From the Golden Era to Gigabytes: the Movie Music Story

Dive into the history of film scoring and see how orchestras and pianos became laptops and synthesizers.


Music producer Dan Wallin at Studio M (1980/1989) by ChStoneOriginal Source: Wikimedia

From the first "talkie" movies of the late twenties, to the Hollywood blockbusters of today, the field of movie music has been transformed many times over. Here, we dig into some of the historical developments that have helped shape the sound of modern cinema.

George Méliès – Le Voyage dans le Lune (1902) by George MélièsOriginal Source: YouTube

Sound and vision
In our day-to-day lives, the senses of sight and hearing are intimately connected: We hear events in our environment more or less at the same time as we see them. That’s why, when the first silent films were produced at the end of the 19th century, the effect of seeing action on screen without hearing it was jarring for the audiences of the time.

Pianist in a Silent Movie TheaterOriginal Source: Everett Collection

Live accompaniment
As the recording and reproduction of sound was still in its infancy, early cinemas provided a live musical accompaniment during each screening. The standard repertoire comprised best-of pastiches of well-known classical works tailored to the film’s narrative. The default musical accompaniment was provided by the piano, but extended to a full live orchestra in the most renowned theatres.

Cinema OrganOriginal Source: Hao Zhang

The cinema organ
The development of cinema organs brought the first hybrid solution, allowing a single musician to mimic a full orchestra with a wide variety of sounds. As we will see, the cinema organ can be considered an early precursor to the sample-based production workflow available to the movie composers of today.

Film Negative with ToneOriginal Source: Denise Jans

Sound on film
In the 1920s, technological developments made it possible to record sound to a small section of the film, right next to the pictures. By 1930, this technology had taken the world by storm and become the de facto standard for movie theatres everywhere. Thus began the era of orchestral movie scoring, including works from composers like Max Steiner, Erich Korngold, and Alfred Newman, whose works are now regarded as encapsulating the classic sound of Hollywood.

The Adventures Of Robin Hood | Soundtrack Suite (Erich Wolfgang Korngold)Original Source: YouTube

Scoring the Golden Age
Most Hollywood scores of the early 20th century drew heavily on the late romantic style of composition, perfectly matching emotive themes and leitmotifs to the mood and narrative of the film. Scores were created by the composers working to the first edit of the film, traditionally on the piano, before they were played and recorded by an orchestra - once the director and key stakeholders were happy with the composition.

A Collection of Vinyl Records (2019)Original Source: merchbar

The temp track
Music had soon become an integral part of a film’s creative vision, but a successful soundtrack required directors, music editors, and composers to all be on the same page – something that rarely happened without conflict. But with the advent of affordable recording, storage, and reproduction of music, filmmakers were able to draw from a growing abundance of recorded music as a tangible demonstration of their vision. Still commonplace today, the temp (or temporary) track, as these scores are known, typically comprises a compilation of existing music from previous scores, classical recordings, or popular music.

SpaceshipOriginal Source: YouTube

Temp love
Temp tracks do have one unfortunate downside, however – it’s not uncommon for a director to become so attached to the ‘disposable’ music used during the editing process that the final score simply can’t compete. Perhaps the most famous modern example of this so-called ‘temp love’ is Stanley Kubrick’s decision to forgo Alex North’s original score for 2001: A Space Odyssey in favour of the classical music the film was edited with. It’s said that Kubrick neglected to inform North of his decision before the film’s premiere – which the latter attended. 
This is the famous 2001 intro accompanied by Alex North's original score.

PianoOriginal Source: Dolo Iglesias

The Pitch
The typical composer’s workflow changed little from the early days of film scoring: Music was written on a piano, then arranged for performance by an orchestra, and finally synced to the on-screen action and so-called diegetic sound. The piano was also used as a means to present ideas; in order to gain approval to begin the (very expensive) process of recording with an orchestra, composers would play their work to the director, which, of course, left a great deal to the latter’s imagination. Composers were crying out for a way to more accurately convey the orchestral textures they had in mind.

Modular SynthesizerOriginal Source: Steve Harvey

The electronic age
Towards the end of the '60s, Composers' prayers were answered – at least in part – by the first commercially available synthesizers, which put a wealth of new sounds at their fingertips. Prior to this, electronic sounds had largely been relegated to signifying futuristic or otherworldly concepts: aliens, robots, time machines and the like. But now, as synthesizers became more powerful, it was possible to recreate a large variety of more earthly tones – for relatively little cost.

Halloween – Soundtrack (main theme)Original Source: YouTube

Scoring with synthesizers
Armed with the ability to approximate the sounds of strings, brass, woodwind, and even percussion, composers were now able to single-handedly create and perform an entire score in the studio. Though the results could sound fantastic, they did not sound, at this point in time, particularly realistic. Nevertheless, synth-heavy scores gained a good deal of popularity in the early 70s – Wendy Carlos’s contributions to A Clockwork Orange is a classic example. And famed horror-movie director John Carpenter took full advantage of the possibilities synthesizers offered to compose and perform many of the cues for his own movies himself.

Sampler Rack in a StudioOriginal Source: Angie Linder

Scoring with samplers
The 1980s were a decade of major innovation for music technology. Synthesizer pioneer Dave Smith’s invention of the MIDI protocol in 1981 allowed composers to simultaneously sequence and control multiple electronic instruments from a single source. The Synclavier and the Fairlight CMI had already pioneered digital sampling in the late '70s, but it was the earliest models from E-mu and Akai that first caught on and quickly became studio staples. The arrival of these units transformed the workflow of score composition altogether.

CDs in side viewOriginal Source: Dietmar Rabich

Libraries of sound
Film composers quickly understood the benefits of combining the convenience and cost-effectiveness of synthesizers with the sound of ‘real’ instruments. Many of them began to record and re-use material from their own orchestral recording sessions, building up personal sample libraries that reflected their particular sound. Starting in the 90s, companies began selling CDs full of royalty-free material, putting the professional composer’s workflow within the reach of the average electronic musician for the first time.

Audio engineer in a studioOriginal Source: Unsplash

Into the box
Towards the end of the '90s, more and more composers shifted towards a computer-based or ‘in-the-box’ workflow. Major advances in computing technology, paired with rapidly reducing costs for storage and processing power meant that a lot of people suddenly had access to music production software that was more powerful, easier to work with, and more affordable than its physical counterparts.

Native Instruments – KontaktOriginal Source: Native Instruments

Software samplers
In 2002, Native Instruments launched the first version of Kontakt, a dedicated sampling program, followed soon after by the Battery drum sampler. Both were designed to work seamlessly on the kinds of computers that many people already owned, and boasted similar features and sound quality to the dedicated hardware samplers of the day. By 2004, Logic – a popular digital audio workstation developed by Emagic and later purchased by Apple – came with the similarly powerful EXS sampler. Newer iterations of all three samplers remain popular with film composers today.

Hard DiskOriginal Source: Vincent Botta

More space, better sounds
The capabilities of samplers, for quite some time, were effectively bottlenecked by memory limitations, since the samples they rely on demand a great deal of disk space. The recordings required to convincingly recreate the sound of a single violin, for example, typically total some 5 GB of memory. It’s only with the advent of large, cheap storage drives, that this limitation has ceased to be a major concern. Today, sampled instruments are becoming more and more difficult to distinguish from the real thing – more storage space means more room for better sounding samples and more of them.

Producing a MIDI MockupOriginal Source: Picture courtesy of the author

The MIDI mockup
With the wide availability of high-quality sample instruments, the so-called “MIDI mockup” – a full rendition of a score produced entirely in a digital audio workstation – has become a core part of the typical workflow. Although a traditional orchestra is still commonly called upon to record the final score, replacing it with software instruments in the earlier stages gives studios the ability to envision and present even the most complex cues more or less in their entirety.

George Kallis – Budapest Symphony OrchestraOriginal Source: Wikipedia

Scoring today
As we've seen, new technology – particularly with the emergence of sample instruments – has made the modern composing workflow more streamlined and accessible than ever. But that's not to say that today's scores are any less complex and daring than those of the past.

The typical approach today is a hybrid one: MIDI mockups, for example, now sound so convincing that they could be used as a final score. And in TV, where budgets or deadlines are typically tight, they often are. Big-budget productions are still likely to spend on a full orchestra, but it’s not uncommon for sample-based elements and synth sounds to be dubbed over those recordings.

Hans Zimmer – The Dark Knight Rises Main ThemeOriginal Source: YouTube

Hear hybrid scoring in action
This ‘hybrid scoring’ technique is increasingly being put to creative use by prominent composers like Hans Zimmer. Note how his theme for The Dark Knight Rises combines real musicians, synthesised sound effects, and layer upon layer of percussion samples.

Credits: All media
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