Film Music

Music, Film and Video Games

John Williams
Cover of John Williams
More than simply cool music to listen to, there has been a rich musical history in film music and music for video games, which often rival the music heard at a classical concert. When I teach students how to write music for a visual medium, like film, I explain to them that part of the composer's job is to support the storyline of the film and to provide the emotional impetus that brings the audience into the film on an emotional level. Composers accomplish this is so many ways. 

There are certain "tricks of the trade" that will almost always bring the same emotional result. For example, a plaintive and sorrowful melody in the violin or piano will pull at anyone's heartstrings, while strong brass marches will evoke feelings of war, anger, and sometimes fear. In these cases, the film composer fulfills a secondary role to the music. In other words, it is less important to emote the composer's own private feelings and it is much more important to work with the director and evoke the feelings that the director wants. Sometimes this can be challenging if the director is not a musician or if the composer doesn't understand film lingo. Today with YouTube, it sometimes helps if the filmmaker shares favorite Youtube links to music he or she feels works with their movie. Then you will know what they are expecting. This is today's version of the "temp track". 

Film music shares many characteristics with both opera and Romantic Era music:
    •    Like Opera, film music is meant to accompany visual and dramatic elements
    •    Like Romantic Music, film music needs to elicit emotions from the listener
    •    Film music shares many similar harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic elements with Romantic Era works
    •    Like the operas by Wagner and the leitmotif, major characters in film music have their own "themes"
    •    Like opera music, film music may exist outside the realms of the movie theater and become a masterpiece in its own right

Animation and Film Music  

Some earlier cartoons, like the Silly Symphonies and the feature films Fantasia, Peter and the Wolf, and Fantasia 2000, were animated around the original classical compositions. The animators create art concepts around the music of the classical works. They would listen to the works, create storyboards, sketches, and then animate. With earlier works, the animated was done entirely by hand. Here you can see a concept drawing for Mussorgorsky's Night on Bald Mountain.


John Williams, composer of the first three fil...
John Williams, composer of the first three films and creator of Hedwig's Theme. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

John Williams

John Williams ( is an interesting composer. Although he is best known for his incredible film scores, he also has body of classical compositions. I remember about 15 years ago, John Williams wanted to retire from film scoring. It was announced on television and was a pretty big deal. He wanted to dedicate his life to writing symphonies. However, the pressure to keep writing for films caught up with him (especially for films like the Star Wars Prequels), and he continued composing.
You can read a full bio on Williams' music at IDMB ( Williams' earlier works included the music for Gilligan's Island and Jaws, and (like any good film music intern) he had a part anonymously composing for about a dozen or so famous films, like the musical South Pacific, before making it on his own. Needless to say, it is his relationship wtih Steven Spielberg that has cemented his name in music history.


English: Ahmed Malek, famous algerian film mus...
English: Ahmed Malek, famous algerian film music composer, from 1960 to 1980 Français : Ahmed Malek, célèbe compositeur de musique de films algériens des années 60-70-80 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As a composer, or even as an avid music listener, there are certain musical cliche's that continually pop up in classical music that have come to denote certain nonmusical ideas. By recognizing these, a listener can sometimes figure out what the compositions refers to without knowing ahead of time:

    •    Minor keys often refer to unhappiness and sadness
    •    Overtly major keys, like C or F, are often considered "happy", and can be manipulated to bring joy to a work
    •    Simplistic melodies that are almost like a lullaby can signify innocence
    •    Rumbling in the timpani with clashing cymbals is often a thunderstorm
    •    An arpeggiating harp might signify heaven or angels
    •    Obvious cultural references (like an African djembe beat or a Celtic wooden flute melody) can indicate a specific geographic region
    •    Extremely fast tempos can indicate tension or running
    •    Clip clopping in the woodblock could mean horses galloping
    •    A trumpet fanfare often indicates royalty

These are just a few of the musical cliche's that you may find when listening to a work. While a seasoned professional composer tries to avoid overtly using these in their works, you will often find such musical ideas in film music. A film music score needs to support the film, as well as reach the greatest general audience. For this reason, many (but not all) film music scores rely heavily on musical ideas like those above.

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