What Movie Music Is All About – Guest Post by Mary Black Junttonen

With the upcoming Hollywood Concert Orchestra: A Night at the Oscars performance by at Wharton Center on Wednesday, February 17th, we were interested to know more about music in film. We reached out to Mary Black Junttonen, music librarian at Michigan State University, to delve into more.

The history of film music is as long as the history of film itself. Its antecedents stretch back for centuries. The illustrious heritage of music used in Greek plays, Shakespearean dramas and comedies, operas and operettas – all had a role to play in the public’s expectation that music would form an integral part of film. While techniques have evolved over time, today’s audiences have the same innate reaction to the music as any earlier generation. And those reactions are carefully planned by the composer, lyricist, and other musicians involved in the realization of the score.

Early films were accompanied by a pianist, an organist, an ensemble, or even an entire orchestra. Several comments from the early years indicate that silent films were never silent – music, whether truly appropriate or not, was always considered integral to the audience’s enjoyment of the film. Some companies sent out printed music with the films, while others left it entirely to the local musician(s) to figure out. A market for published music which could fill several emotional functions quickly developed. Some themes were based on familiar classical or popular melodies, while others were newly composed. Most themes were fairly short, and each was accompanied by suggestions for its use. An example of several anthologized piano arrangements can be found in the MSU Fine Arts—Music Library: Sounds for the Silents: Photoplay Music from the Days of Early Cinema (Dover Publications, 2013)

Once films which incorporated synchronized music became the normal technology, many more composers were hired to write complete scores. These might be accepted as written, rejected in whole or in part, or altered (often by individuals with little or no knowledge of music). Many composers of the 1930s and 1940s were European classically-trained immigrants who brought the full panoply of techniques to their work. Even today, virtually every composer of film music must have extensive training in music and in the art of creating suitable music for the action being depicted. It is not an easy life, according to those who live it.

Biographies and autobiographies of film musicians can be very entertaining and informative, and there are many of them. Lately, I have especially enjoyed Andre Previn’s No Minor Chords: My Days in Hollywood and Walter Scharf’s Composed and Conducted by Walter Scharf (Scharf was involved with an astounding 250 movies, 500 TV shows, and 11 musicals). Marni Nixon, in I Could Have Sung All Night, tells fascinating stories of studying the voices and speech patterns of the actresses whose singing she was to dub, to catch their inflections and tonal quality as much as possible. Julie Andrews’ book Home discusses various films, including The Sound of Music. Each of these books is available in the MSU Libraries.

I once heard Elmer Bernstein speak about the ways movie music was produced in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. His comments about the portrayal of musicians were particularly intriguing: if an actor had to play piano or violin, for example, a trained musician would be positioned behind or below the actor and would play or finger the instrument. Care had to be taken not to create an extra shadow or show part of the extra person. The hands of actor and musician had to be dressed the same and be matched closely in skin tone, size, shape, and jewelry.

Much film music is immediately evocative of a character, a scene, or a mood. Trembling strings and low pitches have always meant something bad is about to happen. Cheerful music underlines many a positive scene. Composers often devise special effects, as Malcolm Arnold did for Hobson’s Choice, where Hobson, the main character, dances in a puddle with the reflection of the moon. The music makes that scene so much more memorable and special – and that’s what film music is all about!

Mary Black Junttonen, Music Librarian, Michigan State University.


For more information about the show click here.

To purchase tickets click here.  For specially priced $15 student tickets with an MSU ID, click here and enter your PID.

Posted in Wharton Center News

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