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.
Brian Brown loves building the environments, habits, and networks that make people thrive. He is the founder of Humane Pursuits, where he writes a featured column and edits the Give channel. He started his consulting company, Narrator, to help great mission-driven organizations modernize and grow. He lives with his wife Christina and son Edmund in Colorado Springs, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for happy hour.