The Esthetics of Film Music

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It is, perhaps, of some significance that Edison conceived of the motion picture an ancillary role subordinate to his phonograph. This role was eventually reversed, and years of experimentation failed to produce a practicable system of synchronizing the phonograph to otherwise silent films. It took the public distribution of "The Jazz Singer" and its popular acceptance to realize the marriage of picture to sound, and it seems further significant that this first commercially successful sound-on-film production was musical in concept.

This is not to say that music did not in fact enjoy a prior relationship with motion pictures. Even before the turn of the century films were being accompanied, for better or for worse, by any diversity of combinations and quantities ranging from solitary pianos and harmoniums to complete theater orchestras. It can be assumed that this was done not to placate the reverential demands of Mr. Edison, but rather because some natural requirement had been recognized which demanded that music be integrated with the drama of the film. It did not take critical erudition to realize that music and drama enjoyed a long history of predecessors such as Greek drama or Kabuki plays.

But even as the reputation of the film art ascended through synchronous sound, color, variable screen formats, and branching utilization (cartoons, documentaries, education, communications, scientific recording, and news reporting to name a few), the reputation of music in films descended.

In retrospect it is quite easy to assume that this descent was confounded by the subordinate position of music to films, the rise of commercialism (anathema to musical arts) in the film industry, and the requisite planned obsolescence of the film product (thus also the music) in order to sustain a market demand for continually current product.

What happened, clearly, is that cinema developed as an art form per se in spite of the commercial stigma; and instead of obsolescence, an archive of critically acclaimed film products was established which gave validity to film as an art. Technology polished this art form to a degree of professionalism virtually unmatched by any other profession outside of the pure sciences. With this technology and professionalism came the professionals, the creative technicians and craftsmen who developed their skills to such levels as to be able to produce a film product that was frequently greater than the sum of its parts.

This was not lost in film music. Such accomplished musicians as Milhaud, Honegger, Ibert, Hindemith, Shostakovitch, Schoenberg, Whiteman, Holst, Weill, Prokofiev, Kabalevsky, Britten, and Vaughan-Williams wrote scores for various films. American composers such as Copland, Thomson, and Gershwin, renowned as concert musicians, mingle with the names of film music specialists such as Rozsa, Steiner, Tiomkin, and the Newman brothers. The roster is much more vast, of course,1 but the premise is none the less valid. The music of films has been and still is being composed by exceptional and critically recognized musicians, and the performance of their compositions was and is still assured by the most competent studio musicians extant. Sound recording techniques include standards of quality that are beyond the measurement of the human ear. The editing of music is as critical as the editing of the picture and therefore performed by specialists competent in both music and editing.

In spite of all of this internal discipline and critical selection, in spite of the training of specialists and the highest standards of performance and technology, in spite of the empirical evidence regarding the impact of film music upon the audience, film music is still considered the bastard child, naked to the flaying of every unqualified critic, exposed to the blind bleatings of an uninformed audience, and disdained by the community of so-called "legitimate" musicians who refuse to examine the parentage of their child. Film music, in and of itself, is a legitimate art form, structured upon objectives and restrictions every bit as rigorous as the concert stage. It is time, more probably past due time, to recognize the legitimacy of film music as an expression of art, and implicit in this expression must be the consideration of the esthetics of film music as a measure of critical evaluation.

The structure of concert music, broadly speaking, consists of melody, harmony, and rhythm, component parts so potentially expansive as to defy critical evaluation . . . almost. Rhythm tends to identify various musical forms such as marches, hymns, chants, etc., or such sub-groups as types of dances. Inherent in rhythm, besides the temporal qualities of meter and duration, is the esthetic quality of pulse or force; i.e., that characteristic which is mainly sensed affectively and is expressed not as a sense of time values but as anticipation values. One might refer to this characteristic as the "pregnancy" factor.

In films, this pulse is often intuitively produced to build a scene towards climax, or to release a scene from tension, both of which are realized as anticipations within the audience. How well this has succeeded appears to be directly proportional to how much it has been used or, in the opinion of many, overused. This is particularly apparent in horror films, crime dramas, and suspense stories. It is also exceptionally successful in historical military movies where the impending clash between two great antagonists is suggested.2

Less can be said about the harmonic structure although there have been excellent uses of pure harmony to convey some dramatic concept. Dissonance is generally elected to suggest a point of climactic tension, while consonance generally drifts into the background and serves as psychological foundation for the scene. Harmony also serves well in distinguishing between historical or contextual periods (open fifths for the Roman Empire, minor thirds for Gypsies), and in the hands of a competent and skilled composer immediately establishes and sustains the historical characteristics of a film.

It is the component of melody which is subject to the greatest esthetic analysis. With melody, composers not only identify specific characters or events through the use of leitmotifs, they can also convey emotional cues which, though supposed to accompany the corresponding screen emotion, often surpass it. One can hardly blame the insecure director or producer of a film who attempts to reinforce the shortcomings of the script or cast through the superior influences of the musical score.

And although this practice is critically condemned, it tends to support the contention that the music may not be as banal as some would like to think. It can, very clearly, be emotion-specific. For this reason there exists a need for a musical approach—call it music psychodynamics—which can develop a taxonomy of the correlations between music and emotions. Puccini and Tchaikowsky both understood the power of the influence of melody and employed this component to exemplary advantage. In film music, melodic themes by Addinsell, Rozsa, Bliss, the Newmans, and many others have been proven by their continued currency. This tendency towards longevity is widely accepted as one of the proofs of esthetic value in any artistic product.

Not many films submit to the rigor of this burden of proof. Most films, as with most books-paintings-plays-etc., endure only for a short release-life (here defined as that period of time subsequent to initial release of the product in which it is distributed to the public at large) and are quickly forgotten. But unique with films is the phenomenon that although the film itself may be forgotten, components of the film may well stand the test of time. The British film "Dangerous Moonlight" would scarcely elicit memories other than from one of the more devout cinemaphiles, nor would the visage of Anton Walbrook in the leading role tend to focus upon the memories of most, but the theme of the "Warsaw Concerto" by Richard Addinsell, composed for the film just mentioned, would almost certainly stir memories in many, and recognition by most, current musicians and cinemaphiles both.

Of more recent vintage, though not composed for the film itself, is the theme to Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" which was originally composed by Richard Strauss as a fanfare for "Thus Spake Zarathustra." The point to be made here is that this theme is not popularly identified with Strauss, but rather with the film, and its popularity has been exemplified by the many other users and copiers of this theme to represent that characteristic (paradoxically, a leitmotif representing the future) of musical psychodynamics conveyed by the film.3 There is little doubt as to the esthetic value of the original composition as created by Strauss. It is a critically valid composition acceptable (though lately, perhaps, not quite as much) by the musical community. That it has probably been tarnished by Mr. Kubrick leads us to the question of "Why need it be tarnished just because it was used in a film?"

The answer, in the opinion of this writer, is that it need not be nor should be considered so. The music is still the same music be it written by Strauss in days long gone or Steiner more recently. The esthetic considerations must be based on the music in and of itself, not with the reputation of the composer (a plea to authority?) or with its manner of presentation. Stravinsky's ballet "The Rite of Spring" was soundly and probably deliberately derided at its premiere, yet it has survived the contrivances of the critics to become a standard of the musical repertoire. The esthetics of the piece are in the piece itself, not in the environment.

As such, the music of films must be considered for what it is, not what it does. To the argument that one of the main criteria for judging the worth of film music is the emotional response elicited, this writer counters with a plea to examine the validity of the judgmental criterion. Does indeed the emotional response elicited, which in fact may or may not be the same from every viewer in the audience, serve to reliably measure the esthetic value of the music which elicits any given response or sets of responses? Does not, in fact, the range of heterogeneity of responses decrease the validity of emotional response as a psychodynamic criterion for the evaluation of esthetics? The larger the range and heterogeneity, the less valid the measurement criterion, and the less valid the criterion, the greater the error in employing emotional response as a measurement instrument.

The elements are there in the music. They interact contingent upon environmental restraints. They are often forced to assume postures dictated by dialogue, sound effects, and scene length. They struggle in the company of poor scripts and inadequate acting. They often prostitute themselves to the whims of producers and directors and sound recordists. They frequently wear the shabby clothes of hurried commercialism or the cast-offs of tasteless imitators.

Yet, through all of this, in the hands of gifted composers, arrangers, orchestrators, performers, editors, and conductors, they often blend themselves into a synthesis of musical beauty the equal of anything in the musical literature. It is this beauty which we should judge, and in so doing we can only hope that the film of which the music is a part will correspond in value.


1Roger Manvell and John Huntley, The Technique of Film Music (London: Focal Press, 1957), pp. 211-224.

2An excellent analysis is presented by Huntley and Manvell in their description of a battle scene for the film Henry V, pp. 79-91, in which both photographs and corresponding film score are presented simultaneously.

3The five note computer theme from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" is currently enjoying a similar utilization.

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Last modified on Friday, 09/11/2018

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