“Film music should have the same relationship to the film drama that somebody’s piano playing in my living room has on the book I am reading.” – Igor Stravinsky

Movies and music really are the perfect pair. Combining visual entertainment and auditory stimulation can tap into the subconscious like nothing else, bringing to life ideas and emotions that were always felt but never expressed. From inducing laughter to heightening suspense, the right song at the right time can transform an ordinary scene into an unforgettable experience. In honor of this match made in heaven, DMG Entertainment has created a brief overview of music’s influence on film. If you’ve been waiting to drop the mic on that one annoying film school student, check out this short history of movie music.

When movies were first distributed to the general public, they were completely silent. Although moving pictures fascinated people, the allure quickly turned lukewarm. Silent movies felt empty and didn’t resonate with the audience. Since movies were commonly featured in theatres, venues designed to accommodate music, filmmakers and theatre owners decided to include live orchestration to accompany the film. Live music not only added depth to the silent films but also covered up distracting noises created by first-gen film projectors.


At first, the theatre orchestra would decide what music to play during the film. However, some music publishing houses were starting to focus on developing compositions tailored for the big screen. These specialized publishers would develop designer music sheets for theatre orchestras, categorizing each sheet by action, element or emotion.


Filmmakers quickly understood the potential of music in film and began to collaborate with music publishers to develop customized compositions for their own features. The controversial BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) was the first film to have its own specifically tailored music.

Henry B Walthall - Birth of a Nation (1915) flag

Although most of the silent-era filmmakers worked with music publishers to create compositions, some talented filmmakers created their own music. For example, Charlie Chaplin composed the music for some of his movies, including THE GOLD RUSH (1925), THE KID (1921) and CITY LIGHTS (1931).


In 1927, the first “talkie” motion picture, THE JAZZ SINGER (1927), changed the industry. The film not only played several songs but also included character speech. By the early 1930s, music composers quickly developed a common pattern for music in movies. Films included music in the opening title, closing title, and between periods of dialogue. At first, composers used preexisting songs, but it wasn’t long before composers started creating complete original scores. KING KONG (1933) contained the first entirely original score for a film, it was written by Max Steiner.


In the 1940s, composers polished their craft and began to experiment with greater use of music in films. In CASABLANCA (1942), composer Max Steiner not only mixed the French and German national anthems together but also used the film’s theme song, “As Time Goes By”, as an integral part of the movie’s plot. Bernard Herrmann, a prominent composer, also made significant contributions to films, such as his work in CITIZEN KANE (1941), ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY (1941) and ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM (1946).


Although composers experimented with film music, they didn’t try out different musical genres until the 1950s. Composers started to incorporate jazz into films, opening a range of new opportunities. Jazz not only made the films feel more contemporary, but also required fewer musicians to create a score. It wasn’t long before other genres made their way into film too, such as Rock and Roll’s introduction in the movie ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK (1956).


The 1950s also demonstrated how film could help songs reach a wide audience and become instant hits. For example, HIGH NOON (1952) helped launch the careers of Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington by featuring their hit song, “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling”.


By the 1960s, theme songs made their way into popular culture. One of the best known examples is The John Barry Orchestra’s James Bond theme song, which was first featured in DR. NO (1962) and has been a mainstay of movie music for ever since.


John Williams, arguably the greatest living movie composer, perfected the technique of film scoring and greatly influenced the film industry. Williams set the gold standard for movie instantly recognizable scores for JAWS (1975), all the STAR WARS movies (1977-2015), CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977), SUPERMAN (1978), RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981), E.T. (1982) and JURASSIC PARK (1993).


By the 1980s, composers were increasingly using synthesized sound and electronic instruments in films. Electronically produced sound became a monumental change in the film industry because entire scores could be produced with only one performer.

Musicians and filmmakers would even draw inspiration from each other, sometimes aiding each other in their own respective industries. Films inspired by albums and albums inspired by films flooded the market. The first to do this for a major blockbuster was BATMAN (1989). Director Tim Burton asked Prince to provide a couple of songs for Jack Nicholson’s iconic Joker, Prince instead delivered a full album of Bat-inspired songs. While prolific film composer Danny Elfman burst onto the film music scene with his film score.


In the 1990s, many filmmakers shifted away from big scores and used a mix of modern hits with classic songs in their movies. For example, Tarantino often used music from different time periods, and each song would comment on the film’s narrative.

In PULP FICTION (1994), one of the most iconic scenes is the dance-off between Mia (Uma Therman) and Vincent (John Travolta)  to Chuck Berry’s, “You Never Can Tell” in Jackrabbit Slim’s. Tarantino used the song to reflect the characters’ relationship transitioning from awkward to racy.


When Mia and Vincent returned to Mia’s house, she plays Urge Overkill’s, “Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon” shortly before her overdose. Tarantino used the rather somber song to warn the audience of Mia’s upcoming danger.

Some filmmakers created personal signatures on their films by using music from their favorite bands. For example, Martin Scorsese often uses Rolling Stones’ songs in his movies, such as GOOD FELLAS (1990) and CASINO (1998).


THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001) achieved recognition by not only creating an original orchestral score, but also using numerous rocks songs spanning three decades of music from the 60s to the 90s.

In 2002, 8 MILE (2002) rap music achieved mainstream Hollywood recognition earning the Academy Award for a rap song, “Lose Yourself” by Eminem.


As for current day composers, they continue to experiment with rapidly developing technology in pursuit of composing the perfect score. As composers inch towards creating the flawless music, movies will join music hand in hand towards perfection.


Stay tuned to DMG Entertainment for the latest updates on our upcoming feature films.