Film Scoring 101. Meaning, Types, Techniques, and Examples.

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Definition: Music scoring in film, or film scoring, involves creating music that enhances the narrative, emotion, and atmosphere of a movie. This practice has evolved significantly since the early 20th century, transitioning from simple piano accompaniments in silent films to complex orchestral scores integral to modern cinema.

Early film scoring

Historically, music has always played a central role in cinema. In silent films, live musicians, typically pianists or small ensembles, would play music in the theater to provide emotional context and enhance the visual experience for the audience.

This changed with the advent of “talkies” in the late 1920s, which allowed films to have synchronized soundtracks.

One of the early film-scoring pioneers was Max Steiner, often called “the father of film music.” Steiner’s score for King Kong (1933) is considered one of the first to integrate music fully with the on-screen action. He also used leitmotifs (recurring musical themes associated with particular characters or ideas popularized in Wagner’s operas) to enhance the narrative.

This approach was further developed by composers like Bernard Herrmann, who worked extensively with Alfred Hitchcock and created the iconic score for Psycho (1960).

Earlier animations, such as Steamboat Willie (1928), used music closely synchronized with the on-screen action called Mickey Mousing.

Scoring Techniques and Elements

There’s a fascinating diversity in how composers and filmmakers use music to enhance and frame the on-screen narrative. I wanted to give you an overview of some of the most common techniques, approaches, and elements found in film scoring:

Here’s a rundown:

Scoring Type/TechniqueDescriptionExamples
LeitmotifAssigning a specific theme or musical phrase to a character, a place, or an idea. Richard Wagner popularized leitmotifs in his operas, but they were famously adapted into film by composers like John Williams. Read more on repetition in film.The ‘Imperial March’ is used in Star Wars (1977) to signify the presence of Darth Vader and the Empire.
Source Music (Diegetic Music)This type of music is part of the film’s world and can be heard by the characters. It’s often used to add realism or a sense of place.The use of ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ during the infamous ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs (1992) or the music in the Dogme 95 movement films.
Underscoring (Non-Diegetic Music)Music that the audience can hear but the characters cannot. This is your typical “background music” in film.Howard Shore’s score for The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003).
StingerSharp, sudden bursts of music used to accentuate a moment. Often used in horror or thriller films to enhance jump scares.The sudden strike of violins in Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho (1960) during the shower scene.
Through-Composed ScoreMusic that continuously evolves without repeating sections. It is crafted to uniquely follow and enhance the narrative, providing a seamless and dynamic musical accompaniment to the visuals.Max Steiner’s score for King Kong (1933) is one of the first examples of through-composed film scores.
Adaptive ScoreSome scores adapt classical or existing pieces to new contexts, imbuing scenes with a layer of pre-established emotional or cultural resonance.Stanley Kubrick was known for this, famously using pieces like Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in A Clockwork Orange (1971) or György Ligeti’s works in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Source ScoringSometimes, existing music is used within films either as part of the diegetic environment or as an overlay to the action. This differs from an original score as it employs pre-existing tracks to set the mood or link to specific themes.Quentin Tarantino’s films, for example, often use this technique, drawing from a wide range of musical genres and periods.
Orchestral Score
(underscoring)
Orchestral scoring is one of the most traditional and widely recognized forms of scoring in film and animation. It involves using a full orchestra to create a rich and dynamic range of sounds.John Williams’s work on movies such as Star Wars and Jurassic Park.
Electronic Score
(underscoring)
Electronic scoring became popular in the 1980s and 1990s with the advent of synthesizers and digital technology. This style often provides a more modern, sometimes futuristic ambiance.Films like Blade Runner, composed by Vangelis, and Tron, by Wendy Carlos, are prime examples of electronic music, setting a distinctive tone that aligns with the film’s aesthetic.
Minimalist ScoreSome films or animated features opt for a minimalist approach, using very little music to convey the story. This can help to heighten realism or focus more on dialogue and ambient sounds.Silence or minimal music is seen in films like No Country for Old Men by the Coen Brothers, where the tension is built largely through the absence of music. Read more on acousmatic sounds in film.

Developing the score

The process of scoring a film typically begins with the composer studying the film’s edit and discussing with the director to understand the desired emotional tone and thematic elements.

Composers then use various musical elements, such as melody, harmony, rhythm, and orchestration, to create cues corresponding to specific scenes or sequences.

The impact of music in film

The impact of music on film can be profound. Empirical psychology and media studies have shown that music influences viewers’ emotional responses and can also affect their perception of time and narrative coherence.

For instance, a suspenseful score can heighten tension and anticipation, while a romantic melody can enhance the emotional depth of a love scene.

Closing Thoughts

Film scores are an essential aspect of filmmaking. They have evolved from simple live accompaniments to complex orchestral works and continue to adapt to technological advancements and changing aesthetic tastes in the film industry.

Today, film scores use a wide range of musical styles and instruments, reflecting the global nature of modern cinema. Composers like Hans Zimmer, known for his work in films like Inception and The Dark Knight, have incorporated electronic music and non-traditional instruments into their scores, broadening the scope of film music.

I expect that as the film and gaming industries move continuously closer and the technologies advance, we’ll also begin to see more interactive music scores in movies (fx in Virtual Reality). But time will tell.

Up Next: Read more on diegetic and non-diegetic music and sounds in film.

Author

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  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns filmdaft.com and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

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