7 minute read

Music in Films: From the Elements of Style to Soundtrack


When a film starts to get thrilling, romantic or melancholic, this used to have been musically accentuated since, at latest, the films of Alfred Hitchcock. But over time and with the emergence of genres like the dance film, music gained more and more prominence in films. Ultimately, the film soundtrack emerged and has sometimes become even more successful than the film itself. As a part of our film history, we have a look at how the soundtrack made its way into the cinema.


»(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life«

» My Heart Will Go On «

From racket in the background to independent soundtrack

»YOU’RE THE ONE THAT IWANT«, »(I’VE HAD) THE TIME OFMY LIFE«, »MY HEART WILL GO ON« – who doesn’t have a melody in their head when they read these titles? And what’s more: Images come into our minds when we hear the first tones. John Travolta and Olivia Newton- John, dancing on a fair; Patrick Swayze, lifting Jennifer Grey into the air; Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, standing on the rail of the »TITANIC«. Even though we heard the three songs often enough on the radio: Initially, they were written to add sound to a certain scene in a film –

»GREASE«, »DIRTY DANCING« and »TITANIC«, respectively. Usually, however, the musical backdrop of a film consists of instrumental pieces that ideally support its dramaturgical development.


The Fairylogue And Radio-Plays


In the second part of our film history (from the February issue of sisterMAG ), we showed how silent film developed into sound film. Just a small reminder: The first films in history were already accompanied by musicians when they were shown in cinema. Initially, however, the melodies were improvised. The music of »THE FAIRYLOGUE AND RADIO- PLAYS« by the US-American composer Nathaniel D. Mann is said to be the world’s first film soundtrack. The production was the first visual adaptation of »THE WIZARD OF OZ« and was performed as a mixture of stage play and film. Mann wrote 27 pieces of music for it that fit the respective scenes. The production that was performed for the first time in September 1908 was so elaborate and expensive that it only toured the US for three months. At least, a film was made in 1910 that used Mann’s music. Unfortunately, all copies are lost and only the script and single pictures of the scenes remain.

Financial Potential

»The wizard of Oz«

The world’s first sound film, »THEJAZZ SINGER«, was published in October 1927 and brought a revolution for film music. Instead of holding live sessions in cinemas, the film studios were now able to record the soundtrack before the screenings. Thus, every studio built up its own music department. Until the 1950s, their focus still was on orchestral music. Especially European composers who immigrated to the US before or during World War II distinguished themselves in this field. The most famous ones were the Oscar winners Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner and Miklós Rózsa. Speaking of the Oscars: In the ceremony of 1935, the awards for Best Original Score and Best Original Song were given for the very first time. Soon, the film studios saw the financial potential of soundtracks. In January 1938, a collection of three single records with the overlong title SONGS FROM WALT DISNEY’SSNOW WHITE AND THE SEVENDWARVES (WITH THE SAMECHARACTERS AND SOUNDEFFECTS AS IN THE FILM OFTHAT TITLE) was published. It’s likely that the interested buyers needed an explanation of what’s on the records since it was the first commercially issued soundtrack in film history.

Screeching violins

In the 1950s, creative filmmakers eventually broke with the tradition of classical orchestral music in films. Thus, other styles found their way into cinema. For the 1951 film A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, Alex North composed a soundtrack that was strongly oriented towards jazz music. From then on, there were more and more experiments with instruments as well. The screeching violins in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece »PSYCHO« (1960) that played when Janet Leigh was stabbed under the shower are unforgotten. Initially, Hitchcock wanted the scene to be without any music, but was eventually convinced by his composer Bernard Herrmann to use the piece »THE MURDER«.


»Star Wars«

The overwhelming effect allegedly made Hitchcock double Hermann’s salary. In recent times, Hollywood has been shifting back to orchestral soundtracks. Especially blockbusters like the »LORD OF THE RINGS« trilogy and the »STAR WARS« films take full effect with epically produced audio tracks. The work on these soundtracks normally takes months and is closely connected to the development of the film.

Soundtracks as Chart breakers


The albums usually called »soundtracks« are divided into the original compositions of the musical backdrop – the socalled »score« – and songs that were chosen to be used in the film. On the intersection, there are the soundtracks of musical films and individual songs that commissioned to be written for a film. The soundtrack of »DIRTYDANCING« (1987), for example, is a mixture of songs that already existed, like »BE MY BABY« by The Ronettes, and specifically written titles like »HUNGRY EYES« by Eric Carmen. With more than 32 million sold copies, the »DIRTY DANCING« soundtrack is one of the best-selling albums of all time. Three other soundtracks are even higher in the ranking: those of the disco classics »SATURDAY NIGHTFEVER« (1977) with 40 million and »GREASE« (1978) with 38 million sold copies as well as the soundtrack of the 1992 film »THE BODYGUARD«. The latter was sold more than 42 million times and making it the most successful soundtrack ever. About two million copies of the soundtrack of »PULP FICTION« (1994) were sold which is significantly high for an independent film. It also established the reputation of director Quentin Tarantino to be a friend of excellent music, which he further cemented with the song selection of his subsequent productions. Many music fans bought albums of Tarantino’s films without even having seen them. This is similar to soundtracks of films like »AMÉLIE« and »JUNO« that are almost more popular than the films themselves. Until today, some soundtracks sell exceptionally well. The album of the film »MOANA«, for example, was on top of the US charts last year. There probably is no bigger honour for the makers of »RACKETIN THE BACKGROUND«.

We put together the catchiest Soundtracksof the last years in our SpotifyPlaylist . Have a listen and be inspiredfor your next film night.