The History of Film Scoring



Imagine watching a film without music. What would film without film scores be like? It would be unimaginable. Music is an instinctive part of moving images. The Lumière Brothers brought us the big screen thanks to their revolutionary camera and projector, the Cinématographe. Auguste and Louis Lumière, in 1895, hired a pianist to accompany the first screening of their short film.


The first film score for silent films


In silent films, it was unthinkable not to have music accompany them. Music sets the mood of the scene and punctuates important moments in the film. But there was another purpose for the music. At the time, the projection booth separating the audience and projector did not yet exist. Live music played during movie screenings can help to mask the noise produced by the film projector.


The first film score specifically written for films was composed by Camille Saint-Saëns. It was a major coup for the producers of L’assassinat du Duc de Guise (1908) to hire France’s most famous composer to write a score to their 15-minute historical drama. The film score was composed live, scene-by-scene in front of a movie screen.


Erik Satie, the composer of the Gymnopédies composed the first frame-by-frame film score in 1924 when he devised a system to synchronise his music to specific frames in the film, a first in film music history. The technique of syncing music to film was to evolve steadily all the way to today’s efficient computer-aided approach.


Music for talkies


When silent films gave way to talking films, music formed an important part of the soundtrack together with dialogue and sound effects. With this acute need, Hollywood turned to European composers. The first original score composed for a talking film was by Max Steiner for “King Kong” in 1993.


In the beginning, film scores were concerned with setting a general mood and highlighting the drama. As time went on, composers began to experiment with writing specific music for different characters and plot elements in the film. Many memorable film scores were created during the 30s and 40s and they included scores for Ben Hur, The Bride of Frankenstein, Rebecca to Citizen Kane, and Psycho.


Orchestral film score


The 1960s were the high standards of the orchestral film score with Maurice Jarre’s scores to Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia were epic in scale. Film scores also began to take a life of their own. For instance, Lara’s Theme from Doctor Zhivago was re-released as a pop single Somewhere, my love by Connie Francis. The song stripped the music from its filmic context to make it more accessible to a wider audience. Jarre was one of the most influential film composers, winning three Oscars for his work with director David Lean.


The 60s also saw the use of classical music to replace film scores, most notably in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick’s use of Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube over the space station docking scene and ‘sunrise’ from Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra are iconic moments in filmmaking. The use of these classical pieces made them increasingly popular in the classical canon.


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