Why do Films have Scores? A brief history of music in storytelling

Why do films have scores?  It seems like a rather odd question to ask. To us It seems perfectly natural that when we watch a movie there is music behind each scene carefully crafted to shepherd our emotions through the story.  In fact a number of videos have been made that point out just how awkward films feel when the score is removed. 

But if you think about it it is rather odd that there’s nearly always music in the background of stories told through the media of film and television.  You, for example, don’t have perfectly appropriate music following you around all day (unless you are very particular about how you curate your playlist).  Giant battles throughout history weren’t accompanied by a full orchestra. Nor are tragic events typically accompanied by mournful strings. So why do we have these things in film?  As it turns out film music is simply the most recent development in a long tradition of putting stories to music.  A tradition that we humans have been following in some form for most of our recorded history. 

Greek Epics and Greek Theater

If you’ve taken a Western literature course chances are good that you’ve read at least some excerpts from ancient Greek epics like the Iliad and the Odyssey.  One thing that students often remark upon when first reading epic poetry is how amazed they are that these stories were passed down orally for many years before eventually being written down. Students will often remark upon how difficult it must have been for the storyteller to memorize such lengthy tales.  

These students however are missing two important components. The first is that they are reading a translation that often renders the text as prose thus losing the rhythm.  A structured poem will alway be easier to memorize than a block of prose of equal length because the patterns of the rhythm and/or rhyme schemes act as reminders of what comes next.  The second piece that these students are missing is that these “poems” weren’t spoken, they were chanted and sung.     

The Greek bards of Homer’s day would often accompany their chanting or singing of the epics by playing a type of lyre called the phorminx. Bards would often improvise the text of the poem within its meter while also improvising the accompanying melody on the phorminx so every performance was unique.

The recording below is Danek and Hagel’s melodic recreation of lines 267-366 of book 8 of the Odyssey, in which Demodocus sings about the love of Ares and Aphrodite.

But a single bard singing an epic wasn’t the only way the ancients incorporated music into their storytelling.  There was also Greek theater.  We know that Greek theater would have been musical in nature because some of the melodies from those performances have actually survived.  Researchers and performers at the University of Oxford have used those melodies along with the rhythm dictated by the meter of the text to recreate what some of those performances would have sounded like.   

In the link below at 13:14 is a performance of a chorus from the Greek playwright Euripedes’ play Orestes accompanied by a Greek double flute called the aulos.  

Medieval Bards 

The tradition of bards telling stories through song continued into the middle ages, where epics like Beowulf (as performed in the link below) would have been performed in a manner that wouldn’t have seemed unfamiliar to the ancient Greeks.

Opera and Musical Theater 

During the middle ages music theater productions continued in the form of religious dramas intended to teach the liturgy to the masses.  These dramas included prose dialog, more poetic forms, and religious chants that later gave way to new melodies.  

During the renaissance, everything ancient Greek and Roman came back into vogue.  It was (correctly) believed at the time that at very least the chorus and possibly the entirety of the Greek dramas would have been sung.  Opera was conceived as a means of reviving this previously lost form of performance. 

Musical theater and opera developed side by side from the renaissance through to the modern age.  The main thing that distinguishes opera from musical theater is that operas are almost entirely sung while musical theater includes spoken dialog between individual songs though some musicals are closer in style to traditional operas. In England, early musical theater tended to be more comedic than opera and was generally considered a lighter form of entertainment.  Musical theater also tends to have more dancing than opera. Throughout its history musical theater has borrowed stylistically from opera in terms of the performance’s score, sometimes with the intent of parodying opera. 

The use of orchestra in opera and the instruments used has changed dramatically over the years.  In early operas, the singers would be accompanied by harpsichords and plucked strings but rarely by the orchestra.  The orchestra would supply other music only when the singers weren’t singing, such as character entrances and exits and during dances. The orchestra would also provide the overture, the musical introduction at the start of the performance.  Symphonies as we know them developed originally from the overtures of operas.  As opera developed more instruments were added to the orchestra and the orchestral music became increasingly complex. And that brings us to Wagner. 

Wagner and Leitmotif 

In Wagnerian opera, the orchestral music is used to add shades of meaning to the story beyond that portrayed by the characters. Wagner developed a style of music composition called “leitmotif”.  Leitmotif is the use of short musical phrases, that we might call themes or cues, to represent people. places, things, ideas, etc.  Wagner also believed that leitmotif should look forward and look back meaning that a leitmotif could be used to represent something happening on stage but it could also be used as foreshadowing or as a reminder of something that had already happened. This development transformed the orchestra from a mere musical accompaniment into a vital part of how the story was told.

The Silent Film Era

We call the period of film between 1895 and 1927 the “silent film era”, but that’s actually a misnomer.  “Silent” films of that era would have been almost universally accompanied by music of some variety.  A smaller theater might just have someone performing on a piano to accompany the film. 

In larger theaters it wasn’t uncommon for the film to be accompanied by an instrumental ensemble or even a full orchestra. 

Initially the films that were produced didn’t have scores written to accompany them. This meant that it was ultimately up to the performers what music to use to accompany the film.  They drew from vaudeville music, popular songs including ragtime, and baroque, classical and romantic era music or sometimes they would compose their own music or improvise on the spot.  If you saw a film multiple times during this period you would likely hear different music accompanying the film during each viewing.  

During the 1910s books of sheet music, known as photoplay albums, began to be published specifically to be played along with “silent” films.  These books didn’t contain full scores for individual films, however. Rather the books contained short excerpts of a wide range of music known as genre music or mood music. Each musical excerpt was labeled with suggestions for when they should be used.  Essentially these “mood music” excerpts were treated as leitmotifs. For example: quick music for chase scenes, slow mournful music for death scenes, music with a beat that evoked the sound of hoofbeats for a scene with galloping horses, etc.  From these photoplay albums the musicians playing along with the film could piece together a score on the spot as the film played. During this time some film companies began to publish cue sheets specifying which pieces of “mood music” to play during which portions of the film. 

Only the films with the biggest budgets would have fully original scores composed for them, which were known as “special scores” at the time. Often these scores were composed in a Wagnerian style, with leitmotifs used to emphasize recurring characters and themes in the film. 

Some films also applied a hybrid approach where pre-existing samples of music were used to score the majority of the film, but an original piece would be written for a particularly climatic scene. The sheet music, player piano rolls, and records featuring these pieces of music could then be sold providing the film studio with an additional source of revenue from the film. 

Photoplay albums and cue sheets continued to be widely used until films with sound became the norm in the late 1920s.  Though scores written for individual films became more common throughout the 1920s.  

The Sound Film Era

The advent of sound in film in the late 1920s created a relationship between musical films and musical theater that extends to this day. As soon as films with sound became commonplace the film industry sought out Broadway stars to perform renditions of their hit Broadway musicals on film.  The film industry has continued to produce filmed versions of Broadway hits ever since, though the popularity of musical film has waxed and waned over the years.  The exchange between film and stage has since gone the other way as well.  Popular musical films have become live theater hits and Hollywood actors have found fame on stage as well as on screen.  

Once sound became ubiquitous so did musical scores either arranged or composed for the film.  Wagnerian Leitmotif was and continues to be a popular style for scoring films though films still also follow the silent film era tradition of using existing music rather than original compositions to set the mood.  Older films would also sometimes feature full operatic overtures at the beginning of the film. These overtures developed into the opening credits music and opening theme songs present in modern film and tv. 

So why do films have scores? Because film scores are simply the latest innovation in traditions of musical storytelling that can be traced back to ancient times. Early musical theater developed over the years into Broadway productions which have been directly adapted for film and vice versa and Ancient Greek theater directly inspired the creation of opera which is still influencing how film scores are composed. It seems that despite changes in technology and culture throughout the ages there’s one thing that humans both ancient and modern can agree with: stories are better when told with music. 

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