Growing up a trip to the movie theater was exciting. There was seemingly magic in the air as we purchased popcorn or pretzel bites, chose a seat in the theater, and waited for the lights to dim. Once the movie was over the crowd would leave, practically buzzing, as they shared with fellow moviegoers their thoughts on the film. 

There are some films that stick with an audience once they leave the theater. That can happen for many reasons, such as interesting shots, cool effects, or a particular actor’s performance. For me, I realized a film is often memorable due to the score. While a movie’s plot might be floating around my head post-showing, the score is much more prominent. An earworm that plays itself on repeat. 

At the Academy Awards in 2002, a tribute to original scores for motion pictures was arranged and conducted by composer John Williams. Actor Ben Kingsley introduced the tribute by saying, “In a film, it’s the music that is the wind that gives the picture flight. When a film is over it’s the music that perfumes – it’s the perfume that remains in the air after a particularly enchanting encounter.” Those words could not have been truer. 

The History of Film Score

The use of music in a film dates back to incidental music. Incidental music is music written to accompany or point up the action or mood of a dramatic performance according to Britannica. It was first used to accompany stage plays, according to Redlands symphony, and it dates back to the Greeks. Although, it was more noticeable when used for English dramas. In the 19th century plays like, Midsummer Night’s Dream and Peer Gynt had music from Felix Mendelssohn and Edvard Grieg that helped move the play along.

Music became essential in the film world due to silent films. With no speaking, the music involved had to drive the film forward. It had to set the mood, make the audience aware something good or bad was happening, and end things in a crescendo. Unlike today, music put in movies was improvised right on set by a pianist or organist. The musician would have the chance to learn about the film ahead of time and then put their skills to use. When watching clips from old Charlie Chaplin films it is apparent that although Chaplin’s acting was a key part, the music is what added the buoyancy and fun. 

In the silent film era, composer Erik Satie made history by synchronizing his music to specific scenes in the film Entr’acte. This was 1924 and while this method was new it gained traction. By the time films with dialogue, “talkies”, were made music was still an important aspect. In 1933 composer Max Steiner created the first completely original score for a movie with sound for King Kong, according to Redlands symphony. As time passed composers went from making music that went along well with a movie to creating music that highlighted characters and critical moments. 

The Importance of Score

50 years from now people my age may not remember the first time they sat down to watch Star Wars: A New Hope but they will remember the score. As soon as the words Star Wars blaze across the screen and “Main Title” by John Williams starts playing it immediately hooks you in.

After nine films in the Skywalker saga, two spin-offs, and various television shows, the score still prevails and has aided in making Star Wars an iconic franchise. While George Lucas’s genius should be and is applauded, he owes Williams a great debt for his incredible composition. Praise for Williams aside, why does score have such an impact on an audience?

The score tells its own story. If you take a scene and remove the video but keep the score, a viewer can still figure out whether the scene is sad, hopeful, or scary. The crashing of cymbals, plucking of a harp, or the accompaniment of a choir’s haunting vocals tell us all we need to know. By telling a story through sound, score allows films to not just be a visual experience but an auditory one as well. When you go to see a movie nearly all of your senses are being put to use, and that allows a film to be even more impactful. 

One thing score also does well is add emotion. As I sat in a darkened theater and the last few scenes of Little Women played, “The Book” by Alexandre Desplat came through the speakers and I got choked up. Crying in a movie theater is not uncommon, but in this case, the music is solely what moved me. 

In an interview with Rolling Stone Desplat said, “There are several emotions in that scene. There’s the excitement of the book being made and the satisfaction of watching this book be made, her first book. It’s a mix of pride, excitement…The music has to give us all the emotions and all the thoughts that go through her mind at that very moment. I was thinking that she’s already thinking of her next book. She’s opening a new chapter.” In three minutes and 37 seconds, Desplat wrapped all of these emotions up and showed them through strings and piano.

As film changes and adapts to this digital age one thing that won’t be changing anytime soon is the significance of the score. 

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  • Carol Wright

    Carol Wright is a recent graduate of American University where she received a BA in Journalism and a minor in Business and Entertainment. She is also the founder and Editor in Chief of Nyota Magazine. Nyota focuses on featuring emerging stars in the areas of music, fashion, and culture. When she’s not writing you can find her rewatching New Girl on Netflix.