A (brief) History of Music in Film

Music set to picture has the unique capability of enhancing the emotional nature of the story, of setting the tone and mood to add depth to a filmmaker's narrative. But do you know how music plays into the history of film? We scoured musical timelines and histories to find out - and in the process found some pretty epic composer/director teams that made an impact on film forever. Check out our (brief) summary of music in film below:

So we know that the Lumiere Brothers premiered the first motion picture in 1895. The first music set to picture happened in the early 1900's, and that's believed to be for a few reasons:

1. Because the projectors that used to play the films were loud. Music played over film was intended to help cover up the sound.

2. Music added another dimension to the plot line, characters and story in the film that wasn't there when the film was silent.

The music then isn't like the music we have in film today, though - more often than not, it was played by one person on piano or by a string quartet and was either improvised or borrowed from classical music cue sheets that didn't always quite fit the story. That was until Birth of a Nation in 1915, which marks the first time a full orchestra played the music for the movie.

Audio didn't make it into a full-length feature film until The Jazz Singer in 1927, with the opening line "Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain't heard nothing yet," making history as the first synchronized audio to film. Just a few years later, in 1933, Max Steiner created what is believed to be first-ever original score to film, in which music matches the story. This was to King Kong, and Steiner went on to score hundreds more films, including more you might have heard of: Gone With The Wind or Casablanca.

Right around this time was when composers adopted the classical scoring technique, where a composer writes music with themes and simple, repetitive melodies called leitmotifs to trigger the audience's emotions. Music at this point was still largely orchestral and considered Western classical.

Later, in the 1950's, jazz music began appearing in film, which opened the door for other genres to become a part of film as well. One of the most popular movie genres around this time were spaghetti Westerns, backing Clint Eastwood or John Wayne...

One of the biggest composer/director teams of the 1950's and 1960's was composer Ennio Morricone and director Sergio Leone. The duo worked together on many films, including Once Upon a Time in the West, A Pistol for Ringo and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Morricone's scores are noted for their sparse arrangements and unconventional instrumentation (he added things like bells, electric guitar and harmonicas into his scores). It is believed that his compositions changed the way composers wrote scores for Westerns from then on out.

While Morricone and Leone were teaming up to revolutionize the Western film genre in the 1960's, sci-fi movies and thrillers were also making their way into theatres. This is when one of the most famous composer/director teams was born: Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock.

We'll try not to fan-girl out about this duo too much here, but...this is a pretty awesome pairing. Herrmann, a New York born composer, made his name first by classically scoring the radio broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938, and then by scoring Citizen Kane in 1941. But the late 1950's and 60's showed Herrmann creating more stark, dissonant scores. like the dangerous, shrieking violins of Psycho or the darkly ominous, orchestral soundtrack to Vertigo. Much of Herrmnann's work was uncomfortable in its sweeping intensity, creating an unsettling tone that might not have originally been there. Hitchcock famously wanted the shower scene in Psycho to be silent, for instance, but Herrmann disagreed.

Herrmann's experimental technique paved the way for composers like John Williams in the 1970's. Williams wrote the score to the little series called Star Wars and made film history with his two-note theme for Jaws. The classical scoring technique made a return during this decade, ushering in more theme-driven scores from composers of the time.

The 1980's and onward has seen a ton of advancement in musical scores. From the dawn of the synthesizer - which allowed composers to create a score entirely from their own, without an orchestra to back them - to stepping away from entire thematic soundtracks to more individual "song scores," the past few decades have produced many memorable scores, such as Williams' magical score to Harry Potter, Howard Shore's epic, sweeping soundtrack to The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Hans Zimmer's booming, ominous score to Inception.

Needless to say, with all of this history to build on and grow from, we're excited to see what comes next. What are some of your favorite music moments in film? Let us know in the comments below.

- Kaitie Todd