music in film

Assignment : The paper should be a summary of all the important concepts in Unit 4. You need not go back to the earlier Units unless you would like to make a specific point. The paper should include the concepts introduced in Unit 4, the films in which they were realized, how they were realized, their impact on the visual content, and the important composers. Also in detail, describe Mickey Mousing, the idea of the Leitmotif and its origin and how these various techniques influence the moving image.

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Max Steiner (1888 – 1971)

Basically once sound was introduced into the film medium, with the exception of the musical, filmmakers started to search out composers to write scores. As mentioned before, this was a little intimidating, as directors thought any music added to their work could be a distraction or worse yet alter the meaning of a scene. In many ways they were not too far from wrong, since introducing music can alter the meaning of a scene in many ways. The wrong music can really hurt a scene although the opposite is also true. Although composing music for film was a new and attractive addition to the medium it still made directors a bit cautious. Because of this we can safely say that most of the music scores that accompanied dramatic film between the years 1927 and 1933 or so were of little significance.

This brings us to 1933, the year that everything directors had thought about music scores changed significantly. The film responsible for this was “King Kong,” produced by David O. Selznick. The young composer hired for the music was Max Steiner, who came to Hollywood in 1929 after working in New York as a conductor and orchestrator of Broadway musicals. He was born in Vienna and came to New York in 1914.


What was there about the score to “King Kong” that changed the normal trend? It is considered to be the first “Dramatic Film Score”. If film music before King Kong was not to be noticed and kept out of the way, this score by Max Steiner was just the opposite – it was meant to be heard. Many have called “King Kong” a “symphony accompanied by a film.”

The producers of the film gave Steiner the freedom do everything he could to make this a picture like no others. With this in mind, Steiner composed a score that changed the way film scores would be written from then on. His score became the main focus of the film and for the first time in film scoring, with the exception of some cartoons of the day, he meticulously followed the action in the film with music. Making sure to accent, emphasis, and underscore the narrative and image with music. This is music that fits the film perfectly and tells the story almost on its own.

When music and film join in this way, and image and movement is rhythmically matched by music, our attention is immediately drawn and focused on that moment in the film. This totally complete synchronization of film and music became know as Dramatic Film Scoring.

A good example of this from the score is the scene on Skull Island, when the expedition comes across a ritual ceremony led by the native inhabitants of the island. The chief abruptly stops the ceremony when he sees them. The music has been continuous up until this point. As the chief slowly steps forward toward the unwanted expedition party, Steiner reinforces each step of the chief with a descending sequence of notes in the tuba.

See the video clip below and notice that not only are his footsteps timed with the music but when his steps slow down ever so slightly, Steiner matches the cadence precisely. Near the end of the clip, as the chief takes three steps closer to the intruders we hear three very distinct accents in the orchestra.

Click to view

Steiner is also credited, along with a few other early composers in developing unique ways to synchronize music with film using the “click track.” Later in the course we will cover the click track in more detail. Because of “King Kong” and the many important films Steiner scored in his career (over 300 films), he is called “the father of film music.” Steiner’s working method and synchronization techniques are still in use today.

Along with all this, Steiner also brought to film the idea if having a musical theme or motif that would accompany certain characters and situations in a film. This idea was nothing new and had been the foundation for musical composition during the late romantic era in Europe, especially in opera and large symphonic pieces. These themes and motifs were referred to as Leitmotifs. They was usually short and would musically represent aspects of the story and its characters; a kind of musical tapestry that can paint the story for us through music.

In the score to “King Kong” there are three important Leitmotif’s, all of which are concisely short and memorable as they should be. With these three musical motifs, Steiner creates a musical landscape that supports and represents both visually and dramatically the essence of what the film is all about. See the later sub – chapter on “Mickey Mousing” for more about this procedure and technique used by composers like Steiner, Korngold, and others.

Example 1 is the main 3 note leitmotif that represents Kong – short and to the point. The score is filled with this short fragment or variations on it.

Example 2 represents the female lead in the story – Ann Darrow. This musical idea is a bit longer but Steiner weaves it throughout the score and sometimes combines it with the Kong theme.

Example 3 is not associated with any of the characters in the story although it intertwines itself throughout the score. Sometimes considered to be the action or adventure motif – it consists of only 4 notes.

King Kong’s 3 note motif:

Ann Darrow’s motif (the female lead in the film).
Interestingly the first 3 notes of her motif match the 3 note Kong motif.

The adventure motif

Max Steiner conducting the score to King Kong (1933)

As stated before, this approach of writing descriptive synchronized music is still being used today by modern film composers. Composers in the film industry owe this to Max Steiner. To make the point – below is one of the most recognizable motif’s in modern film. It consists of simply 2 notes and is from the movie “Jaws” with music by John Williams.

About Max Steiner

Maximilian Raoul “Max” Steiner (1888 –1971) was one of the early composers of film music and often referred to as “the father of film music” because of his innovative approach to film scoring and the development of new synchronization techniques, which included the “click track.”

He came to the United States in 1914, at the request of Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld who immediately put him to work conducting and orchestrating Broadway shows. In 1929 he was asked by RKO Studios to come to Hollywood and work on the film musical “Rio Rita.” He remained in Hollywood, working for RKO until 1937. He left RKO in 1937 and worked at Warner Bros. until 1953. During his career he was responsible for composing over three hundred scores. Some of his important scores include: “King Kong” (1933), “Casablanca” (1942), “Gone with the Wind” (1939), “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948), “Since You Went Away” (1944), “The Caine Mutiny” (1954), “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1936), “A Summer Place” (1959) and “The Informer” (1935).

Steiner’s talent for matching the image on screen and catching every little detail was just one facet of his abilities as a film composer. He had a musical sensitivity that allowed him to find something special in a scene, something that would enlighten us to understand a character in a deeper more meaningful way

A good example of this is “the quarry scene” from the 1949 movie “The Fountainhead.” Howard Roark, a young architect having difficulty finding work resorts getting a job in a stone quarry. The quarry owner’s daughter, Dominique Francon decides to visit the quarry one afternoon. As she spots Roark from above, their eyes meet and the attraction is apparent. Nothing is spoken between them but we feel the magnetism immediately. Steiner scores the scene with great restraint, not going over the top with a heavy orchestral hand. He uses just the violin section of the orchestra playing one plaintive, single melodic line, which happens to be one of the main musical themes in the film. This is simple and elegant scoring to say the least. Later on, as Dominique returns home, she has a flash-back about her wordless encounter. Steiner musically opens up at this point and the scoring becomes lusher. As she fantasizes about Roark, Steiner ties this short montage-like section together with music. The amazing craft and sensitively of this scene is told entirely through the music.

Max Steiner – “The Quarry Scene” from The Fountainhead (1949)

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897 – 1957)

No discussion on the early years of film music could be fairly represented without considering Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Like Steiner, he was from Vienna and before coming to the United States, he was already known for his compositions for the concert hall and opera stage.

He came to the USA in 1935 and immediately went to Hollywood to work with director Max Reinhardt on the Warner Brothers film “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1935). After completing the score he returned to Austria.

In 1938, Warner Brothers asked Korngold to return to the United States to work on “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938). He agreed, but upon viewing the film he decided it wasn’t for him and made plans to return home to Austria. This was circumvented by news that Adolf Hitler had annexed Austria and the situation for Jews had become very dangerous. Fortunately, for their safety, he was able to move his family to Hollywood and at that point decided to stay and work in Los Angeles. He soon revisited “The Adventures of Robin Hood” project and decided to score it. He often said that scoring this film was responsible for saving his life. He later received the Academy Award for “Robin Hood.”

His musical style would come to represent what Hollywood film scores were best known for, inventive melodic ingenuity, soaring thematic material and rich colorful orchestrations. When the living film composer John Williams was asked who his greatest musical influence was, he mentioned none other than Korngold. Later on in his life, Korngold became less interested in film music and the industry of movie making as a whole and returned to Vienna to pursue his former career in concert music. Sadly, his rich romantic style of writing was seen as old fashioned and time had passed him by, so he returned to Hollywood where he died in 1957 at the age of 60.

(Brendan G. Carroll, Korngold, Erich Wolfgang, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians)

Brendan G. Carroll, a biographer of Korngold, wrote: “Treating each film as an opera without singing’ (each character has his or her own leitmotif) Korngold created intensely romantic, richly melodic and contrapuntally intricate scores, the best of which are a cinematic paradigm for the tone poems of Richard Strauss and Franz Liszt. He intended that, when divorced from the moving image, these scores could stand alone in the concert hall. His style exerted a profound influence on modern film music.”

Young Korngold

Korngold as a young man.

Korngold at the piano

Korngold at the piano. He was a fantastic pianist.

Alfred Newman (1900 – 1970)

Unlike Steiner and Korngold, Newman was born in the United States and from New Haven, Connecticut. He took a liking to the piano and began studying the instrument at the age of five. By the time he was twenty years old he was a working musician conducting musicals on Broadway. He had the distinction of conducting several musicals by such well know composers and lyricists as George and Ira Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Jerome Kern. He decided to try a career in film scoring and moved to Los Angeles in 1930, where he started formal composition studies with Arnold Schoenberg, one of the prominent figures in 20th Century music. Schoenberg was born in Vienna in 1874, and because of the increasing rise of Nazi terror, Schoenberg moved to Hollywood in 1934 where he taught composition and music theory at UCLA until his death in 1951. Interestingly, Schoenberg was approached by several motion pictures studios to compose movie scores although he never did.

Newman scored over 200 films and in 1940, he became Music Director for 20th Century-Fox Studios and retained that position for twenty years. He was basically in charge and would oversee all music production at the studio, which included hiring other composers and conducting the orchestras at recording sessions. He also had other members and relatives in his family who pursued careers in film music; his brothers, two sons and nephew, all credited with scoring hundreds of films in Hollywood.


Alfred Newman

The following clip is one of Newman’s most innovative scores, rich in inventive orchestration and filled with unusual harmonies, especially for film scores in the early 1940s. In the following scene, Newman’s musical approach has a more subtle touch when it comes to catching the action. At first, the scoring seems to be “through composed,” referring to writing that will fit the emotional content of the scene but with very little musical attention to specific details. On closer inspection, this is not the case, because the scoring is filled with details that do in fact emphasis the action, but in a less obvious way

Click to viewThe Song of Bernadette (1943)

Franz Waxman ( 1906 – 1967)

Waxman was born in Germany in 1906, and scored his first film “Liliom” in 1934, directed by Fritz Lang. After living in Paris for a short period he eventually moved to Hollywood and scored his first Hollywood film, “The Bride of Frankenstein” in 1935, which became one of the early horror film classics.

His success as a composer led to a two year contract with Universal Pictures and after that a seven year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. At the time he was only thirty years old. He received two Academy Awards, although he was nominated for twelve Academy Awards. He scored 144 films in his career and passed away in 1967.


Franz Waxman

Some of his significant films scores include: “Bride of Frankenstein,” Rebecca,” “Objective, Burma,” “Rear Window,” Humoresque,” “The Philadelphia Story,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “A Place in the Sun,” Peyton Place,” “The Spirit of Saint Louis,” Run Silent, Run Deep, and “Taras Bulba.” (mfiles, (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site..

One of the early horror film classics, which followed the 1931 film “Frankenstein.” Waxman brilliantly fills the score with two very prominent motifs, both short and easily recognized. In the first clip, the creation of Frankenstein’s bride, we hear a sharp stinger on the cut to her open eyes, and then as she is brought to life, Waxman introduces a distinct three-note motive. In the second clip the monster is introduced to his bride for the first time. As he descends the stairs into the laboratory, a fast repetitive five-note theme accompanies his entrance. As the scene evolves and interplay develops between the monster and the bride, Waxman’s juxtaposes both motifs.

Listen to these two motifs before playing the video clips. Notice how contrasting and short they are. Perfect ingredients for matching music with story and image.

Click to viewThe Brides motif_audio

Click to viewThe Monsters motif_audio

Click to viewThe Bride of Frankenstein (1935) “She’s Alive”

Click to viewThe Bride of Frankenstein (1935) The Monster meets his bride.

King Kong (1933) – Music by Max Steiner

This next clip is a collection of musical themes from “King Kong” – enhanced with the opening credit music. Notice the power of the music using a large orchestra. Also notice the very first 3 notes – the Kong Leitmotif. Many consider this score to be the first truly original score written for film.

Click to view

The Sea Hawk (1940) – Music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold

This is certainly Korngold at his best, excitingly rich, interesting, and colorful music. Pay special attention to the way Korngold synchronizes the music to catch all the movement. This is “Mickey Mousing” (synchronized, mirrored, or parallel scoring) at its best.

Following is another clip from “The Sea Hawk” and a testament to his craft as a composer for the cinema. This clip in particular represents a scene that could have easily been cut without any damage to the picture and without any mention, it may very well have gone by without any notice. Most importantly it exemplifies the brilliant writing and attention to detail that Korngold was well know for.

When required to write large amounts of music in a film, composers are usually careful in determining what is of importance and in need of the best musical attention. Scenes that are of lesser importance that might require music are usually not given the musical care as compared to other scenes. Generally its like saving the best for sections in the film where music has absolutely no interference either from dialogue or sound effects. Its here that the composer can shine. What gained Korngold the respect and admiration of his colleagues was his ability to apply his total craft to every scene he scored. Thorp’s monkey appears at the window of the Queens chamber and scampers across the room.

Korngold scores the scene with the most amazing music, rich in orchestration, interesting conceived and colorful. This scene is a gem and a good example of Korngold never taking it easy, even with a relatively unimportant section of the film. Its the attention to musical moments like this that solidified his place in film music.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) – Music by Alfred Newman.

Lush string melodies and heart tugging emotion in this wonderful scene. Newman was known for his exceptional string writing.

Sunset Boulevard (1950) Music by Franz Waxman

This is the final scene from the movie “Sunset Boulevard.” Waxman’s music is scored softly under the dialogue, but when Norma Desmond descends the stairs and walks into the camera, Waxman begins a tango like theme, with just a touch of demented playfulness, and a perfect musical depiction of Norma Desmond and her deceptive self-illusion.

The Technique of Mickey Mousing

The term “mickey mousing” is derived from some of the early 1928 Disney animated cartoons in which the characters every movement and gesture is imitated and accented in sync with music. One of the early composers to use this approach in a dramatic film was Max Steiner in his score for the movie “King Kong” in 1933.

(MacDonald, Laurence, The Invisible Art of Film Music, New York, Ardsley House Publishers, INC., 1998, page 32).

“The linking between music and visual imagery that Steiner demonstrated so capably in his “King Kong” score was eventfully referred to as “mickey mousing.” Steiner was taken to task and criticized for this technique by other composers, but there is no denying that in situations like the ones depicted in “King Kong,” the connection between sight and sound strongly enhances the film’s impact.”

It became a popular approach to scoring by composers in the 1930s and 1940s, although its use faded through the years and has almost disappeared today, mostly because of overuse. However, it can still be used effectively if approached in a more creative and less obvious way.

The synchronicity of the mickey mousing technique can enhance the structure the viewing experience, indicating how particular events should impress the viewer, providing insight not so apparent on screen or at least drawing the viewers attention to something important. The technique not only enables music to become part of the action but to also intensify the viewer’s experience.

See the video clip below which represents a typical example of Mickey Mousing from this 1933 cartoon “The Mad Doctor.” Notice how almost every physical movement is reinforced by a musical change or accent.

In the following clip from “King Kong” notice how Steiner places musical emphasis on the knife thrusts and later on Kong’s contemplating his wounded finger.

As film music progressed from the late 30s and 40s into the 50s, there was less emphasis on the use of mickey mousing. Future generations of composers and directors viewed the technique as corny, heavy handed, overused and basically a cliché. From the 1950s till today, film composers are more interested in not catching and synchronizing as much, or are more subtle about it, with a preference on “through composing” a scene without any obvious musical accent on the visuals.

King Kong (2005) – Music by James Newton Howard

Here’s a good example of a intense scene from the 2005 “King Kong” where the composer decides not to do any mickey mousing. If you view this scene carefully, you will be able to identify the many places that Howard could have emphasized the action with music, but he doesn’t. He scores the scene with music that’s filled with energy and intensity but leaves the details to the visuals only.

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