Redeeming Film Music

There is a kind of listener who first becomes acquainted with the symphony orchestra through film music. And many such listeners want to hear the music again – willingly attending concerts devoted to scores whose original function was to compensate for absent dialogue, and which were heard in fragmented versions that faded in and out of the drama.

So what is the status of film music among the musical arts, and how should it be judged? You often hear the expression film music used pejoratively. “It’s just film music,” said of some new symphonic piece, suggests an overblown pursuit of effect at the cost of structure, of atmosphere at the cost of musical form. But perhaps those who criticize music in that way are clinging to a parochial and outmoded conception of concert-hall listening. Maybe film music is the way forward for the tonal grammar and polyphonic architecture that are now so rarely heard in works by the musical avant-garde. Maybe film music is the only safe refuge for the ordinary musical ear, in a soundscape blasted by jagged orchestral explosions and wearisome post-modernist sound effects.

One thing is certain, which is that the most successful film music today exhibits a quite extraordinary level of competence. Melody, harmony, voice-leading and orchestration are all as good and professional as can be. John Williams’s Harry Potter scores and Howard Shore’s evocative music for The Lord of the Rings exhibit a mastery of harmonic sequences, polyphonic organisation and orchestral effect that would be the envy of many a composer for the concert hall. Some of the skills employed by such composers can be learned and there are schools devoted to teaching them. But there are also, in such composers as Williams and Shore, original effects, haunting passages of melody or quasi-melody, and a post-Mahlerian sense of just how much can be added without sacrificing polyphonic clarity – all of which are marks of a true musician.

At the same time, when favourite passages are extracted from their original context and presented in the concert hall, almost invariably it sounds to us as though something is missing. The melody that seemed so apt and touching on the screen sounds banal or even fake in the concert hall – witness the melodies given to Hedwig’s flight by Williams, so brilliantly orchestrated that you notice their emptiness only when your ears are turned fully upon them. It is when you hear this kind of music in the cold, lifted clear of the drama and presented as something complete in itself, that you begin to sympathise with those censorious advocates of the avant-garde who say, “No, you cannot compose like that.”

Such critics will tell us that tonal chord grammar, even if touched up here and there with Wagnerian chromaticism and the occasional Mahlerian dissonance, has, in Schoenberg’s words, “become banal.” It wasn’t always banal. But when used without the fresh melodic material and ingenuous musical narrative of the great masters it is no longer true art but pastiche.

It is not only in music, of course, that we hear this kind of criticism. The accusation of “pastiche” is used ad nauseam to block any attempt that architects might make to build in the traditional manner. But it has a special authority in music criticism, thanks to the polemics of Schoenberg and Adorno. Moreover, in the case of film music the charge often seems to stick. This stuff, however technically accomplished, seems so often to lack the core of sincere inspiration, the heartfelt and heart-stopping theme, and the inspired development that unfolds that theme’s potential.

Adorno, who was the first to launch a full scale assault on the block-buster scores of Hollywood, saw film music as the last degraded product of the vice instilled by Wagner: the vice of putting effect before cause. Film music, as he described it, used stock devices and ready-made sequences to add a musical halo to whatever was being presented on the screen. Its whole purpose was to add emotion where emotion is lacking, to puff up the empty drama with easily decipherable messages as to what the audience should at any moment be feeling. As Nietzsche put the point in his no-holds-barred assault on Wagner: espressivo at all costs.

But Adorno also saw film music in another way: as part of the capitalist assault on high culture. All the music, all the forms of entertainment by which he found himself surrounded in his exile in California, were the products of the capitalist culture industry – whose purpose it was, in Adorno’s eyes, to reduce art to a commodity, and to provide in the place of the free expression of critical consciousness the “fetishes” that conceal reality behind a veil of illusions. The musical fetish requires no hard work of aesthetic judgment, no painful exploration of the value and significance of our states of mind. It merely releases us into a warm bath of sentiment that, being unreal, costs nothing. As we respond to the kitschy climaxes on soaring violins, we congratulate ourselves that we are deeply moved. But, Adorno tells us, we are not moved at all, except by the image of ourselves being moved.

Those deep criticisms, expressed in an inspissated language that was Adorno’s most lasting contribution to the Marxist repertoire, do not carry weight with everyone. But they suggest, nevertheless, that the adjectives often used to dismiss or marginalise music for films – corny, sentimental, fake, kitsch, laid on with a trowel – are identifying a real and pervasive aesthetic fault. And the fault, you might think, comes from the attempt to herd people towards a crowd emotion, to neutralize our critical faculties, to say, “Come on, join in, let the tears flow.”

Or is this all just the snobbery of the avant-garde, a kind of musical elitism that belongs to an age from which we have recovered, now that our innocent distractions, once dismissed as “mass culture,” can be enjoyed for what they are, namely fun? Two observations are pertinent here. The first is that it is only some film music that conforms to the “blockbuster” style. It is only the epic narrative, with heroes, battles, the underlying war between good and evil, and (in the grown-up version) the rescue of desirable women by courageous men, that can call forth the full orchestral sound, usually amplified these days by wordless choirs. And here it is undeniable that there is a repertoire of clichés that film composers do not hesitate to use, and whose nature as cliché is far more apparent in the concert hall than in the course of some heroic battle between good (=good-looking) and evil (=ugly) on the screen. The wordless choir is one of them, chanting its ancestral calls to sacrifice over agitated strings and sustained chords on the brass, as the heroic soldiers of the good bravely hold their ground against the forces of evil, mounted on digital monsters that can be killed by nothing short of a power cut.

Star Wars Lego Orchestra from Jason Weinberger on Vimeo.

We should remember, therefore, all those films that have used small musical resources, not to compensate for the schematic nature of the plot, but in order to enhance an atmosphere that originates in the drama. Bernard Herrmann’s creepy modernist score for Hitchcock’s Psycho is a case in point. Hitchcock’s drama in no way depends on the music: but if there is to be music for such a gruesome tale, this is it – sparse, icy, setting the nerves on edge like a diamond-edged cutter going through steel. Or, to take a less extreme example, the gentle sadness of Erik Nordgren’s score for Bergman’s Wild Strawberries – a solo violin above a small chamber ensemble, never intrusive, but always picking up the threads of regret and loneliness as the old Professor’s life unravels, so as to unravel them a little bit more.

The second pertinent observation is that film scores seem not to survive for long outside the context created by the original screen-play. They inspire a following, of course. But it is a following that associates them with a particular film and a particular story. Of course, this is not always true. There are film scores that have survived because of their intrinsic musical virtues – Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé, as well as his grand oratorio on the theme of Alexander Nevsky; Walton’s music for Henry V, and (a particularly telling example) the Sinfonia Antartica of Vaughan Williams. But these survive as free-standing musical works, composed according to principles that do not depend on the action that originally accompanied them.

Film music can be fruitfully compared to ballet. Most of the great ballet scores have been, by now, detached from their first choreographies. There are some, of course, that are indelibly associated with the original poetic idea – Swan Lake, The Firebird, Daphnis and Chloë – but many more have survived through manifold changes in the choreography and the libretto. The Rite of Spring is perhaps the most famous example. Stravinsky’s score is a triumph of rhythmic, melodic and harmonic order, which won its place in the hearts of musical people whether or not they had an interest in the ballet as an art form, or in the particular attempts, from Nijinsky onwards, to provide a way of dancing to this score.

Why are film scores and ballet scores so different in this respect? Why do ballet scores have such a long and vivid life in the concert hall, achieving a status – especially in the modern era – equal to the greatest of the purely orchestral compositions that changed the course of music? Here is a thought: while dancers dance to the music, the film score follows the action on the screen. In ballet it is the score that sets the pace, governs the action and in general controls the overall order and movement of the work. In film the score is subservient to the action, can survive only because it adds what the action leaves out, and then survives only as a kind of after image, the memory of something that has vanished over the horizon of perception.

Those thoughts do not, of course, justify the use of film music as a pejorative term. Perhaps we should be grateful to John Williams and Howard Shore for showing us that it can still be done – that we can still use the tonal language to create music that resonates in the hearts of ordinary people. Perhaps we should be more suspicious than we tend to be, of those musical censors who leap to dismiss whatever is spontaneously likeable as cliché, and whatever touches the ordinary heart as kitsch. Nevertheless, we still need guidance: what is the path, between avant-garde censoriousness and musical cliché, and how can a serious composer follow that path, without some listener in the concert hall turning to his neighbour and whispering, “Film music”?


  1. There may be some criticisms of film music that are unjustified, especially from the avant-garde, but this article has some strange premises.

    “Symphonic music” just refers to instrumentation and has little to do with the underlying musical content. It is a category like “viola music” or “accordion music”, not music from an alternate dimension that requires training for listeners to appreciate.

    The reason that film scores sound like they are missing something out of context is the same reason that they are prone to cliches; it is a business favoring productivity over quality. They are composed very quickly to fit a certain mood for a specific length of time, for an audience of people who are paying attention to something else, which would make them tend toward being simple, predictable and lacking attention to detail. Studio executives are also not going to be good judges of classical technique, especially in Hollywood, where contempt towards traditional European culture is excessive even by American standards.

    The Rite of Spring might sound like “a triumph of rhythmic, melodic and harmonic order” compared with a Stockhausen piece, but any traditional society would associate it with disorder. There is historical precedence in Balkan nations for the same irregular time signatures, but their rhythms, like those in ancient Greek music, are divided into groups of long and short beats with rational mathematical relations between them. The groups support melodic patterns that fit the natural flow of their lyrics, while Stravinsky has an orchestra pound out a dissonant chord 7 or 13 times. Dissonant chords do exist in Georgian and Chechen music, but thirds and sevenths or ninths do not appear together in the same chord. Stravinsky used a couple out of context elements of Balkan and Caucasian folk music in a fairly typical modernist work to reinforce the ancient Eastern European theme of the ballet in a contrived way. A parallel would be a bad film score switching to high-pitched strings playing chromatic tetrachords as soon as a scene set in Egypt fades onto the screen (with results closer to 1960s laiko than anything from the ancient world).

    The final sentence is puzzling for the following reasons:

    1. Trying to please everyone is futile, usually one complainer in an audience can be safely ignored.

    2. Most music prior to the nineteenth century sounded nothing like stereotypical film music. One will not find sustained string mush, unusually dense brass chords or painfully slow melodies without ornament in Monteverdi, Lully, Scarlatti or Gluck. Music from recent “tonal composers” is far removed from real classical music and usually does have faults typical of film music (or worse, Broadway showtunes or jazz).

    3. It is good to recognise that composers need guidance, which everyone else seems to ignore. It is also good to expose the false dilemma that everyone else seems to fall for, even though it is very easy to see through. However, offering guidance would have been a lot more productive than waffling between the faults and merits of pseudo-classical music made in the service of media corporations, and could have taken less time and space. While I do not have the space to offer substantial guidance of my own here, I will say that it would be worthwhile for more musicians to look critically at the music of the nineteenth century, and see how much evidence there is for viewing it as a form of proto-modernism. Not only the decline in craft itself, but the aberrant thinking that promoted it, including the arbitrary and unhelpful music “theory” (or lack thereof) found in books of the time (particularly obvious when compared to the remarkably clear texts of the 15th-17th centuries) and the bizarre obsession with “extending” tonality (which demonstrates an ignorance of its purpose). There is a critical need for an alternative form of musical education, and it would be most efficient to focus on providing a working knowledge of late medieval and renaissance music for a good understanding of polyphony, while knowledge of ancient Armenian and Greek music would help with melodic and rhythmic principles. If this sounds restrictive, species counterpoint exercises and chorale harmonisations are even more so, and provide less practical knowledge. This would provide a solid foundation for composers to develop creatively, as they will have a better understanding of how some later embellishments can really be used and why other “innovations” do not work; a similar concept existed in at least one historical culture that encouraged creativity but not at the expense of beauty or coherence. With musical reform established, then the composers need to find ways to organise and promote themselves effectively.

  2. Very enlightening article, putting the finger on various sensitive spots.

    “….. what is the path, between avant-garde censoriousness and musical cliché, and how can a serious composer follow that path, without some listener in the concert hall turning to his neighbour and whispering, ‘Film music’?” There will always be listeners incapable of making a distinction between cliché and a serious musical utterance, but apart from that, the question can be answered by the observation that there is (classical) music which steers very far from cliché and is realizing the sincerity and authenticity of real inspiration, seemingly without effort. But it was written at a far distance from the aesthetic chaos of the modern world, either in terms of time (Bach, Brahms), or in a psychological sense (Debussy, Ravel, Pärt). Its psychological territory forms the core of the classical tradition and is there to take as an example. But the efforts and psychological trajectory to reach that territory are quite a challenge in the context of today’s world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Your map to places only the dorkiest dare to go.

Subscribe to find out more about the ideas behind our ideas. And the progress of our projects.

Your email address is safe with us. Unsubscribe anytime.