Evolution of Music in Film

        Since the beginning of the cinema, music and other sounds have played a major role in the entertainment provided by motion pictures. Even when characters were only heard by written words on screen, music had a way of displaying their emotions for the audience to enjoy. Why did it take so long for original music to make it into motion pictures?

        In the early days of cinema it was very likely to hear a piano accompanying the film. Often times he or she would be sitting at the piano below the screen while the movie played. This was obviously the best option since hiring a small orchestra or even a big band would have cost the studio quite a bit of money. However, as the industry began to grow, more money became available to the studio to advance filmmaking. This money would eventually make it to the music.

        At first, just as the use of the piano before, this music was composed of tunes that would be familiar to any audience who viewed the film. In D. W. Griffith's 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, we hear many pieces of music that are quite popular and explain what is happening on screen very well. Folk songs, such as "Yankee Doodle," "Dixie," and "The Star Spangled Banner," are heard throughout the film, as well as classical pieces like Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyrie" and part of a mass by Bach.

        In 1933 we see the first example of original film music. For Merian Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's film King Kong, Max Steiner masterfully composed the score. Since the picture was such a big production, the score was nothing less. It uses many recurring leitmotifs that identify numerous characters and emotions throughout the film. Since the early age of film and the success of King Kong original music has found its niche in motion pictures. Now, the movie industry offers many career opportunities for composers as well as many other professions in the field.

        Now, how has music influenced the cinema over the years? Well, try to imagine your favorite movie with no music. It is almost impossible. Can anyone really imagine Darth Vader on screen without hearing John Williams "Imperial March" (Lucas, Star Wars: Episode IV-A New Hope 1977) or seeing the bat signal up in the skies of Gotham without hearing Danny Elfman's theme (Burton, Batman 1989)? Music adds an incredible amount of emotion to our cinematic experience as well as a distinct impression on what characters are thinking and feeling at any given time in the picture.

        Recently, the most effective use of sound in motion pictures has been the use of silence. There are countless examples of films in the past thirty years that use silence to magnify emotion and action rather than heart-pounding soundtracks. The latest and most effective example that comes to mind is in Peter Jackson's 2005 remake of King Kong. In the masterfully directed scene where the crew fights giant insects, it would seem most appropriate to have a terrifying soundtrack behind the action. However, there is not one used. All the audience can here is the screaming of those meeting their demise and the slimy, crawling sounds produced by the giant vermin. This technique is also implemented in countless war movies. While troops may march out to patriotic themes, the real emotion is found without music in the middle of battle when all the audience is allowed to hear is the sounds of gunfire, explosions, and the screams of casualties.

        The evolution of music in film, and its effects on motion pictures, is quite impressive. We can only imagine what our cinematic experience would be like without this imperative attribute. It is used in many ways and only adds to the entertainment value of the picture.

Brant Veal

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