Category Archives: film scores

An Important Distinction

A movie soundtrack was traditionally considered to be a strip along the celluloid that carried sound.  This included the film music.  Music written for movies was called a film score, i.e., it was an orchestral work, sometimes with choral accompaniment, written specifically for a film.  Hence we might see film music albums self-described as “Original Film Score composed by” or “Original [musical] Soundtrack from the film…”  In most cases the movie soundtrack, the original film score, was just that – music written for a film, either directly transferred to album form, or (as famously in the case of Henry Mancini) re-recorded and placed in a more “listenable” format for an album.

For decades, this was the norm.  A film score was specially written for a particular movie, and written (usually, with some exceptions such as popular or jazz musicians or “big names”  like Aaron Copland or Leonard Bernstein) by film musicians.  The film composer composed for film – an obvious if not redundant phrase, but one to be held in mind in any examination of motion picture music since the late 1960s.

As the old Hollywood studios broke up, so did film composing.  Great studio musicians such as Alfred Newman, Miklos Rosza, Franz Waxman and others, nearing retirement, began to make way for a new generation which would include Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith.  But along with new names and techniques in the film scoring business, also came woeful economic times and innovative ideas.  These factors combined to severely modify the face of movie music.

Studios, looking for less expensive ways of providing film music other than hiring a composer, and directors with surprisingly little interest in film scoring, began to mix extant popular music with the film score, sometimes to the extent of replacing any original scoring with pop music.

Gone – or at least in hiding – were those golden days when a film musician, as an artist, would add his (infrequently her) brush strokes to the completed film.  The subtlety and nuance of writing and orchestrating for the screen was moved to the back burner in favor of easily-procured and cheaply obtained pop music.  Thus, the soundtrack survived as the celluloid strip, and it survived as music from a film.  What did not survive, except in mutilated form, was film scoring.

So too movie soundtrack albums were still produced, but this time without a composer’s name in their credits – simply because the soundtrack had no composer.  The composer was replaced by a team of director, music editor, and music-buyer.  The use of pop music rather than film score, of course, helped sell the movie to audiences who liked pop music.  Obviously, it helped the popular musicians whose music was inserted into money-making movies.  Sometimes, in a nod back to the age of dinosaurs, a popular musician might even be asked to write pieces for the film.  Sadly, thought, this pale phantom was not true film scoring by the customary definition.  It was popular music written by a popular musician in hopes of boosting movie revenues, the musician’s career, and album sales.

Traditional composers staggered through this wasteland during the late 1960s, enriching the musical world with such classic scores as Goldsmith’s remarkable, much-respected work in Patton.  But then, in the mid-and-late 1970s, John Williams came on the scene with his scores for Jaws, Star Wars, and Superman: the Movie.  Regardless of one’s opinion of William’s musicianship, his place in motion picture history is firm.  Nearly single-handedly, Williams brought the movie soundtrack _as_ film score back into public awareness, and back to the attention of directors and record companies.  At last, music tailored to film, written by film musicians, began to enjoy a renaissance.

Reflections of the golden age began to take on a living reality and importance.  The film score had returned, enjoying its rightful power to draw audiences, making a successful move back into the record stores and radio stations.  The important distinction between film scoring and the use of purchased, pre-packaged popular music was noticed and positively responded to.  Long may this state of affairs continue.