The Rise and Fall of Movie Music

John Williams represents the high water mark of the genre.

Today’s Wall Street Journal has a delightful story on John Williams, the composer of countless iconic film scores including Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Harry Potter. John Jurgensen portrays Williams as the last man standing of a possible bygone era; as technology, digital music, and film styles change. I think he’s more right than his story reveals, and movie music today actually bears more resemblance to movie music in the ‘30s than it does some new era. And that’s not a good thing.

Film Score History in 600 Words

The history of film scores is an interesting one. Williams, in Jurgensen’s piece, has a beautiful little line about the role of movie music as he sees it:

“Today we have fantastic art music being created over here,” Mr. Williams said, gesturing with one hand, “and over here pop music that’s ubiquitous and permeates everything. There’s an enormous gap between these two universes, and if we need a tissue that would somehow connect it, it seems to be more and more film music which is creating a glue, a binder, between the vernacular and the music of art.”

But it wasn’t always like this.

In the Silent Era, the one thing that wasn’t silent was the music. Initially you might have a hand organ; eventually there was recorded music played on a record. Sometimes in movies set in the era (Chariots of Fire, for example), you see people watching silent movies and it’s a bit strange to see news clips of soldiers dying while comic music is playing in the background.

As things evolved a bit, the music connected more with the art. In movies like Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon, music plays a role in setting the tone. It’s still crude, though—for example, if a scene is tense, you’ll hear discordant strings making what’s clearly an “oooh, something’s wrong!” noise. And it really is still mostly noise; there was barely a tune, let alone musical development. Back then, as Jurgensen notes, a film composer was sniffed at by orchestral composers. What Jurgensen doesn’t say is that the “real” composers had a point.

Then in the late ‘30s and ‘40s, a lot of top “real” composers came to America, some fleeing the Nazis (Jurgensen does cover this briefly). Suddenly there were movies with recognizable themes (Erich Korngold’s score for The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn is a favorite of mine and I smiled to see it mentioned in the Journal). This started a rapid evolution of the genre, through people like Leonard Bernstein (West Side Story). Yet film scores still weren’t often memorable; as dedicated as Bernstein and others were to their craft, they were still merely supporting the action.

Until John Williams.

Jurgensen puts the turning point at Williams’s creation of the score for Jaws. I’ve seen others attribute it to Star Wars, or even Midway earlier in his career. Whatever the point, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Williams made movie music cool. It became an art in itself; suddenly you could buy the tape (and eventually the CD) of a film score, just to listen to the score for its own sake. Unlike traditional orchestral music, it was still a dependent art, there to support the action (as Williams noted in the quote I shared above), but it was an art nonetheless. Listen to any of Williams’s scores, and you’ll usually notice the first 2-3 tracks are not found in the film in their entirety—they are the themes, the orchestral pieces designed to be listened to on their own, which he later adapted to moments in the film.

Williams brought movie music to the pinnacle of its development, where a composer had to do two things well; support the story, and write music that was legitimate art in its own right. Many other composers (like Alan Silvestri of Back to the Future and Father of the Bride, or James Horner of Titanic and The Emperor’s Club) grabbed on with both hands. It got to the point when, particularly with the advent of the internet, you could find sources (Filmtracks Modern Soundtrack Reviews being one) that actually critiqued musical scores, giving them the treatment people were used to seeing for operas or symphonies. I knew movie music had become artistically legit when there were critics scoffing at Williams for not being edgy enough.

John Williams and the Telos of his Art

It was good to see Williams honored in Jurgensen’s piece, partly because of those critiques (which I found mostly ridiculous), and partly because Williams has a dedication to the two goals of the movie composer that few before or since have matched. He still does things that were the norm for a while after he pioneered them, and that have become a lost art as movie music has begun to decline and go postmodern.

For one thing, Williams writes and arranges every note of every score himself. By contrast, most composers today just write a theme or two and then delegate the adaptation to deputies. Hans Zimmer, beloved by action movie fans for incredibly catchy (but largely brain-dead) pulse-pounding scores like The Rock and The Dark Knight, is particularly notorious for this. (Ask yourself sometime why the theme for Pirates of the Caribbean, by Klaus Badelt, sounds exactly like a 60-second stretch about two thirds of the way through “The Battle” track from Gladiator, technically by Hans Zimmer. The reason is that Klaus Badelt, one of Zimmer’s underlings and credited so on the movie, wrote 90% of the latter track.)

For another, Williams still maintains his original achievement over previous movie music. He still finds that remarkable balance, writing music that perfectly fits (in some cases even defines) the movie on which it depends, but is also beautiful—artistically and musically complex enough to be listened to in its own right. And it is this equilibrium from which today’s composers are retreating.

Some movie scores (like most comedies, Hitch for example) rely heavily on background pop songs, setting the mood with Elton John or the Beatles instead of an orchestral score. But even those that don’t have receded to the ‘30s level of music, where the music is really mood noise more than art. With magnificently notable exceptions like The Lord of the Rings, the score that achieves both complementarity and independence is becoming the exception rather than the norm.

An obvious example of this is the Harry Potter series, which started with four Williams-style scores (three by Williams and one by Patrick Doyle, who also provided lovely music for Sense and Sensibility and Thor). Beginning with the fifth movie, there is hardly any music you’d remember afterward. The moods are still maintained, just as they were with the primitive movie music of the ‘30s, but the music as an art in itself has almost disappeared. (Ironically, the one exception seems to be an Irish-style track used in the fifth movie and re-used in the sixth over the end credits, which is bouncy and fun but which doesn’t seem to have any connection to the story—in other words, the one motif you remember from the last four Harry Potter movies is the one that betrays the other key element of movie music, which is setting the mood.)

Jurgensen attributes this shift to the digital age and shrinking budgets. While this is unavoidably part of it, I attribute it to a postmodern influence—an abandonment of telos, of purpose—that is doing the same thing for movie music that it did nearly a century ago for what most people call “classical” music.

What even the best 21st-century composers have done is to pursue one of the goals of the film composer at the expense of the other. Some have pursued complementing the film (mood noise) at the expense of the music itself. Others have pursued the music to a point where their compositions are so abstract that they are unrecognizable as music to the moviegoer. This pleases the critics more than Williams ever did, but ironically leads the moviegoer to miss the music just as thoroughly as he would have, had they kept to mood noise.

What these latter composers have done is forget their audience. It’s not the critics; it’s not even the director. It’s the person with the popcorn in the center of the middle row who came to see a good movie. Williams never lost sight of that, and as a result, his music will continue to be played long after he has stopped composing.


  • December 16, 2011

    Ben Boychuk

    Interesting piece, and certainly thought-provoking. Williams, of course, has long been accused of not from his other scores, or from other score composers, but rather from the masters — Wagner, Holst, etc. The criticism of Hans Zimmer is spot on. But I note the conspicuous absence of Michael Giacchino. Perhaps he is the exception that proves the rule?

  • December 16, 2011

    Brian Brown

    I’ve liked Giacchino since The Incredibles and Ratatouille, although the first sounded so much like a classic Bond score that I found it hard to analyze independently (doesn’t stop me turning it on in the car, though). Like Williams, he’s done some fun things with jazzy music as well as big brass. But perhaps it’s his similarities with Williams that explain why he keeps getting “loud” movies–action-adventure films (Ghost Protocol, Star Trek, Speed Racer, etc.) and lots and lots of Pixar. Perhaps he’s not subtle enough (i.e. abstract enough) for the critics.

  • December 16, 2011


    i simply don’t see a movie music going down the same road as classical music did

    modern classical music literally turned its back on melody for many decades – but when it comes to making $$$, orchestras still knew they could never stop playing Beethoven, Brahms, & Tchaikovsky

    so film makers making big budget movies know they can never stop employing composers willing to write accessible, melodic scores

  • December 16, 2011

    Ben Boychuk

    The New Yorker published a profile of Giacchino around the series finale of “Lost.” I think it’s behind a paywall, and I can’t find my physical copy, but there was a long section about how he has insisted on working with old Hollywood session players — some in their 80s and 90s — because they understood the tone he was going for. Also, Giacchino has an obvious and geniune respect for the art of film music. His scores for “Up” and “Star Trek” are first rate.

  • December 21, 2011

    Bill McHenry

    There are many composers who now write both “classical” works and film scores (as did Prokofiev and Shostakovich; the latter actually played piano or organ for silent movies and wrote some of the very first film scores ever written). Today’s thorough education and the necessity of putting together multiple sources of funding means that composers today must have an extreme degree of flexibility. Innovations that did not sound at all good to a classical audience, such as twelve tone rows and serialism, may work perfectly well when highlighting a murder. I see no lack of movie scores these days that combine melodic elements with creative use of the entire palette of sounds that are available both from physical and electronic instruments. For example, see how Alberto Iglesias so deftly combines classical, jazz, and traditional Spanish folk elements into his sensitive score for Todo Sobre Mi Madre (All About My Mother, Almodovar, 1999). For an outstanding example of music that exactly complements a film, see Gustavo Santaolalla’s music for Brokeback Mountain. I don’t think that the purported “state” of movie music, if we can say such a thing exists, redounds to the composers particularly. I think it is more a function of Hollywood and dumbing down the music 1) to the lowest common denominator, and 2) for a global audience. Through most of the 20th century the prevailing ethos was the desire to improve oneself, which meant learning about and appreciating high culture. Hollywood now reflects a different ethos, i.e. making as much money as possible regardless of the consequences. Fortunately there are many other independent and foreign films where excellent movie scores can be heard.