The Film Score

by Helga de la Motte-Haber

1 The Beginnings of the Film Score in Silent Film

2 From the Cue Sheet to the Movie Theater Orchestra

3 The Introduction of Sound Film

4 The Rise of Film Score Composers and the Development of Composition Techniques

5 New Production Conditions and the Old Style


A film score is music that has been composed for a specific film or arranged from existing music. It is therefore functional music that has certain tasks to fulfill for the images it accompanies and can avail itself of any composition technique, instrumentation, or style. It can bring about a certain effect (mood technique), or it can have an illustrative function (underscoring) ranging from the imitation of sounds to folkloristic and historicizing sounds that serve to specify a location or a time. Furthermore, the film score structures the filmic sequence, unites the alternating visual impressions, and structures the shots. Implemented dramaturgically, it elicits associations in the viewer, providing information about something that is about to occur or that has occurred previously. New technological achievements have refined the impact of the film score, particularly with respect to earlier problems in synchronizing sound with images. Nonetheless, in retrospect it becomes clear that the function of the film score had already largely been defined in the period of the silent film. The oldest techniques of composers—for instance, the use of existing music—continue to be explored and employed to this day.


1 The Beginnings of the Film Score in Silent Film

Even the first silent films—short documentations (L’arrivée d’un train, FR) and antics (L’arroseur arrosé, FR) which the brothers Louis and Auguste Lumière presented at the Grand Café in Paris—were accompanied by music. As a rule, there was a piano in the entertainment establishments and vaudeville theaters in which films were initially shown.

At first, the purpose of such musical accompaniment was to drown out the noises being made by the audience and the projectors, and not maximum musical performance, as demonstrated in a report on the presentation of Lumière films in London in 1896 during which a harmonium was allegedly used that was missing three notes. However, because the Lumière devices ran so quietly that an acoustic cover-up would not have been necessary, other reasons may have played a role for the use of music. In his essay Theorie des Films, Siegfried Kracauer points out that the ears always participate in the act of seeing; otherwise a haunting realm of shadows would be produced.[1] Whether the music is not heard, which he furthermore believes, is another question. After all, past efforts to produce music suited to images, such as the piano player improvising along to silent films, might have actually clouded enjoyment of the images.

2 From the Cue Sheet to the Movie Theater Orchestra

Whereas the choice of the pieces to be played was previously left to the musicians, in 1910 the Edison company published the first so-called cue sheet for a Frankenstein film. Thus the piano player was handed an arrangement into scenes with precise suggestions for its underscoring (e.g., light music, Weber’s Freischütz, Wagner’s Lohengrin). Sam Fox Moving Picture Music (1913) represents a pioneering achievement in the history of the film score. Composed by John Stepan Zamecnik, it contains examples of music for typical narrative elements that could be rearranged for each film. Likewise legendary is the twelve-volume Kinothek (1919) by Giuseppe Becce, which primarily comprised newly composed examples of music for specific situations. References to music for other scenes were noted in the margins. Ernö Rapée’s 1924 collection of opera and symphony fragments, dances, romantic character pieces, and the like, had a similar concept.[2] Although these kinds of musical patchworks for piano accompaniment were the rule, scores were specifically composed for a few films, such as the score in 1908 by Camille Saint-Saëns (L’assassinat du duc de Guise, FR, dir. André Calmettes and Charles Le Bargy),[3] in 1909 by Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov (The Song about the Merchant Kalishnikov, RU),[4] and in 1913 by Joseph Weiß (Der Student von Prag, DE, dir. Stellan Rye and Paul Wegener). In the 1920s, composers became increasingly interested in film scores, which resulted in several original and first-class compositions for silent films, for instance for La Roue (FR 1923, dir. Abel Gance, music: Arthur Honegger), for Battleship Potemkin (RU 1925, dir. Sergei Eisenstein, music: Edmund Meisel), or for The New Babylon (RU 1929, dir. Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, music: Dimitri Shostakovich). Unusual arrangements were also produced for abstract films and films which used narrative sparingly, such as music by Hanns Eisler or Paul Hindemith.

An outstanding role is accorded Erik Satie’s score for Entr’acte (FR 1924, dir. René Clair). The importance of this work is seen less in the modular method he used—the stringing together of recurring segments while dispensing with melodical evolvement—and more in his briefly segmented repetitive patterns. Satie anticipated the challenge of the sound film with music structured in this way, which could easily be synchronized with images. As the film score no longer could be adapted live, it had to tolerate losses of material caused by film tears during playback without having losses of meaning.

In the 1910s, the motion picture increasingly won over refined middle-class audiences. Thus, demands swelled not only with respect to the venue in which a film was shown, but also with respect to the presentation of the accompanying music. The latter took on a central role in the film palaces opening up beginning in the mid-1910s in the United States and after World War I in Europe. The elegant Strand Theater in New York, which opened in 1914, had its own orchestra, which is said to have comprised 30 instrumentalists, an organist, and a vocal quartet.[5] The Birth of a Nation (US 1915), the elaborate production by D. W. Griffith, was to be accompanied by a compilation of popular and classical music that Griffith had selected in collaboration with Joseph Breil.[6] The Ride of the Valkyries for the Ku Klux Klan was of course meant to be combined with bombastically orchestral sound. This film is exemplary for the illustrative functions of music that emerged during this period, including first and foremost the expression of feelings and moods (mood technology) as well as the realistic underscoring of actions, such as a storm with agitato. In addition, horns, drums, boxes of dishes, and the movie theater organ, first developed in 1908, were used with numerous noise registers.[7] Music was sometimes also assigned tasks of generating meaning, such as when, during a harmless man/woman scene, an informing Donna è mobile sounded from off screen. In addition to these functions, which influenced perceptions of the film, music assured the viewer sitting in the dark of his or her place in a room.[8]

3 The Introduction of Sound Film

With the development of the sound film technique in the course of the 1920s, the technical basis of recording sound changed, above all in view of the possibility of exact synchronization. In the case of the Vitaphone technique, a so-called sound-on-disc technique introduced in 1926, records were connected to the projector. In this respect they were similar to a system with which, beginning in 1903, Oskar Meßter connected retakes with opera recorded on discs for his sound images. In the case of optical sound, which began to prevail in the late 1920s, acoustic waves were recorded photographically onto the filmstrip directly, now enabling sound and image to be stored on the same carrier material for the first time. At its premiere on October 6, 1927, The Jazz Singer (US, dir. Alan Crosland) had a sensational impact, although contrary to popular accounts it was not the first sound film in film history; moreover, it was made using the Vitaphone technique. What was exciting was that the audience simultaneously heard and saw a man singing.

The new optical sound technique, however, initially had little influence on the music. Numerous so-called talkies were produced that did not allow for music at all. Above all, the use of natural noises instead of the surrogate noise material[9] of the silent-film period and the lip synchronization of speech and song were considered spectacular. The Soviet Film Manifesto (1928), a horror-stricken outcry that the sound film could destroy the artistic montage technique, also makes reference to the duplications of the images by means of speech and noises. Accordingly, it called upon an asynchronous and contrapuntal arrangement of image and sound—which, however, was only to some extent realized by the manifesto’s authors, Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Grigori Alexandrov. Theodor W. Adorno and Hanns Eisler also reflected on antithetic montage of the acoustic and the visual as well as on a contrapuntal arrangement of music.[10]

The first sound films were often shot silent and not underscored with sound until later. The motion picture Blackmail (UK 1929), for example, was conceived as a silent film. Alfred Hitchcock did retakes of several scenes in order to be able to treat speech and noises in an innovative way. The knife sequence, in which the word knife is repeated in a way approaching concrete poetry, became famous. In René Clair’s film Sous les toits de Paris (FR 1930, music: Raoul Moretti and Armand Bernard), too, the new arrangement possibilities were primarily seen in speech and noises. The music of the street singers, that of the accordion players, and the café house music in this film, justified as incidental music by the image, can, however, evolve into interpretative accompaniment. Josef von Sternberg and Friedrich Hollaender made a similarly constructed use of music, though this use is also diegetically motivated for Der blaue Engel (DE 1931).[11] The emotional underscoring of the death scene at the end is literally the only time that film music is used.

The sound film also spawned new, highly popular genres in which music took on a more central role: operettas, musicals, chorus lines, and dance films (e.g., Der Kongress tanzt, DE 1931, dir. Erik Charell; Die Drei von der Tankstelle, DE 1930, dir. Wilhelm Thiele; Broadway Melody, US 1929, dir. Harry Beaumont). Striking is that many of the songs composed for these music films, songs such as Ein Freund, ein guter Freund, Das gibt’s nur einmal, (music: Werner Richard Heymann, lyrics by Robert Gilbert), or Give My Regards to Broadway (song by George M. Cohan), became box-office hits and contributed to the success of the films.

4 The Rise of Film Score Composers and the Development of Composition Techniques

Around 1935, the importance of film composers began to grow, along with the establishment of permanent orchestras (of about fifty members) at the large film studios. Moreover, nearly all of the film composers had solid academic training and had frequently made a name for themselves outside the movie industry. The differences between autonomous music and the film score were considered slight. The latter was therefore often translated into a concert suite. Symphonic music, frequently enhanced by a choir, was popular for the screen. Sergei Prokofiev, Benjamin Britten, William Walton, Arthur Bliss, and many others composed scores for film. In terms of aesthetics, the sound film did not require a break with previous practice.[12] Thus, underscoring was adhered to, the sounds of wind or rain continued to be imitated through the use of instruments (e.g., in Sunset Boulevard, US 1950, dir. Billy Wilder, music: Franz Waxman, there were dropping eighth notes from the piano during the steady rain). The master of substituting noises through instrumental tone colors was the music score composer Bernard Herrmann. Although Hitchcock had not originally planned music for the murder scene in the shower in Psycho (US 1960), he could not have arranged the scene—with Herrmann’s high, piercing, dissonant strings—in a more haunting way.

So-called Mickey Mousing,[13] a technique by means of which the music is adapted to the movements being shown in the image—for instance climbing or falling down—was improved through synchronization. This imitation of movement was transferred to the sound film from Walt Disney’s animated films. Here, however, it often had a comical effect. The musicians were no longer solely in control of the soundtrack; thus, they developed techniques to preserve the symphonic standard. Erich Wolfgang Korngold, renowned for his extraordinarily pronounced sense of timing, set the musical climax of the music running behind speech into the brief periods when the actors paused for breath (underneathing).[14]

The leitmotif technique practiced in Hollywood was copied from Richard Wagner’s musical theater. Persons or ideas were assigned a theme that both sustained the action by means of a traditional motivic-thematic work and could engage other themes as well. The theme fulfilled important dramaturgical functions of preannouncement. In Hollywood, music had to be composed at a rapid pace, in view of which the leitmotif technique was also practical, because the composer could create a kind of vocabulary even before completion of the film. Max Steiner, who was the first to use this technique, paid strict attention to the conciseness of his musical themes, so that they were identifiable even after editing. Thus, due to its unusual opening with an octave boost, the Tara theme from Gone with the Wind (US 1939, dir. Victor Fleming) could be shortened to four notes. In terms of music history, there is very little evidence of earlier use of this opening, and yet it displays great expressive power.[15] Film scores always had to express both love and sorrow.

Great value was placed on the acoustic indication of locations and time, for example by means of folkloristic instruments in The Third Man (UK 1949, dir. Carol Reed, music: Anton Karas), where the zither stands for Vienna, or by means of orthodox church music, such as in Ivan the Terrible (US 1944, dir. Sergei Eisenstein, music: Sergei Prokofiev) during the coronation scene in the church. In Hollywood, funds were invested in the research of suitable music for the history films to be set to music by Miklós Rózsa.

In the 1960s, only few of the old-school composers received commissions; grand symphonic orchestration had become only one of many possibilities. Continual musical accompaniment, such as in Gone with the Wind (three and one-half hours of musical underscoring in a film lasting four hours), had become uneconomical. At the same time, contemporary styles of music found their way into the film genre. While in the 1950s, jazz could occasionally be heard (e.g., A Streetcar Named Desire, US 1951, dir. Elia Kazan, music: Alex North), beginning in the 1960s, rock music was increasingly used (e.g., Easy Rider, US 1969, dir. Dennis Hopper; Taxi Driver, US 1976, dir. Martin Scorsese, music: Bernard Herrmann). Electroacoustical sounds produced by instruments such as the ondes Martenot and the theremin also reached Hollywood. Soundtracks produced with the trautonium, such as that for Hitchcock’s The Birds (US 1963) by Oskar Sala and Bernard Herrmann, seem almost to be drafts for later synthesizer productions. However, these means did not find their way into the film genre as extensively as did the symphonic sound, which experienced a big renaissance in the 1970s.

5 New Production Conditions and the Old Style

The production conditions of the film score and its playback drastically changed with the advent of the audiotape, stereo technology, the synthesizer, and sampling. It is therefore astonishing that in terms of aesthetics there is, despite more stylistic variety, a high degree of continuity. Older techniques became more diversified. John Williams, the composer of film scores for box-office hits such as Jaws (1971, dir. Steven Spielberg), Home Alone (US 1990, dir. Chris Columbus), and several Harry Potter films (beginning in 2001), was very sensitive with respect to the underscoring of dialogues.[16] Motivated by Stanley Kubrick’s use of concert music by Richard Strauss, Johann Strauß, and György Ligeti in 2001: A Space Odyssey (UK/US 1968), for the series of Star Wars films (US beginning in 1977, dir. George Lucas among others) Williams oriented himself to available compositions from Richard Strauss to Gustav Holst, thus maintaining a kind of leitmotif with a characteristic function of premonition, albeit one lacking the intense motivistic processing found in the classic motion pictures made in Hollywood. This approach was also taken by another composer who has earned a special place in the history of film music: Ennio Morricone. By implementing innovative turns in known phrase models, such as the double sixth-tone boost in Jill’s Song (Once upon a Time in the West, IT/US 1969, dir. Sergio Leone) and the baroque practice of embellishment as a catchy melody (Gabriel’s Oboe in The Mission, UK 1986, dir. Roland Joffé), he achieved a salience that belies a remark attributed to him, namely, that film scores are not primarily meant to be heard.

The film score is functional music. It must be grasped quickly by the listener, a requirement which, judging by recent music, above all demands simple rhythms. It must underscore feelings and produce associations. And it must structure the images. It has to make transitions invisible. This feat is particularly evident when cars are being driven in films and the alternating visual impressions merge (e.g., Harold and Maude, 1971, dir. Hal Ashby, music: Cat Stevens; The Graduate, US 1967, dir. Mike Nichols, music: Simon and Garfunkel). Musical transition—for instance when James Bond moves from one room to the next in The Spy Who Loved Me (UK 1977, dir. Lewis Gilbert, music: Marvin Hamlisch)—has to stimulate awareness of new times and locations.

Despite the increasing significance of sound designs, traditional methods of film scores continue to play an important role. Even in the boisterous action films of the 1990s, Hollywood’s composers rely on techniques such as the use of local touches or of Arabic folklore (e.g., Lisa Gerrard’s Duduk of the North in Gladiator, UK/US 2000, dir. Ridley Scott).[17] Even the opulent orchestral sound continues to be used. Hans Zimmer—the veritable creator of a composing factory currently consisting of the most productive film-score composers—cultivates this sound, which is intensified by means of electronic sounds (e.g., the series of Pirates of the Caribbean films, US 2003/2006/2007, dir. Gore Verbinski, among others).

Even if over the course of the development of film scores their means have expanded, become more refined, and been extended by the possibilities of sound design, in a traditional sense film scores are an essential component of every elaborate feature film production. Experimental or animated films adhere to different rules.

all footnotes

[1] Siegfried Kracauer, 1964, “Theorie des Films,” in Schriften, vol. 3 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1973), 414–415.

[2] For the American premiere of the expressionist nightmare Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (DE 1919, dir. Robert Wiene), however, Rapée did not draw on such pieces but instead on excerpts from what at the time was new music (Strauss, Debussy, Schönberg, Stravinsky, Prokofiev).

[3] The film score entered his body of works as opus 128. The unusual instrumentation consisting of piano, harmonium, and strings indicates its origin.

[4] Cf. Wolfgang Thiel, Filmmusik (Berlin: Henschel, 1981), 127.

[5] Hansjörg Pauli, Filmmusik: Stummfilm (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1981), 129.

[6] Sometimes written Joseph Briel.

[7] Karl Heinz Dettke, Kinoorgeln und Kinomusik (Stuttgart and Weimar: Metzler, 1995).

[8] The movie theater conductor Willy Schmidt-Gentner used this kind of dramaturgically motivated music, which required keen knowledge of the film.

[9] Rudolf Arnheim, Film als Kunst (1932; Munich: Hanser, 1974), 254.

[10] Theodor W. Adorno and Hanns Eisler, Komposition für den Film (1944; Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2006), 58–79.

[11] Diegetic means to occur as part of the action in a scene.

[12] Irwin Bazelon, Knowing the Score (New York: Van Nostrand, 1975), 22. See also André Bazin, Was ist Kino? (Cologne: DuMont, 1975), 28–29.

[13] Eisenstein, by the way, was an admirer of Mickey Mousing. Eisler, on the other hand, vigorously criticized its equating falling from a cliff with a decreasing G-sharp minor triad; Adorno and Eisler, Komposition für den Film, 114.

[14] This effect is lost in synchronizations.

[15] For a detailed account, see Helga de la Motte-Haber and Hans Emons, Filmmusik (Munich: Hanser, 1980), 178–179.

[16] Interesting in this respect is the interview in Bazelon, Knowing the Score, 200.

[17] In collaboration with Hans Zimmer.

List of books in this text

Film als Kunst
1974, Author: Arnheim, Rudolf Publisher: Hanser

Filmmusik in Geschichte und Gegenwart
1981, Author: Thiel, Wolfgang Publisher: Henschelverlag Kunst u. Gesellschaft

Filmmusik: Eine systematische Beschreibung
1980, Author: de la Motte-Haber, Helga and Emons, Hans Publisher: Hanser

Filmmusik: Stummfilm
1981, Author: Pauli, Hansjörg Publisher: Klett-Cotta

Kinoorgeln und Kinomusik in Deutschland
1995, Author: Dettke, Karl Heinz Publisher: Metzler

Knowing the score: Notes on film music
1975, Author: Bazelon, Irwin Publisher: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co.

Komposition für den Film
1969, Author: Adorno, Theodor W. and Eisler, Hanns Publisher: Rogner u. Bernhard

Theorie des Films: Die Errettung der äußeren Wirklichkeit
1973, Author: Kracauer, Siegfried Publisher: Suhrkamp

Was ist Kino?: Bausteine zur Theorie des Films
1975, Author: Bazin, André Publisher: DuMont Schauberg

see aswell

  • Theodor W. Adorno
  • Grigori Alexandrow
  • Hal Ashby
  • Harry Beaumont
  • Giuseppe Becce
  • Armand Bernard
  • Arthur Bliss
  • James Bond
  • Joseph Carl Breil
  • Benjamin Britten
  • André Calmettes
  • Erik Charell
  • René Clair
  • George M. Cohan
  • Chris Columbus
  • Alan Crosland
  • Claude Debussy
  • Walt Disney
  • Sergei Michailowitsch Eisenstein
  • Hanns Eisler
  • Victor Fleming
  • Victor Frankenstein
  • Abel Gance
  • Lisa Gerrard
  • Lewis Gilbert
  • Robert Gilbert
  • David Wark Griffith
  • Marvin Hamlisch
  • Bernard Herrmann
  • Werner Richard Heymann
  • Paul Hindemith
  • Alfred Hitchcock
  • Friedrich Hollaender
  • Gustav Holst
  • Arthur Honegger
  • Dennis Hopper
  • Michail M. Ippolitow-Iwanow
  • Roland Joffé
  • Anton Karas
  • Elia Kazan
  • Erich Wolfgang Korngold
  • Grigori Kosinzew
  • Siegfried Kracauer
  • Stanley Kubrick
  • Charles Le Bargy
  • Sergio Leone
  • György Ligeti
  • George Lucas
  • Edmund Meisel
  • Oskar Messter
  • Raoul Moretti
  • Ennio Morricone
  • Mike Nichols
  • Alex North
  • Sergej S. Prokofev
  • Vsevolod I. Pudovkin
  • Ernö Rapée
  • Carol Reed
  • Miklós Rózsa
  • Stellan Rye
  • Camille Saint-Saëns
  • Oskar Sala
  • Erik Satie
  • Willy Schmidt-Gentner
  • Arnold Schönberg
  • Dmitri Schostakowitsch
  • Martin Scorsese
  • Ridley Scott
  • Steven Spielberg
  • Max Steiner
  • Josef von Sternberg
  • Cat Stevens
  • Johann Strauß
  • Richard Strauss
  • Igor Stravinsky
  • Wilhelm Thiele
  • Leonid Trauberg
  • Gore Verbinski
  • Richard Wagner
  • William Walton
  • Franz Waxman
  • Carl Maria von Weber
  • Paul Wegener
  • Josef Weiss
  • Robert Wiene
  • Billy Wilder
  • John Williams
  • John Stepan Zamecnik
  • Hans Zimmer
  • Works
  • 2001
  • A Streetcar Named Desire
  • Blackmail
  • Das gibt’s nur einmal, das kommt nicht wieder
  • Der Freischütz
  • Der Kongreß tanzt
  • Die Drei von der Tankstelle
  • Duduk of the North
  • Easy Rider
  • Ein Freund, ein guter Freund
  • Entr’acte
  • Gabriel's Oboe
  • Give my regards to Broadway
  • Gladiator
  • Gone with the Wind
  • Harold and Maude
  • Harry Potter
  • Home Alone
  • Ivan the Terrible
  • Jaws
  • Jill's Theme
  • Kinothek
  • Lohengrin
  • L’arrivée d’un train en gare de la Ciotat
  • L’Arroseur arrosé (The Sprinkler Sprinkled)
  • Once Upon a Time in the West
  • Ondes Martenot
  • Pirates of the Caribbean
  • Psycho
  • Ride of the Valkyrie
  • Sam Fox Moving Picture Music
  • Song About the Merchant Kalashnikov
  • Star Wars
  • Sunset Boulevard
  • Tara theme
  • Taxi Driver
  • The Assassination of the Duke of Guise
  • The Battleship Potemkin
  • The Birds
  • The Birth of a Nation
  • The Blue Angel
  • The Broadway Melody
  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
  • The Graduate
  • The Jazz Singer
  • The Mission
  • The new Babylon
  • The Sound Film: A Statement from U.S.S.R.
  • The Spy Who Loved Me
  • The Student of Prague
  • The Third Man
  • The Wheel
  • Theremin
  • Trautonium
  • Under the Roofs of Paris
  • Woman is fickle

  • Timelines
    1890 until today

    All Keywords
  • Polysensualität (Chap. 1)
  • Underscoring (Chap. 2, 4)
  • Unification (Chap. 5)
  • counterpoint (Chap. 3)
  • improvisation (Chap. 1)
  • mickey-mousing (Chap. 4)
  • montage (Chap. 3)
  • mood-technique (Chap. 2)
  • sampling (Chap. 5)
  • synchronicity (Chap. 2, 3, 4)

  • Socialbodies
  • Auguste and Louis Lumière
  • Edison Manufacturing Company
  • Ku-Klux-Klan
  • Le Grand Café
  • Simon and Garfunkel
  • Strand Theater