Film Music: A History

Film Music: A History

Film Music: A History

Film Music: A History


Film Music: A Historyexplains the development of film music by considering large-scale aesthetic trends and structural developments alongside socioeconomic, technological, cultural, and philosophical circumstances.

The book's four large parts are given over to Music and the "Silent" Film (1894--1927), Music and the Early Sound Film (1895--1933), Music in the "Classical-Style" Hollywood Film (1933--1960), and Film Music in the Post-Classic Period (1958--2008). Whereas most treatments of the subject are simply chronicles of "great film scores" and their composers, this book offers a genuine history of film music in terms of societal changes and technological and economic developments within the film industry. Instead of celebrating film-music masterpieces, it deals--logically and thoroughly--with the complex 'machine' whose smooth running allowed those occasional masterpieces to happen and whose periodic adjustments prompted the large-scale twists and turns in film music's path.


[MGM music director Nat Finston] launched into a long exposition
of his career at the studio, detailing the chaos in which he found the
music department and the perfection of organization that now

“I tell you,” he said, “it’s running like a well-oiled machine.”
The phrase appealed to him, and he repeated, “Like a well-oiled
machine. Every man a cog in the wheel.”

Oscar Levant, 1939

Film music has attracted the attention of writers since before World War I, and it seems that in recent years—as the study first of film and then of film music gained legitimacy in academia—serious writing on film music has flourished. Vast though the modern literature is, however, it still lacks an English-language volume whose main purpose is to tell the story of how this fascinating art form came to be and how, for better or worse, it developed. A few pioneering scholars have indeed plunged deep into the matter of film music’s growth, but their impressive work concentrates only on film’s “silent” period. This crucial period lasted more than three decades and to a large extent set the agenda for all that was to follow, yet it is typically given short shrift in most books that purport to be comprehensive treatments of film music.

It is to an extent understandable that most accounts of film music in essence begin ca. 1933, the year in which Max Steiner’s contribution to RKO’s King Kong became the model for the so-called classical-style film score. It is understandable, too, that most books on film music—whether their aim is to survey the broad field, to help readers gain an appreciation of the art form in general, or to explain theoretically how film music “works”—deal primarily with scores that, like Steiner’s for King Kong, have already achieved a certain amount of fame. To make a point, after all, one needs to offer examples, and it makes sense that examples have long been drawn from a “masterwork” repertoire that is not just familiar but also “officially” sanctioned. Not surprisingly, most historical accounts of film music focus on the extraordinary, not on the quotidian ordinariness against which the “special” examples stand so distinctly apart.

With Film Music: A History, I take a different approach.

First and foremost, I set out to write a book that is simply a history of film music. It is tempting to write that this is a “simple” history of film music, but in fact no history can be simple. A history involves more than a chronology, more than the orderly listing . . .

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