Music composed, arranged, compiled or improvised to accompany motion pictures. In the sound cinema, music is recorded as a soundtrack on the film stock and reproduced in exact synchronization with the projected visual image. Film music falls into two broad categories: music contained within the action (known variously as diegetic, source, on-screen, intrinsic or realistic music), and background music amplifying the mood of the scene and/or explicating dramatic developments and aspects of character (termed extra-diegetic or extrinsic music, or underscoring). Both types are capable of generating continuity, narrative momentum and subliminal commentary, and the distinction between them has often been deliberately blurred by composers and directors for dramatic effect.
1. Music for silent films.
2. Early sound films.
4. Developments outside the USA.
5. Jazz in the cinema.
7. Popular and classical music.
8. Techniques and functions.
1. Music for silent films.
Early cinematic presentations in the 1890s were an offshoot of vaudeville and show-booth melodrama and, as both entertainment and spectacle, tradition demanded from the outset that they be accompanied by music. In France, for example, Emile Reynaud’s pioneering Pantomimes lumineuses (1892) were presented with original music by Gaston Paulin. As the craze for moving pictures spread, mechanical instruments initially predominated; these helped to drown projection noise and preserved a link with the fairground, but live music became quickly preferred as a better medium for humanizing the two-dimensional, monochrome and speechless moving image. Improvised accompaniments to silent films, at first provided by a pianist or reed-organ player, lent continuity to the succession of camera shots (the music being normally continuous from start to finish), supplied locational atmosphere and sound effects (sometimes with the aid of Kinematophone or Allefex machines), and furnished crude thematic signifiers of character traits along the well-established lines of 19th-century melodrama. The audience might be amused by appropriate references to hit songs and popular classics, and the musical style drew heavily on the idioms of Romantic opera and operetta; the use of Wagnerian leitmotifs as both narrative and structural device in early film music has persisted to the present day.
As movie theatres proliferated in the decade before World War I, musical accompaniments became more lavish and systematic. Resident instrumental ensembles and specialized cinema organs (notably the Wurlitzer and Kimball) supplanted the solo pianist, while a music director arranged appropriate repertory from (preferably non-copyright) classics and an increasing body of original compositions; passages of classical music might be linked by specially composed or improvised transitions. As early as 1909 Edison Pictures distributed cue sheets with their films to encourage the selection of appropriate musical numbers, and music publishers printed anthologies of motion-picture music organized by mood or dramatic situation, to which the distributors’ cue sheets made cross-reference: American pioneers of this approach were Max Winkler and John S. Zamecnik. Giuseppe Becce’s Kinothek (= Kinobibliothek), published in Berlin in 1919, was a much imitated example, and Becce later collaborated with Hans Erdmann and Ludwig Brav to produce the encyclopedic Allgemeines Handbuch der Filmmusik in 1927. Several of the themes and techniques popularized by these anthologies became clichés that remain firmly in the popular imagination today, such as the use of diminished 7ths for villains, ‘weepie’ love themes on solo violin and the bridal march from Wagner’s Lohengrin for wedding scenes. Live or recorded music was often performed on film sets during shooting to establish a specific mood to which the actors could respond, a procedure occasionally used by modern directors such as John Ford, Sergio Leone, Ken Russell and Peter Weir.
Original film scores were rare in the early years of silent cinema. In France, Saint-Saëns composed in 1908 a score for Henri Lavédan’s L’assassinat du duc de Guise, which launched the highly theatrical style of film d’art. Pre-composed film scores became popular in the USA in the wake of the enormous success of D.W. Griffith’s epic The Birth of a Nation (1915), which toured with its own orchestra performing a hybrid score (partly original, partly arranged from composers such as Grieg, Tchaikovsky and Wagner) compiled with the assistance of Joseph Carl Breil, who also collaborated with Griffith on Intolerance (1916). An entirely original score was supplied for The Fall of a Nation (1916) by Victor Herbert who, like some later commentators, objected to the use of pre-existing classical music on account of the potential distraction it offered to an audience familiar with the material. Other American composers of original scores included Ernö Rapée, Hugo Riesenfeld, Mortimer Wilson and Zamecnik – several of whom had been active as cue-sheet compilers. Important examples composed on the eve of the advent of sound films were Wilson’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and Riesenfeld’s Beau Geste (1926).
In France, Honegger composed music for Abel Gance’s La roue (1922) and Napoléon (1927), and Milhaud scored Marcel L’Herbier’s L’inhumaine (1924). In Germany, early scores included those by Joseph Weiss for Der Student von Prag and by Becce for Richard Wagner (both 1913), with many compilations undertaken by Becce, Erdmann and Friedrich Hollaender for the films of F.W. Murnau (including Nosferatu, 1922) and other directors. Gottfried Huppertz’s original score for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) was couched in a contemporary idiom and marked a stark contrast with the romantic clichés already overtaking the music for Hollywood films, while Edmund Meisel incorporated jazz elements in his music for Leonid Trauberg’s The Blue Express (1929). Meisel achieved international fame with his music for Sergey Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin (1925), its modernistic idiom deemed sufficiently disturbing as to warrant suppression of the score in some countries, and his music for the same director’s October and Walter Ruttmann’s experimental documentary Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (both 1927). Film music in the Soviet Union was further advanced by Shostakovich, who gained valuable experience as a silent-cinema pianist and composed scores for The New Babylon (1929) and many early sound films; Kabalevsky also served as a silent-film accompanist. In this period, filmed segments with original music featured in innovative stage works by Satie (Relâche, 1924), Milhaud (Christophe Colomb, 1930) and Berg (Lulu, 1937).
Since the late 1970s, landmark scores for silent films have been reconstructed by scholars, notably Gillian Anderson and Dennis James, for live performance in conjunction with the images for which they were composed. New scores have also been commissioned (many by television and video companies) to accompany classics of the silent cinema; these include music by Carl Davis for Napoléon (1980), The Thief of Bagdad (1984), Intolerance (1986) and the 1925 Ben-Hur (1987), and scores by James Bernard, Jo van den Booren, Carmine Coppola, Adrian Johnston, Richard McLaughlin, Benedict Mason, David Newman and Wolfgang Thiele. In 1986–7 the veteran cinema organist Gaylord Carter recorded accompaniments for the video release of Paramount films from the 1920s.