Film music: where to start

From Shostakovich and Korngold to Williams and Shore, via several unexpected composers who made forays into film scores, discover how film music and movie soundtracks became one of the dominant genres of contemporary music.

It's no surprise that film music is the first time some people hear the sound of a symphony orchestra. Combining music with film goes back to the very beginnings of the silent movie tradition and, far from being a frivolous, glitzy and ephemeral way of consuming music, its rich history has yielded some of the most popular orchestral works of the last 100 years.

First of all, let's get an insight into the way it all works from the composer's point of view. Here's the great Aleaxndre Desplat, composer of soundtracks for Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 and many more, chatting to Classic FM's Anne-Marie Minhall about where to start with film composing:

Click 'play' below.

So, now we know how the composer gets started, why don't we go back to the start and discover exactly how it all began?

Stop the projector!

Far from being used to accentuate emotion, capture a mood or strike fear into the viewer, the initial purpose for including music in film was to drown out the sound of rickety old film projectors. And it wasn't the high-production, studio-glossy scores we're used to nowadays - it was perfectly common to have a live pianist giving an improvised score in cinemas as the films played.

An early figure in film music as we understand it now was the great Louis F. Gottschalk, whose scores for a series of films based on The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz first harnessed the power of the movie soundtrack for musical effect in 1914, writing full scores for accompanists to use during screenings. More often, though, the music of established composers was used to simply go over the top of the visuals.

The movies of legendary German sci-fi visionary Fritz Lang had musical scores written specifically for them too, by Gottfried Huppertz. His scores for movies like Metropolis were full-scale orchestral affairs, which works as long as you have a cinema large enough for a symphony orchestra.

Big hitters

Several renowned composers of the 20th century tried their hands at film music too, as the medium gathered momentum and critical clout. Dmitri Shostakovich wrote a typically intricate and aggressive score for The New Babylon in 1929, a film that dealt with the events around the 1871 Paris Commune. It wasn't exactly E.T., but this was a significant score - one of the era's most notable and respected composers was getting into film scores.

Erich Korngold and Max Steiner were two similarly big names in film music's early days. Korngold in particular is notable for his Academy Award-winning score for the Errol Flynn version of The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938, while Steiner's most famous score is undoubtedly Gone With The Wind from 1939.

With film music now firmly ensconced in the glitz and glamour of big Hollywood productions, it was time for a golden age in movie scores. Leonard Bernstein gave the intense drama of On The Waterfront (1954) a hugely vigorous sound, and in the following years Bernard Herrmann's scores for the movies of Alfred Hitchcock became as fondly remembered as the movies themselves. Just listen to the terrifying strains of his music for Hitchcock's Psycho:

So, with the genre firmly established, it was time for perhaps its most famous, successful and generally amazing figure to emerge. Yes, the composer of such incredible feats of musical brain-lodging as Jaws, E.T., Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Schindler's List, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the Harry Potter films - John Williams. You might not be quite so familiar with his early stabs at film composition, though. Though it wasn't his first film score, Williams' music from Valley Of The Dolls from 1967 was nominated for an Academy Award:

But lets have something a little more familiar, shall we?

That's better. What Williams did with his incredibly intricate scores was to incorporate a series of themes for various characters, places and emotions - a technique borrowed from Richard Wagner. These themes, or Leitmotifs as they're known, have become a tried and tested method for film music composition, with many modern Hollywood composers using them to build their scores. Hans Zimmer, James Horner, Howard Shore, Alexandre Desplat, Danny Elfman and Alan Silvestri have all used symphonic Leitmotifs to give narrative relevance to their scores. Here's a favourite example from the great Howard Shore:

The modern era

With movies now more diverse than ever, film soundtracks have had to adapt. It's completely commonplace now for so-called 'serious' composers to dabble in movies, with some truly incredible examples being thrown up since the turn of the century. Philip Glass, Jonny Greenwood and many more of their contemporaries aren't shy about committing their work to celluloid, and long may it continue - who knows what the medium will throw up next?