Exploring Music's Complexities

The Importance of Music in Film

Music in Film


Music has been an important component of the arts for centuries. Its early use in both musical and non-musical events laid the groundwork for its use in films. These vehicles included the theatre, the opera, and vaudeville, either as an intrinsic part of the performance or serving as a backdrop. Music’s use in the film industry also has a long history (1). Just about everyone has enjoyed a silent movie being accompanied by a musician playing piano or organ.

If the music was part of the background, it was most likely written specifically for the event and was chosen with a particular purpose, such as to create or enhance the audience’s emotional response to the scenario being presented. An in-house pianist or organist usually selected and provided the audio. As filmmaking became more sophisticated, music publishers specialized in producing suitable music and filmmakers played a greater role in selecting the music (1).

The first “talkie” movie was produced in 1927 and starred Al Jolson singing and speaking. As the technology improved, music to introduce and close the film added to the finished product. The score makes up a part of the film’s soundtrack and usually includes sound effects, dialog and cues designed to begin and end at specific times within the film (2).

In the 1915-16 period, most of the music compositions were by famous composers. Later, Gottfried Huppertz produced some original full-scale orchestral and leitmotif scores for Die Nibelungen (1924) and Metropolis (1921).   These leitmotif scores provided a theme that could be associated throughout a music drama with a particular person, situation, or idea (3-5).


So, how does this all work? If you are a composer, you most likely become part of the project near the end of the filming. Once the filming is done you will be shown an unedited cut of the film and will work with the director to determine what sort of music is needed in terms of style and tone. At this point, your task will be to take precise timing notes to determine how long cues need to last, and determine whether the music needs to coincide in a specific way. This is known as “spotting” (6).

The process of syncing is absolutely necessary to ensure that the precise timing of events happening of the screen is in keeping with the music. There are a number of methods that can be used including sequencing software and SMPTE time coding (7). The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers adopted SMPTE in the 1960’s. It is a numbering system that assigns a specific number to each frame of video in the format of hours, minutes, seconds, and frames (7).

Other tools available for use by the composer include a written click track and a special equation where bpm is beats per minute, sp is the sync point in real-time and Biis the beat number in 1/3 increments (8). Once everyone is satisfied the next step involves the actual writing of the score. There are a couple of ways this task is undertaken: pencil and paper or computer software. The use of composition software such as Protools, Logic Pro, or Finale allows a composer to create MIDI-mockups of cues for review by the filmmaker. These data are sent to the dubbing room where all the tracks involving sound of any kind are Mastered by Sound engineers. These individuals are unique as they are part musician part engineer.

Today, scores are orchestral works that are not only rooted in Western classical music but also incorporate elements of jazz, rock, pop, blues, new-age and ambient music. The development of digital technologies and sampling has enabled low budget filmmakers to include music by enabling the composer to both create and perform the score.

To create a memorable score one needs a main theme with effective sub themes.   These are appropriately placed and varied enough to permit the music to reach a climactic final statement. It is also important to note that different instruments and different colors of music create “that certain feeling.”

As noted by Aaron Copland, there is no question that a musical score can be of enormous help to a film. He lists a number of ways in which music serves the screen:

“1.   Creating a more convincing atmosphere of time and place.

2.  Underlining psychological refinements—the unspoken thoughts of a character or the unseen implications of a situation.

3.  Serving as a kind of neutral background filler.

4.  Building a sense of continuity.

5.  Underpinning the theatrical build-up of a scene, and rounding it off with a sense of finality.”

Next time you’re at the movies take time to listen to the musical themes and to appreciate the skills involved in the process.


  1. Wierzbicki, J. E. Film Music: a history. http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Film+Music%3a+A+History.-a0223285694
  2. History of the First Talking Movie. http://www.essortment.com/history-first-talking-movie-21207.html.
  3. Definition of leitmotif. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/leitmotif
  4. Fandor All for film. https://www.fandor.com/filmmakers/director-fritz-lang-114
  5. Die Nibelungen (The Nibelungs) is a series of two silent fantasy films created by Austrian director Fritz Lang in 1924: ‘Die Nibelungen: Siegfried’ and ‘Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Revenge’, and produced at UFA’s Bablesberg Studios in Potsdam, Berlin. http://germany19001939.blogspot.com/2013/07/die-nibelungen-fritz-lang.html.
  6. Alain Mayrand.The Spotting Session. http://gettingthescore.com/?p=29.
  7. A Brief History of Time…code. http://www.horita.com/timecodehistory.htm
  8. Amp up the sync.   Telecom, Media & Technology. http://www.thedeal.com/content/tmt/amp-up-the-sync.php.
  9. Aaron Copland. Film Music. http://puffin.creighton.edu/fapa/Bruce/ONewFilm.

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  1. The Role of Music in Films | From the Perspective of an Old Soul
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