history of music
Photo by David Pisnoy on Unsplash

Have you ever tried reading The Holy Bible? According to the Bible, in the very beginning, there was nothing but darkness, and slowly as the days progressed, God or the creator kept adding elements such as creating the land where we live, water, and the trees and mountains and also differentiating between light and darkness. 

Before the history of music, came the history of cinema. The evolution of cinema began in 1888, with the French inventor Louis Le Prince, who made a short film – Roundhay Garden Scene, which was just about 2.11 seconds long, yet technically a movie. 

Later on, with the Lumiere Brothers showing the world their cinematograph, cinema was into making. Then, various new filmmakers or creators started with various experiments. Hence, more and more elements were added into filmmaking and finally emerged in a big way into the Eden we see now as cinema.

Music is a crucial part of films, and it has been there all along since the very beginning. As cinema is an audio-visual form of expression, sound plays a crucial role. Music in films is not just used as fillers but also to amplify the emotion of a scene or just a character.

Before diving into the history of music, let us understand why music is essential and how it is used.

Psychology against silence :

Even in the silent era, there was always some music played along with the film. The reason is that the visuals without any sound might come off to the audience as flat and the characters or interactions much unalive. Hence even when audio recording machinery was not yet into the game, live sound and music were later played along to the film as they were screened.

Significance of film music :

The filmmakers understood that music was necessary to establish the gravity of a scene or project the characters’ emotions. 

For example, the Charlie Chaplin films were majorly driven by various music pieces. Music acted as a career for the entirety of the silent productions. If the visuals of his films were projected without any musical accompaniment, much of the stunt scenes might look more severe than what Chaplin primarily intended to show. Instead, a particular kind of music accompanied by Chaplin’s stunts provides the comic setting following his primitive vision.

Let us look into more contemporary examples, such as the opening scene of the 1994 Disney classic The Lion King. The song “The Circle of Life,” composed by Elton John, and lyrics penned by Tim Rice, used in the opening scene perfectly describe the plot setting of the film, that is, the tropical rainforest of Africa. 

Lebo M’s Zulu vocals, along with Carmen Twillie’s deep voice played along with the visuals of various wildlife, give us an insight into the diverse land of Africa, filled with pride. But, would it feel even a little bit close to being the same without the music? Well, God bless the Circle of Life, and God bless Elton John.

Horror movies use various sorts of ominous music to express the seriousness of a situation the character might be facing or instead hint to the audience to prepare themselves for something threateningly inauspicious. 

For instance, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The entirety of the opening sequence is backed by dire and ominous music as Jack Torrance drives his car up the Glacier National Park of Montana with his family, which clearly warns the viewer about how the film is going to be and will not be a happy story of a family moving into a new home.

As I said earlier, music is also a great tool to express the characters’ emotions—for example, the climax of Schindler’s List. Liam Neeson’s absolute heart-melting acting, accompanied by the very melancholy theme of the film, helped amplify the emotion and turned us all teary-eyed as we watched him say how he could have saved more Jews.

Similarly, 500 Days of Summer is another excellent example where director Mark Webb uses music very wittily to uphold the character’s emotion, such as falling in love and grieving. The very famous scene where Tom (Joseph Gordon Levitt) dances to a musical number as he goes to his workplace, meanwhile interacting with people on his way and sharing the music with them to express his joy of getting the girl he has fallen for. 

Now, let us learn about the evolution/history of music in films throughout history.

The Silent Era

Since the invention of cinema, filmmakers have understood the importance of music in films. Cinema, being an audio-visual form of expression, had the potential to use sound and music to create depth in the viewer’s mind, emerging from the two-dimensional image on the screen.

Since the popularity of the Lumiere Brother productions, several experiments had already begun worldwide. Thus began the era of silent films. From the German Expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Nosferatu to several surrealist films like Un Chien Andalou, filmmakers worldwide were making silent films.

The rising number of Hollywood productions made cinema a medium of entertainment for the mass rather than a subject of experiment for the makers. Thus, the filmmakers knew all along that some sound or music was necessary to back up the visuals of the film. Even during the Lumiere Brothers era, music was added during the projection. 

However, as several filmmakers tried their hands onto production, cinema became a popular mass entertainment medium. From D.W Griffith’s epic drama The Birth of a Nation to several slapstick comedies of Chaplin like Modern Times, Citylights, etc., Hollywood was thriving with great silent productions.

Now, filmmakers began to give thoughts into adding suitable music rather than classical bits. But in-film music was still a distant dream as we were not technically advanced. Thus, a simple yet intriguing method was thought of. While The silent films were projected, live music was played at each show.

The theatres would hire musicians to accompany them live as the movie was screened. This would be anything from an upright piano to a full orchestra, and there would be no written score. So instead, they made it up as they went along and watched the movie. Sometimes, they would have some written music, but it was usually just a point to mark the start of their improvisation. 

As a part of the production, books of music were published for the accompanists to get an idea about the structure of the piece. They could frame their music according to the scene’s emotion, setting, events, etc.

Similarly, some films also came with suggestion lists to note what music to play for a particular scene/sequence. In 1915, the world’s first score was compiled for an entire movie’s runtime, for DW Griffith’s, The Birth of a Nation.

Music was already a standard part of the theatres for a long time. Hence it was not a surprise to add it to the movies as an accompaniment, following the tradition. This helped to add depth to the two-dimensional silent picture on the screen. The music also acted as a coverup to the noise that spewed from the early projectors.

The Early Talkies (from the late 1920s-30s)

Many of the silent film era filmmakers could not survive the transition to the talkies. Think about it, the audience, which is quite adept at watching Chaplin all silent, suddenly hears him speak. This would certainly come as a shock to them. Thus, the retreat of slapstick comedies slowly gave way to the rise of musicals, which began to flood the scene by the end of the 20s. 

If you notice, in the early musicals, everything seemed to stop just when the song began so that the character could sing. Thus, even though they consciously added music to the scene, the directors were unable to bring subtlety into it. 

It was during this time that in 1927 Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer was released. With the use of the landmark Vitaphone system, it became the first film to include speech synchronized to the actors on screen. Thus, the first-ever words spoken in films are the first words of this film itself: “Wait a minute! You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”.

From there, film studios capitalized on this new technology, and thus several musicals were made. By the beginning of the 30s, tons of famous movie songs had their origin, such as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz, “Old Man River” from Show Boat, “Singing in the Rain” from The Hollywood Revue of 1929, and many more. 

Though these songs were a big hit at the time, film studios did not see much value in the composers, who could then only work for one studio at a time.

The Classical Scoring Technique

After the admittedly brief era of the musicals came the Classical Scoring Technique, which is still one of the most popular ways music comes into film. It is the subtlest and most powerful way music influences a movie.

In 1933, Cooper and Schoedsack’s King Kong was released with Max Steiner’s original score, which means “written music.” It was one of the first movies to have an original non-diegetic score parallel throughout the plot, helping to enhance the narrative, and Steiner wrote it using the Classical Scoring Technique. 

Max Steiner is one of the most creative Classical Scoring writers, with 26 Academy Award nominations, among which he won 3. His famous scores include the films Gone With The Wind and Casablanca. Steiner pioneered certain techniques and principles which have governed film scoring ever since.

In simple words, the Classical Scoring Technique sounds like an orchestra playing in the movie’s background, changing with the scene’s emotion. For example, when there’s an intense scene, the music is intense and, when there’s a happy scene, the music sounds happy.

On a more complicated level, the composer uses themes- a melody to represent a particular emotion like love or war and leitmotifs- a couple of notes in a recognizable pattern to represent one character or small idea. They hold the entire score together without the audience noticing that their ears recognize the repeated patterns in the music. Later in this article, you will learn about themes and leitmotifs in detail.

Since Classical Scoring creates a great deal of music in the background of the movie, it helps to smoothen over scene cuts or any other awkwardness of the film by continuing the idea from one scene to another.

During this time, we saw the first commercially released soundtrack for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The soundtrack was released under the title “Songs from Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” With the advancement to the 40s and the early 50s, audiences heard famous movie songs, such as “As Time Goes By” from Casablanca and “Whtie Christmas” from Holiday Inn.

Introduction of pop culture and jazz

Before moving further into the century, there is a massive significance of jazz music in the films that we must know about. 

“Popular” culture entered into movies through jazz, and people liked it. So Hollywood used it as a tool to instantly characterize the parts of the movies with jazz, as it has concrete associations to certain places and people. For example, in A Streetcar Named Desire, the jazzy score helps establish the setting of New Orleans and the characters’ actions.

Jazz has been a part of pop culture for a long time. With its origins rooting to the African-American community of New Orleans, it was one of the first truly American music genres. There were also many jazz clubs in most of the hip parts of towns. But, like almost everything else in the 30s, Jazz became racially divided in the movies. There was “black jazz” and “white jazz.” 

Black jazz, being much more pure jazz, considering its origins, was gritty and was mostly played using trumpets and saxophones. While on the other hand, white jazz was much more sophisticated and sounded rather close to swing, being played mostly with symphonic instruments like violins.

White jazz was mostly used to represent fun, jolly, or positive plots in the narrative. Unfortunately enough, jazz was always considered “African American music” and had to be “sanitized” before being put into white movies.

Westerns and other dissonant scores

The 50s and 60s were popular because of the western genre that brought back the symphonic scoring. The films used the same ideas as the Classical Scoring Technique and similar orchestral instruments, but the “Western” sound with a twangy guitar and a Spanish trumpet were of additional importance. 

The music was long and drawn-out like the scenery. It had to be long enough to fill all the empty spaces in the motion picture. Thus, the composers wrote for full orchestras. This characteristic music was used to intensify the ambiance of a scene or sequence—for instance, gun battles and horse chases. Painting a psychologically approved image in the audiences’ minds became convenient. 

Ennio Morricone is a renowned Italian composer of the “spaghetti” Westerns, and he almost always paired with director Sergio Leone. Their collaboration was unprecedented, with Leone playing live Morricone’s music while filming the scene so the actors could hear it. However, one of his most noticeable works and one of the most prominent themes from the western genre was Sergio Leone’s movie The Good The Bad and The Ugly, which became widely popular and immensely successful in amplifying the whole mood of the film.

Similarly, this style was soon used by Clint Eastwood that earned him a good name.

By the end of the decade, the decrease in popularity of Western films paved the way for the rise of science fiction and other suspense films, which often had eerie and unsettling music. 

The avant-garde music of Arnold Schoenberg often influenced these scores. Avant-garde music was a complete experimental form of music. The goal was to break through the traditional or cultural rules and regulations to produce something new, transcendent, and mysterious.

The series of notes were composed in a certain manner to hint at metamorphism or symbolism through the tune, corresponding to the image on the screen. Various instrumental techniques were used as well, which completely differed from the traditional method of playing and composing.

Hitchcock could be seen using these sounds a lot to build more tension in his films, for instance, in Psycho or The Birds. Other common examples might be Planet of the Apes, Apocalypse Now, etc.

The beginning of commercialization and revival of the musicals

In 1952, High Noon was released, and composer Dimitri Tiomkin was brought in to handle the music. Along with the score, producer Stanley Kramer asked him to compose a folk tune corresponding to the film’s themes. 

Tiomkin produced “Do Not forsake me oh my darling,” also known as “The Ballad of High Noon ”. Kramer liked this song so much that he used it in several scenes and instances. But the test screen audience found it instead jockeying for the film, and eventually, the studio pressured Kramer to remove it. Later, Kramer recorded a second version of the song and released it. 

After this, the studio retaliated and released the former version as a single under Capital Records. Both versions made their place in the billboards, and after the movie’s great success, it also won an Oscar for best original song.

During this time, the studios understood how essential film songs were to connect with the audience and to build another way to express the themes within a movie, and hence with this began the “business.”

After High Noon’s success, the studios began to use the soundtracks and songs in the films as a marketing strategy. Several musicals started having their soundtracks released before the film, like West Side Story’s “America,” Gigi’s “Some Enchanted Evenings,” and South Pacific’s “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” benefited hugely.

Musicals were never gone, but they became less and less popular by this time. Finally, filmmakers revived musicals with the industry figuring out the benefit of film songs. With the release of periodical dramas like The Sound of the Music, Cabaret, and Rocky Horror Picture Show, the musicals had a kick start again, and all for good as the industry had already found out a new way to double their revenue.

The increased popularity of the rock and roll genre led to their use and influence in films as well, as several rockstars like Elvis Presley or The Beatles were brought in to star and provide music for the film.

On the other instances, pre-existing popular music was used in the narrative to create a certain aesthetic. Blackboard Jungle is the first movie considered to have used pre-existing music for aesthetic purposes, though not for the narrative purpose, which I will come to in a while.

The Graduate, released in 1967, is an incredibly popular film with both Dave Grusin’s original score as well as Simon and Garfunkel’s songs. While most of Dave Grusin’s music was incidental, Simon and Garfunkel had an exceptional contribution with original songs for the film like “Mrs. Robinson” (which in turn became widely popular as well) and also their pre-existing song like “The Sound of Silence.” Thus, the film released substantial acclaim and made household names out of the folk-rock duo.

The 1969 film Easy Rider, starring Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, and Denis Hopper, was undoubtedly a classic to kick start the era of new Hollywood. The soundtrack of this film was entirely composed of pre-existing songs. The initial subject as temp soundtrack was felt so integral by Fonda and Hopper that they kept all of them in the film. Unfortunately, it eventually led to the soundtracks costing way more than the rest of the film.

Thus, both Easy Rider and The Graduate define the best case scenario for using pre-existing music as soundtracks. This proved to be beneficial in several ways. First, as for the artist, they gain a second wind of popularity, as for the studios, it became much effective as much less money was to be spent on licensing music instead of composing a full original score, and lastly for the audiences, as they could feel a stronger connection to what was happening on screen influenced by the song’s use.

The Return of the Classical Scoring Technique

The year 1977 marked the revival of the Classical Scoring Technique as John Williams made his infamous score for Star Wars. Williams followed the legacy of Steiner as he composed full scores with themes and recognizable leitmotifs. 

Since then, Williams has composed scores for various popular films like Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Home Alone, Schindler’s List, and many more. He creates different original themes for every single movie, even different themes for different characters. This led to the concept of creating leitmotifs, and Williams was one of the people to exploit this technique on a large scale. 

For example, in Star Wars, the central theme became the leitmotif for the character Luke Skywalker or “The Imperial March” as a leitmotif for Darth Vader. These helped the audience form a connection with the characters, which they would remember, and just as the leitmotifs start playing, the audience already knows how to relate them with a certain character or scene. 

Thus, this period also became the golden age of Hollywood film scoring.

A new age for Hollywood soundtracks

By this time, we’ve already learned how the studios devised a marketing strategy for soundtracks and tools for promoting the film and overall revenue increment.

At the end of the 70s, two films managed to redefine the entire soundtrack landscape, demonstrating the power of songs to sell tickets and captivate audiences. Thus, guiding the cultural aesthetics away from the confusing 70s towards the much brighter 80s. Amazingly enough, both of these are two very popular films starring John Travolta.

Primarily composed by the Bee Gees, the soundtrack for the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever was a huge success, so much so that the soundtrack sold over 54 million copies and went on to be the first-ever soundtrack to win the album of the year in the Grammys.

Following that, in 1978, released another successful film of Travolta, Grease. Again, the songs were a hit, and the soundtrack as a whole was the second-best album of the year, topped by Saturday Night Fever itself.

As we slowly advanced into the 80s, following the massive success of these two films, started the most prosperous time for Hollywood soundtracks.

With great hits like “Eye of the Tiger” from Rocky III, “Don’t you forget about me” from The Breakfast Club, “Take my Breath Away” from Top Gun, and so many more, this era definitely proved to be the golden age of Hollywood soundtracks.

Movie songs of this decade were primarily focused on being marketing tools, and this was to the extent that most of them were just named after the movie itself.

As we enter the 90s, movie soundtracks expanded from just synth-pop into other genres. Ballad and rock-ballad were especially prevalent with songs like “My Heart will Go On” from Titanic and “I don’t wanna miss a thing” from Armageddon.

During this time itself, we also saw the release of various Disney musicals and Disney original soundtracks like “A whole new world” from Disney’s Aladdin (1992).

Contrapuntal music

Now, this is an exciting part. While the whole industry was using film music as a marketing strategy to boost up their gross income, filmmakers like Kubrick and Tarantino were still experimenting. Instead of focusing more on the money, they kept trying to improve the whole cinematic experience.

Contrapuntal music or counterpoint is a relatively simple thing to understand. This is the use of a contrasting theme but parallel to the subject. For example, something disastrous happening on screen is accompanied by joyous music. While the industry was adept at using homophony, a new experiment with polyphony in film music counterpoint was a great success. 

In this case, the music clearly contradicts the likewise evident characteristics of the image. Stanley Kubrick could be seen using this technique as in the nuclear blast scene of his film Dr. Strangelove, and he uses Vera Lynn’s “We’ll meet again” to back the scene of a massive nuclear bomb blast. Similarly, the opening scenes of the film Good Morning Vietnam with visuals of a torn down Vietnam backed by “What a wonderful world” is another excellent example. 

Quentin Tarantino is one of the pioneers in using this technique. In his film The Reservoir Dogs, we can see an evil Mr. Blonde torturing the chief of police while “Stuck in the Middle with You” playing in the background.

In the opening scene of the 2008 Disney film Wall-E, we see a destroyed dystopian earth amidst which the only lone resident Wall-E, a garbage robot, strolls down doing his job, and “Put on your Sunday clothes” plays in the background. This is an excellent example as with the visuals of a depressing world; the music tends to highlight the protagonist’s mood, who is utterly ignorant about his mundane surroundings.

The Current Scenario

Today the film industry has advanced a lot not just in terms of technology but in terms of experience as well and is entirely at its peak. Thus, we get to see all sorts of film music in the present day.

From original homophonic scores like those by Hans Zimmer in Christopher Nolan’s films, the use of pre-existing songs as soundtracks in MCU’s Guardians of the Galaxy to the composition of original soundtracks in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to the use of polyphonic contrapuntal music in Run Lola Run, Shaun of the Dead, etc.

Thus the industry in the present time does look after amplifying the overall cinematic experience as well as keeping in mind to improve the business.

Conclusion

Thus, from the evolution structure of film music, we found out how music started as a filler but later changed into several forms of experiments and a strong business strategy. As a marketing strategy, the film score is aimed to double the revenue produced during the time of selling and marketing the film. Similarly, the production house plans to sell the songs or the whole movie album separately to create a completely different network of revenue and a part of promoting the film.

Sometimes a song popularised a movie, and sometimes a film popularised a song, but either way, Hollywood wins out twice as big.

But apart from the profit-making motive, the industry is still utilizing music in several possible ways for us, the audience, and to improve cinema in whole new innovative ways as we progress more in time.


About the Author

History Of Music: The Use Of Sound In The Films

Arkaprava Chakraborty

Arkaprava is currently completing his UGC as a student of Media Science and wants to explore the field of mass communication even further. He is a film enthusiast and practically lives in movies. He sees himself sharing his perspective with the world (maybe with the help of a pen or the camera).

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