can have over even the most insensitive of people. In almost everything we doand see music is involved in some form or another. Be it a piece played at awedding, a song played on the radio or even the music played in the backgroundin a television commercial.
The music is always there, reminding us of pastexperiences, making us smile and feel exhilaration and sometimes even making uscry. It is this power that music has over us that film score composers takeadvantage of when they are writing the music to accompany the movies. Aslisteners we often do not appreciate that the music that is scored for films orplayed in films is put there on purpose to create a certain feeling, emphasize apoint, give more life to a character or sometimes to simply add humour.
Whatthe average moviegoer does not usually realize is that a great deal of time andthought goes into writing the score for a film and choosing the background musicfor a scene. None of the music is arbitrary; themes and sub themes have beencreated with specific ideas in mind and have been put in place only to add tothe story and the characters. It is also important to acknowledge that theevolution into the type of film scoring that we are accustomed to today was nota quick or easy transition. It has taken almost a century to develop thespecific techniques that are used in todays films. When the first movingpictures were seen they were known as silent films, although they were notactually silent. They contained a very primitive type of musical accompanimentthat laid the foundation for what was to later develop. As time passed the typeof music found in films developed into a fine art containing specificguidelines and techniques that most composers tend to follow. The averageperson does not usually pay astute attention to the music that is being used ina film, however, if it were to not be there the films would seem empty and as ifsomething was missing. The actors, the writing and the direction is what isprimarily noticed in a film but the music is the inconspicuous supporter of allof these elements. To create a film that will be effective it is essential thatthe film have a thoughtful score, and, as the audience, it is our duty toacknowledge the music in order to fully understand all that is being displayedto us in the film.
To realize fully the foundation of what we now recognize as aneffective film score it is important to examine the music behind a silent film.
No film was actually ever completely silent. There may not have been asoundtrack that we are accustomed to, however, the music was always essential toa movie, no matter how primitive it may be. In the earliest days of film themusic was played on a phonograph. This was around the time of Edison. Thephonograph was an invention that did not last long in the world of film. Thenext step was the use of a vitaphone, which also did not play a lasting role inthe movie industry. The next step was not the use of a recorded soundtrack butrather it was the use of live musicians. The live music came about as themovies were becoming a little more common. The films began to be playedcommercially in Vaudeville houses, cafes, and music halls where musicians werealready hired to play in the musical concerts that evening. Because themusicians were already there they were asked if they would play along with thefilm. In the Vaudeville houses there was no specific place for them to sit sothey sat seated at the front , in front of the screen. Even after theatres werebuilt to show the moving pictures a space was created at the front where themusicians were to sit. Because the musicians were inexperienced withaccompanying films they played what they liked or what they knew. This made ituncommon that the music actually fit with the action on the screen. Themusicians paid little attention to the film and played arbitrarily. This meantthat often a serious or dramatic scene would be occurring on the screen wile themusician played something comical or something that belonged to a scene with acar chase. Sound-effects men were soon added to the sounds behind a film. Thiswould be a man that created noises, erg. train whistles and bells, fire enginebells, gun shots, explosions, cannon fire, etc. in order to add realism to thefilm. This made movie-going more popular which in turn bettered the standard ofmovie-making. It was at this point that the musicians hired to accompany thefilms began to take the music more seriously. Set standards were created butthe musicians job was to make sure that these standards did not becomemonotonous. They also began the use of simple motif that would introduce acharacter or foreshadow an event. The motifs are the elements of the music thatare extremely important in shaping the characters and the theme of the film. Itwas the use of these motifs that made the music much more sophisticated andpeople began to take the films more seriously. The idea of motifs did notdisintegrate but rather became an important technique in the scoring of films inthe years to come. By this time the music was ceasing to be merely and extrajob for Vaudeville musicians and had actually become an art that needed and wasgiven thought. The house musician, which later became a small ensemble andsometimes even a large orchestra, was a valued addition to the movie industryand they could be found in hundreds of movie houses across America. It was fromthis point on that films were to always be accompanied by some sort of music.
The house musician remained in movie houses for many years, however theyeventually disappeared to make way for the recorded film score, known as a talkie or canned music.
The 1930’s was the time that saw the rise of the symphonic filmscore. This was the time in which many great composers began to write thescores for films. The scores were not simple little symphonies or pieces butrather enormous projects that took a great deal of time and thought. It wasalso in this era that the click track was developed. This was a technique firstused in the scoring of cartoons, however as the scoring for life action moviesbecame more complex the click track became vital to the preciseness of the score.
A click track works to synchronize the music with the action of the film withthe use of mathematics. The exposure of films is measured in frames and thereare 24 frames a second, 1440 frames a minute. Holes are punched into the filmto click at any given metronome beat. The composer measures this beat bydividing the figure, 1440, by whatever metronome speed that he wants and theresulting figure is the frame click beat. For example, if the composer want themetronome beat to be at 144, than he divides the figure 1440 by 144 and theresulting figure is 10. This means that the holes punched in the film shouldclick every 10 frames. The studio musicians would wear headsets through whichthey would hear a constant clicking sound, thus keeping them precisely with thescore.
The major film score composers of this time were actually European,arriving in Hollywood to compose great works for film. The European influencegave the films scores that many of the elements found in the romantic style ofthe Viennese opera, eg. large orchestras, complex parts, lush harmonies,doubling of parts and full string parts, as well a influence from many Europeancomposers, for example, Richard Strauss. The composers that sat at theforefront of film scoring at this time were Max Steiner, Erich WolfgangKorngold and Bertrand Hermann. These men wrote the scores for many of thefamous films that came out of that era, eg. The Informer, Since You Went Away,King Kong, Casablanca, and Gone With The Wind (Max Steiner), The Prince and thePauper, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex,and A Midsummer’s Nights Dream (Erich Wolfgang Korngold), and by BertrandHermann the infamous Citizen Kane. The films required a great use of leitmotifs,themes, and sub themes. It was these characteristics that gave the music suchimportance and helped make these films of the thirties become the memorableclassics that they are. Some examples of the effective use of themes and subthemes can be found in the scores of Max Steiner’s The Informer, Since You WentAway, and Gone With The Wind. Each of the scores that accompany these filmshave an enormous orchestration and key motifs as well as a blend of differenttypes of music that creates a particular feeling or accentuates a point. TheInformer is a film set in Ireland and tells the story of Gypo Nolan who is thetragic main character who is ultimately gunned down in the street. The motifsused in this film are of this tragic genre with Irish folk melodies intertwinedwith many of the main themes. One of the most effective uses of symbolism inthe music of this film is found at the end when Gypo finally meets his death.
After he is shot he makes his way to a small church nearby with the sound ofheavy brass chords imitating his every plodding step. When he reaches theinside of the church he collapses only to see a nun who he thinks in the VirginMary. At the this point his face moves from darkness into the light and a softhymn, Sancta Maria, written by Steiner himself emerges as the more dominant ofthe musical sounds. This whole scene symbolizes the passing of Gypo into heavenand the final acceptance of his soul by God. It would lose all effectiveness ifthe music was not as dominant as it is.
The film, Since You Went Away, has many similar elements in the musicthat make us feel and understand the feelings of the characters. This filmcontains a scene in which a young woman, Jennifer Jones, races along the railwayplatform alongside the train that is carrying her true love off to war. Steinerchose to use elements from familiar songs, I’ll Be Home For Christmas, andIrving Berlin’s Together, intertwined with a military sounding symphony partto exemplify to us the thoughts that were racing through the minds of these twocharacter as they left each other , not knowing if it was to be for the lasttime. The effect that this music had on those who saw the film wasunforgettable as Steiner portrayed emotions so poignantly through hisorchestration.
Probably the most memorable film score to arise out of the1930’s was the music to the epic Gone With the Wind. This film begins withmany different themes being introduced, the most famous of which is the themefor Tara, intertwined with the strains of the Old South. Steiner worked closelywith the producer David O. Selznick when he was writing the score for this film,however little of what Selznick asked for in the score actually appeared in thefinal movie. Selznick encouraged Steiner to use little original score butrather use prerecorded classical music with some Old South tunes mixed in;Steiner disagreed with his ideas. This was and is a common occurrence with theproducers and the composers of movies, they rarely agree on the same ideas forhow the movie will be scored. The producer wants to put his ideas forth butreally, as producers, they are not adequately qualified and the composers justwant to be left alone to do their what they were hired to do as effectively asthey can. This disagreement during the scoring of Gone With The Wind became sointense that Selznick actually hired an additional composer to write anotherscore in case he did not approve if what Steiner had written. In the endSteiner’s extraordinary composing ability prevailed and it is his fantasticscore that appears in this epic drama. In this score Steiner manages to createseven themes for the important elements of this film: Scarlett O’Hara, RhettButler, Melanie, a love theme for Melanie and Ashley, another love theme forScarlett and Ashley, Scarlett’s father (Gerald O’Hara), and finally a theme forTara. The theme for Tara is the most effective because this old plantation andit’s collapse in essence symbolizes the collapse of the Old South after theCivil War. This theme recurs throughout the film each time is is modifiedslightly to show to the audience the undying strength and endurance of the proudtradition of the Old South in the minds of the Southerners, even if it’sfoundation had crumbled. The music of this film is extremely effective andimportant even if we do not always notice that it is there. From the beginningof the film until more than twenty minutes into the picture the music does notstop. We often do not notice the music when it is there, however, we wouldsurely notice it if were to be gone.
To construct an effective film score there are no real rules butrather a patterned set of guidelines that have become tradition over time.
Certain types of musical themes have been used time and time again to create thestyle, mood or feeling of the film. For example, the type of music that wouldbe used in a Western, or a Suspense-Drama or a Love Story varies very littlefrom picture to picture. A theme found in a Love Story will not always be thesame as the one before it, however, it will have the same style or feeling to itthat creates the emotion of love in our minds. These ideas are often modifiedbecause of the intensity or seriousness of the film, however, they areessentially similar. The key to a memorable score is the creation of aneffective main theme with equally effective sub themes. This main theme shouldbe the connecting link between scenes but should not be over used as not tosaturate the audience with it’s melody so they become bored and annoyed with it.
The introduction of the main theme followed by lesser sub theme that arejuxtaposed and varied enough to teas the audience until it reaches a climacticfinal statement of the theme in it’s entirety. The use of leitmotifs torepresent characters and the intertwining of one character’s theme with anotheris instrumental in telling the story of the film and giving a full portrait ofthe character and their relationship with others. It is also important torealize that different instruments and different colours of music are used tocreate a certain feeling. There are certain sounds that we are used to hearingthat are effective in adding to the mood or feeling of the film. Nothing in thecreation of a film score is arbitrary all of the music that we hear has beencomposed specifically to accentuate or punctuate what the main idea that thewriting, acting and directing of the film is trying to show to us.
Another aspect of the soundtrack to a film that is not randomlychosen is the use of source music and the unoriginal score. Source music isthe music that can be heard coming from a radio, a dance club band , a marchingband, etc. The music that is chosen to be played in these scenes is put thereto accentuate the point of the scene, to add humour or even to make the sceneseem ironic. This source music can also be used to foreshadow upcoming eventsand prepare us for the next scene. The unoriginal score is music that has beenwritten by somebody else but has been placed in the scene to add effect. Themusic can be a part of the scene as in the scene with Tom Hanks explaining thestory of La Mamma Morta to Denzel Washington in Philadelphia. The music in thisscene has been added to create depth in Tom Hank’s character and to create a newspecial bond between the two men. The other way that the unoriginal score canbe used effectively is if the music is not actually in the scene but is stillplaying in the background as if it were in the minds of the characters in thescene. An example of this can be found in the film True Romance where DennisHopper’s character is speaking to Chrisopher Walken and we know that DennisHopper’s characters going to die. The music that is being played in thebackground of this scene is a faint opera, that adds peace to a scene thatshould not feel peaceful. The beauty of the music adds a certain grace to thescene and gives it more character.
To listen to the score of a film is to appreciate fully exactlywhat the film makers were trying to point out to us. The acting and directingand the writing are the element that primarily we remember, however,subconsciously we remember more that we give ourselves credit for. A movie canbe seen once and already the themes are ingrained in our minds and if we were tohear them elsewhere we could identify them. Many themes of films today are somemorable that we can often sing them on cue, for example, the themes to TheGodfather, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Jaws, Jurassic Park, etc. Each of thesefilms has a theme that we remember even if we do not make a conscious decisionto do so. It is far to often that the power of music is underestimated and notenough credit is given to the thought that was put into creating an effectivefilm score. As an audience it is our duty, not necessarily to always enjoy, butto at least appreciate all elements of the film making process. The scoring ofthe film has always been a cornerstone to the success of the film, no matter howprimitive the music may be.
BibliographyBazelon, Irwin. Knowing the Score. Van Nostrand Reinhold Co, New York.
Hoffman, Charles. Sounds for Silence. DBS Publications, New York.
Kalinak, Kathryn. Settling the Score. The University of Wisconsin Press, U.S.A.
Manrell, Roger and John Huntley. The Technique of Film Music. Focal Press, NewYork.
McCarty, Clifford. Film Music. Garland Publishing Inc., New York.
Category: Music and Movies
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