Table of Contents

  • Program Music
    • The Concerto and Vivaldi's Four Seasons
    • Piazzolla's Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas
    • The Programmatic Symphony and Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique
  • Music and the Theater
    • The Overture and Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream
  • Opera
    • Verdi's La traviata
  • Music and Film
    • Popular Music and the Compilation Score
    • Williams's Score for Star Wars
    • The Function of Music in Film
    • Classical Music in Film Scoring

Music and Drama

Music has been coupled with drama for centuries, and its role in this pairing remains quite complex. From early ballads and epic poems with simple musical accompaniment to the increasingly intricate sound worlds of modern film, music can enhance drama in a variety of ways. We will be exploring how music can illustrate, narrate or tell a story, provide character depiction, encourage a certain emotional reaction in the audience, and even communicate something that is not being shown. In this section we will examine these various functions of music in several forms of drama, considering the genres of program music, opera, and film music.

Program Music

Program music is defined as music that depicts or refers to some extra-musical source, such as an object, an idea, a story, a place, or a person. Program music can be contrasted with absolute music, a term originating in the nineteenth century to denote music that was free from such extra-musical associations. Absolute music was meant to refer to genres such as the symphony and string quartet, and was often used to imply that these genres were somehow superior to opera or other programmatic genres. The distinction between program music and absolute music quickly becomes hazy, and it was primarily political motivations that kept the argument alive. The following examples will illustrate a wide range of program music, from general evocation of a mood to detailed storytelling.

The Concerto and Vivaldi's Four Seasons

During the Renaissance, the majority of music emphasized the harmonious sounding of like instruments or voices, such as a group of male singers or a group of string instruments. But gradually, audiences began to prefer sounds that contrasted with each other, resulting in groups that included wind as well as string instruments, or different types of voices. This led to the development of the concerto, a genre in which one or more soloists plays in opposition to a group of players. Multiple soloists were quite common in early concertos, though the modern genre usually consists of just one soloist with orchestral accompaniment.

Early concertos did not adhere to a standard form, but by the time Vivaldi finished the more than 500 concertos attributed to him a standard form had emerged that many other composers would imitate. This form consisted of three movements, in the pattern fast-slow-fast. The fast movements were usually in ritornello, or refrain, form. This meant that the orchestra would present the themes in an opening section, or ritornello. The soloist then played unrelated material in passages that modulated to new keys. The orchestra would then interrupt with another ritornello section, this time in the new key, only to be interrupted by the soloist again. These alternations continued until a final restatement of the ritornello in the original key signaled the end of the movement. Slow movements were often in binary form or through-composed, and provided a contrast between the outer movements.

Vivaldi achieved wide renown in his own time, but is primarily remembered today for his Le quattro stagioni (The Four Seasons) concertos. This is a set of four concertos for solo violin, each consisting of three movements and associated with a season of the year. This association with the seasons is enough to categorize the piece as programmatic. But four sonnets also accompany the work, one for each season. These were likely written by Vivaldi himself, and help to make the programmatic aspects more concrete. Although there is no plot and no characters to depict, it is apparent that the music is illustrating something. Vivaldi even wrote some lines of poetry into the score to make it clear that particular musical moments pertained to specific imagery.

The following poem accompanies the concerto for spring. The roman numerals on the left indicate which movement each part of the poem is meant to correspond with.

I Spring has arrived and merrily
The birds hail her with happy song
And, meanwhile, at the breath of the Zephyrs,
The streams flow with a sweet murmur:

The thunder and lightning, chosen to proclaim her,
Come covering the sky with a black mantle,
And then, when these fall silent, the little birds
Return once more to their melodious incantation:
II and so, on the pleasant, flowery meadow,
To the welcome murmuring of fronds and trees,
The goatherd sleeps with his trusty dog beside him.
III To the festive sound of a shepherd's bagpipe,
Nymphs and shepherds dance beneath the beloved roof
At the joyful appearance of spring.

Vivaldi, Four Seasons: Spring

It is possible to hear illustrations of the many visual cues in the poem without too much effort. The first movement opens with the bubbly joy of spring, the solo violin parts seem to evoke birdsong, and murmuring streams are illustrated in the strings. A contrasting section in the first movement gives us the violence and excitement of a summer storm, followed by the return of birdsong in the solo parts. The second movement contains the barks of the goatherd's dog, and the third depicts the dancing shepherds with drones and a dancelike compound meter. Not only are these specific illustrations contained in the music, but a more generally lighthearted depiction of the season characterizes the piece as a whole. This provides a nice contrast with the other three concertos of The Four Seasons, each suited to its own seasonal mood.

The programmatic elements of the piece make it easily enjoyable. What is remarkable about Vivaldi's composition is the way he was able to superimpose these programmatic elements over a formal structure that had become quite standard. Setting aside the imagery, it is still possible to follow the alternation of ritornello and soloist, to hear the recurring themes in the ritornello, and to follow the modulations in the solos. In addition, Vivaldi has left his own personal stamp on the musical style, most audibly in the large intervals and Lombardic rhythms (short-long) of his melodies, which add to their expressiveness.

One final thing to note about this piece is the setting for which it was intended. Concert music was a relatively new occurrence at the time, as dance music and opera productions were much more common forms of entertainment. The violin was also a relative newcomer in the musical scene. Fierce debates about this new Italian instrument had been carried out in pamphlets concerning its louder sound and fretless tuning in relation to the viola da gamba and other predecessors. At the time Vivaldi wrote this piece the scales were tipping in favor of the violin, which has since become a staple solo instrument and a major part of the orchestral sound. Vivaldi was a very successful violin teacher, and his concerts at the Ospedale della Pietà were performed by his own students, so it makes sense to see so much composing for the violin from Vivaldi's pen.

Piazzolla's Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas

The seasons of the year provide the program for another piece of music, this one by Argentinian composer Ástor Piazzolla (1921-1992). Although born in Argentina, Piazzolla spent much of his childhood in New York City. At a young age, he learned to play the bandoneón, a free reed instrument of the concertina family and similar to the accordion. Piazzolla studied classical music, but spent years playing in tango bands in New York City and Buenos Aires. It wasn't until he studied with famous composition teacher Nadia Boulanger in Paris that he was encouraged to develop his unique voice in composition. This culminated in his Nuevo Tango style, which incorporates elements of jazz, classical music, and tango. Traditional tango communities opposed the liberties he took, but North American and European audiences loved the innovation of Piazzolla's compositions. He formed his own groups, toured internationally, and was successful enough to compose in more experimental styles later in his career.

Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas, or The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires is a set of four individual tangos, written in the 1960s and 1970s. They were not originally conceived as a set, but Piazzolla later combined them. The original scoring was for violin, piano, double bass, electric guitar, and bandoneón, a favored grouping for Piazzolla. This combination of electric and acoustic instruments was part of his Nuevo Tango style. Many arrangements of the piece have since been made for various instrumental groups. One notable arrangement by Lenoid Desyatnikov seeks an overt link with Vivaldi's pieces by scoring Piazzolla's work for orchestra with violin solo and even including quotations of Vivaldi's concertos.

The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires illustrates several traits that are typical of Piazzolla's hybrid style. The repeating bass line and harmony have been common elements of classical music since the Baroque period, but are also elements of jazz structure. The use of dense counterpoint and even fugal passages are aspects of Baroque style, as well. And the freedom for players to improvise is a major part of jazz playing. However, the rhythms and many of the scales that Piazzolla uses are part of the tango tradition. The pieces follow a fast-slow-fast-slow-coda formal structure, with the slow sections offering opportunities for lyrical solos. The following example is a performance of "Primavera Porteña" (Spring) in its original scoring. Note the structure and the combined elements of the Nuevo Tango style.

Piazzolla, Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas: Primavera Porteña

Compare this performance with the orchestral arrangement by Desyatnikov.

Piazzolla, Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas: Primavera Porteña, arranged by Leonid Arkad'yevich Desyatnikov

The Programmatic Symphony and Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique

Programmatic music increased in the nineteenth century, spurred by Romanticism's focus on the expression of intense emotion. Originality was prized above all else in the arts, and composers often used programmatic associations to defend new and experimental sounds. As critics debated whether literature or music was the supreme art form, composers sought to support music's case by communicating increasingly complex ideas and stories through music.

Hector Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique (1830) is an example of one such piece and shows how music can attempt to narrate or tell a story. The piece is full of inventive sounds, and employs a much larger orchestra than audiences were used to. These are hallmarks of Berlioz's style, aspects that often put him on the receiving end of a good deal of criticism. But Berlioz literally wrote the book on orchestration, and had a huge impact on future composers in this regard.

The symphony is subtitled "An Episode in the Life of an Artist," and Berlioz did indeed use events from his own life as inspiration. He had recently gone to see Hamlet, part of the Shakespeare craze that was just hitting France, and had fallen for the young Ophelia, played by actress Harriet Smithson. Placing himself in the position of the "artist," he created a story about a budding romance between himself and Smithson, the "beloved." But true to Romantic trends, he embellished the tale with elements of the fantastic and grotesque. Events in real life played out a bit differently, with Smithson marrying Berlioz some time later, though even this turned out to be a stormy relationship.

Berlioz not only wrote the program for his symphony, but expressly intended the audience to read it during the performance. This would have helped his audience to understand some of the unusual formal choices that Berlioz made, such as adding a fifth movement to the traditional four-movement symphonic form established in Haydn's day. Berlioz created a theme to represent his beloved, a theme that reappears each time we see her. He called this theme the idée fixe, and used his program to explain why it appears in each of the five movements as the beloved continues to wander through episodes of the artist's life. Each time the idée fixe is heard, it is slightly altered in order to reflect the changing perspective of the artist and his feelings. This reappearing theme ties the movements together and provides a kind of unity that early symphonies lack, a trait that would continue to be incorporated in music throughout the century.

the idée fixe

Here is Berlioz's program:

It has been the composer's goal to develop different situations in the life of an artist, insofar as they are susceptible of musical treatment. The plot of the instrumental drama, lacking the help of the spoken word, needs to be presented beforehand. The following program must accordingly be viewed as the spoken text of an opera, serving to introduce musical pieces whose character and expression it motivates.

First Part: Daydreams – Passions
The author imagines that a young musician, affected by the moral malady which a famous writer calls le vague des passions, sees for the first time a woman who possesses all the charms of the ideal being he had fancied in his dreams, and falls hopelessly in love. Through a singular oddity, the image of the beloved never presents itself to the artist's imagination except tied to a musical idea, in which he perceives a certain impassioned quality, though noble and shy, as he imagines the object of his love to be.

This musical reflection and its model pursue him incessantly like a double idée fixe. This is why the melody that opens the first allegro reappears constantly in all the other movements of the symphony. The passage from that state of dispirited daydreaming, occasionally interrupted by baseless transports of joy, to one of delirious passion, with its gusts of fury, of jealousy, its relapses into tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations, forms the subject of the first movement.

Second Part: A Ball
The artist finds himself in the most diverse situations of daily life: amid the tumult of a festivity, in the peaceful contemplation of the beauties of nature. But everywhere, whether in the town or in the fields, the image of the beloved obtrudes on him, bringing trouble to his spirit.

Third Part: Country Scene
Finding himself in the country one evening, he hears two shepherds playing a ranz de vaches [an Alpine cattle-call] in dialogue, far away; this pastoral duet, the scenery, the slight murmuring of the trees gently swayed by the wind, some recently formed grounds for hope – everything contributes to bringing an unaccustomed calm to his heart and a brighter color to his thoughts. He thinks of his loneliness; he hopes soon not to be alone anymore… But what if she were deceiving him? … This mixture of hope and fear, these visions of happiness troubled by dark forebodings, form the subject of the adagio. In the end, one of the shepherds resumes the ranz de vaches; the other no longer answers… Distant sound of thunder… solitude… silence…

Fourth Part: March to the Scaffold
Having become convinced that his love is not returned, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of narcotic, too weak to kill him, plunges him into a sleep beset with the most horrible visions. He dreams he has murdered the one he loved; he has been sentenced, is being led to the scaffold, is witnessing his own execution. The procession moves forward to the sounds of a march now somber and ferocious, now brilliant and stately, during which the muffled noise of heavy footsteps follows without transition upon the noisiest outbursts. At the end of the march, the first four measures of the idée fixe reappear like a last thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow.

Fifth Part: Dream of a Sabbath Night
He sees himself at the Sabbath, surrounded by a hideous crowd of spirits, sorcerers, monsters of every kind, assembled for his funeral. Strange noises, moans, bursts of laughter, distant cries to which other cries apparently respond. The beloved melody reappears again, but it has lost its noble and shy quality; now it is only a vile dance tune, trivial and grotesque; it is she, arriving at the Sabbath… Roar of joy at her arrival… She joins the diabolic orgy… Funeral knell, ludicrous parody of the Dies irae, Sabbath round dance. The Sabbath round dance and the Dies irae combined.

For this topic, we will focus on the fourth movement. The movement maintains a steady march tempo throughout, adding to the inevitability of the artist's demise. A low ominous beginning builds to a climax, as if the procession is gaining followers. Fanfares accompany the artist with a joy and grandiosity that belies the situation. Listen for the variety of textures Berlioz presents us with, from the low rumbling of the timpani, to the brassy fanfares, pizzicato strings, plucky bassoon counterpoint, and crashing cymbals. The excitement increases toward the end, until just before his execution, the artist summons one last thought of his beloved. We hear just the beginning of her idée fixe in the clarinet, at 6:24 in this recording, followed immediately by the sound of his head rolling to the ground. A final fanfare seals the scene.

Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique, IV. Marche au Supplice

Music and the Theater

So far we have explored examples of music communicating programmatic or dramatic ideas on its own. But music was long incorporated with drama in more direct ways. One of the most common genres of dramatic music is melodrama, in which music punctuates the dialogue of a play, or sometimes occurs under the dialogue. A related genre is incidental music for plays, which again occurs between the action of the play. In these cases the music is not solely responsible for communicating or illustrating an idea or story, and so it can add other significant elements to the story. Music between scenes could keep the audience involved while the play paused for set changes. Music under or between dialogue could help communicate more about the characters or cause the audience to experience certain emotions. And it was often musicians that were responsible for the ever-important sound effects.

The Overture and Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream

An important genre that developed within the theatre is that of the overture. Originally overtures were unrelated to the drama that would follow, and merely communicated that the show was about to commence. Any overture would do, as they were all equally suited to the task. Gradually, composers began to write overtures that would hint at the nature of the drama to come, and even included previews of the main themes. Many of these overtures are still played in concert today, divorced from their succeeding dramas.

Felix Mendelssohn's Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream is just such an overture. He actually wrote this overture first as a freestanding piece, and only later composed the incidental music for the play. The overture provides a good example of music that represents a snapshot of the drama, the essence of the play rather than a full unfolding of the story. It provides the atmosphere and just a hint of the characters and their conflicts. Mendelssohn's program, like Berlioz's, provided the explanation for his inventive use of musical sounds, and this overture was particularly known for the shimmering violins that so effortlessly conjure up images of fairy worlds.

Shakespeare's play is a comedy of misdirected love and matchmaking. Most of the action takes place during the night before the wedding of the Duke of Athens and the Queen of the Amazons. It involves the Fairy King and Queen who are quarrelling, the Fairy King's mischievous servant Puck, several love-struck residents of the realm, an unfortunate laborer who gets turned into a donkey, and of course some love potion. Listen to the overture below and see how well Mendelssohn seems to have captured Shakespeare's bawdy comedy.

Mendelssohn, Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream


The works that historians consider the earliest operas were performed in the decades around 1600, a bold new art form fully integrating music and drama. Before this, entertainment consisted of various forms of dance or plays interrupted by incidental music. In the 16th century, a group of academics and scholars in Florence known as the Florentine Camerata (including Galileo's father) began studying the writings of the ancient Greeks. They were intrigued by ancient assertions about music's power to move emotions and heighten expressivity. In an effort to recreate what they understood Greek drama to be, the Camerata encouraged composers to create a drama that would be entirely sung through with instrumental accompaniment (for more about the earliest operas, see Music and Words).

These early experiments gained popularity, and composers continued to expand their expressive possibilities. By the nineteenth century, opera was one of the most lucrative and popular entertainment forms, and Italian opera was considered the style to imitate. Before the advent of film, opera provided the most integrated examples of music and drama, and spectacular staging as well.

An opera consists of a series of recitatives and arias. Every line is sung, and the music is generally continuous throughout. Recitatives are sections of singing that are set to music in a speech-like pattern, and may have many repetitions of notes in a small range. The accompaniment is usually lighter in these sections. This is where the plot moves forward and dialogue occurs, enabled by a musical style that allows the singer to move through a large amount of text. Rhythms and phrases are often irregular.

In contrast, arias are usually set to a poetic text, and are much more song-like in style. Melodies have a real tunefulness, phrases are balanced, and rhythms are more dancelike in character. These sections allow the character to stop and reflect, or to reveal their emotions. Arias are also the place for star virtuoso singers to show off their talents and earn spontaneous applause. Indeed, in the eighteenth century singers had acquired so much power because of their ability to draw audiences that composers sometimes had to create their librettos (the text) around opportunities for arias in order to guarantee the soloist enough chances to show off!

Verdi's La traviata

In our exploration of the myriad ways music interacts with drama, we will use an example from Verdi's La traviata (1853) to illustrate character depiction. Verdi followed in the Italian bel canto opera tradition of Rossini, a tradition that emphasized the beautiful singing of its vocalists. Verdi was one of the most famous composers of opera in his day, and was known for his beautiful melodies and fine-tuned character portrayal. La traviata dates from the middle of his career, when he had turned away from the grand historical subjects and toward a more intimate, domestic setting that verged on realism.

The title La traviata can be translated as 'The Woman Gone Astray,' and is based on La dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas the younger. The novel is based on Dumas' own experience, and describes the fate of a passionate love pitted against middle-class morality and social values. The title character of the novel is based on a real woman, Marie Duplessis, who was in fact known for wearing camellias everywhere, and died at the young age of 23 from tuberculosis.

Verdi's heroine goes by the name Violetta, but meets a fate similar to that of the woman she is modeled after. As a courtesan, she could not become the wife of a respectable man without ruining his reputation and that of his family. However, she falls in love with the dashing Alfredo, despite her best efforts against it. In the duet where he professes his love for her, she continues to make light of it and push him away with her words. But Verdi tells us what is really happening through his music, in which her vocal line intertwines with his in beautiful flourishes at the end of the duet.

After Alfredo leaves, Violetta ponders the possibility of letting herself love him in a typical two-verse aria form. She interrupts her own thoughts with a recitative, reminding herself that it would be folly, a crazy idea. This is followed by another aria in which she hardens her resolve and we see the carefree independence of her nature illustrated in the music. This three-part form is called a scena, from slow aria to interrupting recitative to fast aria (this last bit is also called a cabaletta), and was a typical structure in Italian opera.

Act 1, scene 6
First Strophe Ah, fors'è lui che l'anima
Solinga ne' tumulti
Godea sovente pingere
De' suoi colori occulti.
Lui, che modesto e vigile
All'egre sogli ascese,
E nuova febbre accese
Destandomi all'amor!
A quell'amor ch'è palpito
Dell'universo intero,
Misterioso, altero,
Croce e delizia al cor.
Ah, perhaps he's the one
Whom my lonely heart
Delighted often to paint
With vague, mysterious colors.
He who, so modest and attentive
During my illness, waited
And with youthful fervor
Aroused me again to love!
To that love which animates
the world,
Mysterious, proud,
Pain and delight to the heart.
Second Strophe A me, fanciulla, un candido
E trepido desire,
Quest'effgiò dolcissimo
Signor dell'avvenire.
Quando ne' cieli il raggio
Di sua beltà vedea
E tutta me pascea
Di quell divino error.
Sentia che amore è il palpito
Dell'universo intero,
Misterioso altero,
Croce e delizia al cor.
To me, a girl, this was an innocent,
Anxious desire,
This sweet vision,
Lord of things to come.
When in the heavens I saw rays
Of his beauty
I fed myself completely
On that divine error.
I felt that love which animates
the world,
Mysterious, proud,
Pain and delight to the heart.
Recitative Follie! Follie! Delirio
Vano è questo!
Povera donna, sola,
Abbandonata, in questo
Popoloso deserto che
Appellano Parigi.
Che spero or più?
Che far degg'io?
Di voluttà ne' vortici perir!
Folly! Folly! What sort of crazy
Dream is this!
Poor woman, alone,
Abandoned in this
Populated desert that
They call Paris.
What hope have I?
What can I do?
Perish in a whirl of indulgence!
Cabaletta Sempre libera degg'io
Folleggiare di gioia in gioia
Vo'che scorra il viver mio
Pei sentieri del piacer.
Nasca il giorno, o il giorno muoia,
Sempre lieta ne' ritrovi,
A diletti sempre nuovi
Dee volare il mio pensier.
Always free I must remain
To reel from pleasure to pleasure,
Running my life
Along the paths of joy.
From dawn to dusk
I'm always happy finding
new delights that make
my spirit soar.
(Alfredo) Amor è palpito
Dell'universo intero,
Misterioso, altero,
Croce e delizia al cor.
Love that animates
The world,
Mysterious, proud,
Pain and delight to the heart.
(Violetta) Follie! Follie!
Gioir! Gioir!
Folly! Folly!
Pleasure! Pleasure!

Watch this scena in the example that follows, ignoring the comments that appear in the video. This version has been staged with modern dress, just the way Verdi's audiences would have seen it at the premier. Anna Netrebko, the soprano here, does a really nice job bringing out the personality of Violetta both in her voice and her acting.

Verdi, La Traviata with Anna Netrebko as Violetta

The link that follows is an optional version of this scena. You might want to watch just the first aria, which gives a beautiful version of the bel canto style of singing. Though, as an unstaged concert performance, the depiction of Violetta's personality is perhaps less convincing.

Verdi, La Traviata at The Sokcho Summer Festival, Sokcho, South Korea, 2005

Music and Film

In the three hundred years of opera's existence before film, composers had learned a great deal about portraying drama through music. As we have seen, music can be a powerful aid in fleshing out characters and communicating the depth of their emotions beyond what the text can say. Some composers, particularly Mozart, learned to give their own commentary on characters: communicating with the audience directly through musical cues. These kinds of subtle signs are all over operas, but can often be difficult for our modern ears to detect. However, they were important precursors to the sound world of movies, and many of these operatic techniques are still being used in modern films to communicate the same kinds of information.

The earliest films were silent films, as the technology to synchronize sound had yet to be developed. A live pianist or organist would generally accompany the film in the theatre where it was shown. Most early films were not designed to match a specific score. Instead, the pianist would own a book of musical excerpts called "cues." These were organized by category: chase music, love music, fight music, etc. The pianist would simply flip to the right section and play a selection of music appropriate to the scene. Thus, each city the film travelled to might experience a different soundtrack. The music for these early films was largely in the style of Romanticism, a style still current in concert halls of the time. But it was also a style familiar enough that audiences would recognize the kind of simple message the music needed to convey; they would understand that certain sounds were ominous, others longing. As silent films became more complex, scores were specifically composed for each movie and travelled along with the film to replace the more generic cue books.

While some major classical composers wrote film scores in the 1920s, and some even included experimental musical styles, the dominating style of the next few decades was the familiar Romantic idiom. The background score of the Hollywood studio era (1930s – 1960s) set up functions for movie music that are still being used today. The Hollywood focus in film was always the narrative (as opposed to Bollywood, in which song takes precedence), and so the functions of music were largely in support of the narrative string, and synchronized sound technology made detailed scoring possible. Many of Hollywood's most important composers at this time had originally intended to find their careers in the world of classical music; that is, in concert halls and opera houses. But with the Great Depression and two world wars, few places had the financial backing or audiences to support lavish opera productions. Composers like Erich Korngold discovered that the techniques they had learned for composing opera music translated particularly well to movie music, and thus chose to make their careers in this growing industry.

During the studio era, classical music had continued to progress. The type of modernist music that would be heard in the concert hall was often atonal or electronic. The Romantic idiom had continued to dominate film music though, perhaps because it privileged melody and still relied on the type of musical cues that audiences had by now become very familiar with. However, around mid-century other musical idioms began to enter films, including folk, jazz, serialism, minimalism, and modernism. These idioms often symbolized specific settings; for example, jazz was usually associated with dark urban scenes or noir films, and serialism often portrayed space or aliens. A landmark development in scoring was the use of musique concrète, or non-musical sounds in the score. Composer Ennio Morricone, working with Italian director Sergio Leone, incorporated many such sounds in his scores. He is also noted for his effective use of silence, a technique drawn from the samurai film tradition. The films these two worked on became known as "spaghetti westerns," since they were filmed in Italy but took place in the American West. Listen to the famous excerpt below, and we will view the way Morricone's soundtracks function in class.

Morricone, score for Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo: Main Theme

Popular Music and the Compilation Score

Meanwhile, pop music was finding larger audiences on the radio, an invention which the majority of Americans considered their most important piece of furniture by this time. In an effort to compete with growing television audiences in the second part of the century and this rise of pop music, films began to incorporate pop into scores. Early examples include Casablanca with "As Time Goes By," and Breakfast at Tiffany's with "Moon River." This trend has continued, and provides an additional marketing element for film producers. A film like Dick Tracy can be marketed with three separate CD releases; one with the orchestral score by Danny Elfman, one with pastiche 1930s tunes written to evoke the era, and one with songs by Madonna written for or inspired by the movie. Similar situations are found with the scores for Titanic, Matrix, and Batman, not to mention the Bond films which commission a new popular artist for each film.

This kind of integration of popular music into the film score led to the use of the compilation score. Preexisting songs are combined to create a soundtrack, sometimes with additional orchestral underscoring. A famous example is the Beatles film Help!, which was made after the album was conceived. This means the plot has to be created around the existing songs. (Most of the film can be found on YouTube.) Songs like this can often transmit meaning faster and more concretely than Romantic orchestral music because of the lyrics. Such a soundtrack is also less flexible though, for the same reason.

Williams's Score for Star Wars

The Romantic idiom never disappeared, however, and made a big comeback in the blockbuster films of the 1960s and 1970s. John Williams' score for the Star Wars trilogy is an important example for a number of reasons. First, it shows the use of leitmotifs, a technique continued from nineteenth-century opera. This term first originated with Wagner's operas, and stands for a small musical unit that signifies something. It may signify an object, a person, an event, or an emotion. Wagner used these small units to tell his story through the music, almost to the point of making the text superfluous. His music was saturated with these small units, and the way in which they were combined and interacted was intended to communicate more to the audience than the singers acting on stage.

We can easily see this technique at work in Star Wars. There are musical leitmotifs for each of the main characters: Yoda, Darth Vader, Luke and Leia together, etc. The first time we meet these characters, we hear their music. Throughout the movie, the music continues to signal their presence. The most apparent example is Darth Vader, whose music we often hear long before he actually enters the scene. These musical examples may be very familiar to you, but try to listen with fresh ears and determine what we learn about these characters just from the sound that accompanies them.

Williams, score for Star Wars: Main Title

Williams, score for Star Wars: Princess Leia

Williams, score for Star Wars: Yoda

Williams, score for Star Wars: Imperial March (Darth Vader)

John Williams was not the only composer to use leitmotifs in his scores, but the Star Wars scores are perhaps some of the most famous examples of this technique. However, as mentioned before, these scores are an important example for other reasons. First, they show how effective the Romantic idiom continued to be for audiences. Simple cues such as the difference between major and minor harmonies, march-like rhythms, or long sweeping melodies are still powerful communicators of basic elements of film. Second, this is a story about space, in space, and in the future. At the time these films were made this kind of story would have been scored by serialist atonal music or electronic sounds. The choice of a Romantic idiom was significant; it was meant to help draw us in as an audience, and to sympathize with the characters more immediately. These films broke a trend and opened up new doors for future composers.

Overall, film music continues to be dominated by a conservative symphonic idiom (Lord of the Rings provides a modern example) in original scores. The more adventurous modernist and post-modernist composers tend not to be in film. But this means that Hollywood is providing an outlet for new music in a style that is not necessarily accepted in the concert hall, though this too is beginning to change. And the use of preexisting music in a multitude of styles provides another choice for filmmakers, one that is often as inventive as original scoring.

The Function of Music in Film

Now we will turn to the topic that has been skirted throughout this discussion: what does music DO in film? Perhaps the most obvious function of music in film is scene-setting. The incorporation of global music is particularly useful here, as the sound of a sitar will transport an audience to India faster than any visual cue. Music can be useful in establishing time as well as place in setting, an aspect that is often more difficult visually. A farmhouse on the American prairie would be hard to locate in time, but a little ragtime playing on a scratchy old record player will immediately take an audience to the early twentieth century. Notice how the example below, from Amelie, communicates setting as well as emotional state.

Yann Tiersen, score to Le fabuleux destin d'Amelie Poulain: Theme (arr. N. Reiser and M. Keller)

Early Hollywood films were keen on using music to illustrate narrative. In fact, one of the first experiments with synchronized sound did just that. Steamboat Willie was the first animated Mickey Mouse cartoon, and is responsible for the term "mickey-mousing" to describe the way the music follows the characters' movements exactly. You can watch the film below.

Steamboat Willie

Underscoring, music playing under dialogue or in the background of action, is another way of illustrating the narrative, and has become increasingly complex over the years. In some cases, scoring can even foreshadow the narrative rather than illustrate it. This is when the character reaches to open the door and ominous minor chords sound, causing the audience to think, "don't open that door!" Similarly, music is a key part of establishing mood. The visual may present a neutral scene, or a new character, and music may be a large part of communicating whether this scene or character is good and pleasant or whether it is sad or villainous. Many of these functions of music in movies are often subconscious and immediate for the audience.

Music can interact with the drama in film in more complex ways as well. It may help to inform the audience of character motivations or emotions that are not yet apparent. It may help to unify a string of scenes that are visually choppy (think of the helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now, with Wagner playing in the background). Music may also be the thing that pulls us into the picture, providing the 3D element. This was the case with the villainous two-note motive in Jaws, to increase the audience reaction at a time when computer effects were not sufficiently convincing.

These are all examples of music reinforcing the visual element, or even increasing its potency. But music can also be used to contradict the visual. Directors such as Quentin Tarantino play with this aspect in order to manipulate audience emotions. A good example is the opening scene of Pulp Fiction, in which a grisly torture scene takes place to the sound of bubble-gum pop with harmless lyrics, so that we are meant to sympathize with the character doing the torturing.

Classical Music in Film Scoring

One final issue to address is the use of classical music in film scoring. Over the last two centuries, what we now call classical music, or more accurately Western art music, has been gradually diverging from a category we call pop music. This split was not always so fraught with the elitism that plagues it today, but film scores often make use of this elitist distinction as another way to communicate with the audience about the characters. For example, Baz Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet is largely scored with pop music. But two important scenes use classical music: the party preparations where the lovers meet, and the final death scene. In the first case, classical music is a sign of Juliet's family's class and wealth. In the final scene, the music increases our emotional involvement by denying the distraction of lyrics. This traditional use of classical music to signal wealth, education, and class is turned on its head in movies like Die Hard and early Bond films, where the villain is a cultured European portrayed by classical music.

The interaction between visual and audio in modern film has become quite complex. The choices made by sound editors often reach the status of art, and many of these choices could make or break a film. It would be impossible to discuss all the important film scores or classical composers who have contributed to films in this short space, much less address the multitude of decisions made about using pre-existing music in film. Hopefully the discussion above will give you some idea of the diversity and uses of music in film, and allow you to continue exploring the topic on your own. Using music to communicate or illustrate narrative and other programmatic ideas has been a long part of our history. The examples are endless, but those we have covered show the kinds of connections that can be made between music and extra-musical sources, and the power music has to enhance our experience of those sources.

"Music is nothing else but wild sounds civilized into time and tune." - Thomas Fuller

"After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music." - Aldous Huxley

"Music in the soul can be heard by the universe." - Lao Tzu

"Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy." - Ludwig van Beethoven

"Music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue." - Plato

"Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent." - Victor Hugo

"Music is nothing else but wild sounds civilized into time and tune." - Thomas Fuller

Copyright © Sienna M. Wood, 2015-2022