Ambient Noise – A Look at Today’s Top Film Composers

An (Extremely) Brief History of Film Music in America and featured composers John Williams

In a departure from my rundown of Classical music history I’ve decided to write about some music people may have actually heard before – film music. In this new series (or dare I say blog) I want to highlight some heavy hitters in the film scoring business and maybe shed some light on what makes some of your favorite movies that much better. While film music typically does not offer the depth and brilliance that many of the world’s finest composers brought to the page, it does serve as a medium where many of the most gifted modern composers make their living. Before we jump into today’s featured composer here is a brief overview (in two paragraphs) of the history of film scoring in America.

Before movies even had sound audiences were treated to live soundtracks provided by organists, pianists, and sometimes even small orchestras to accompany the silent pictures. When movies became no longer silent, famous music (often classical) was usually incorporated into the soundtrack. Not long after studios began recording original scores from original composers. It was around this time that Germany, Austria, and much of Europe was experiencing the “brain drain” of intelligent and talented individuals who wanted to separate themselves from the rising influence of Nazi Germany. Therefore, many of Europe’s finest composers sought refuge in Hollywood where they became the most prominent film composers of their time. Composers like Erich-Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, and Miklos Rozsa were considered to be the fathers of film music. They were classically trained by some of the world’s greatest musicians and brought to the screen fully orchestrated and rich scores that rivaled some of the great symphonies of the 20th century.

The medium of film scoring became so huge that even heavy hitters such as Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland made their own contributions. Whatever your opinion is of musical theater, listen to Bernstein’s score to West Side Story. You can’t deny that the music, which is rich with influences in jazz, latin music, and German expressionism, stands out as nothing less then fantastic. Here’s a taste:

So this brings us to our first featured composer who we may as well get out of the way first: the prolific John Williams. If you haven’t heard of this guy then apparently you haven’t seen any movie within the past 50 years. I don’t think there is a film composer out there who has cranked out more film scores then Williams. He has been writing scores since the 1960s but his first truly memorable film score has to be his score to Jaws (1975).

Now I’m not the first one to say that almost all of John Williams most memorable moments are blatant ripoffs of previous composers work, however this practice tends to run rampant in Hollywood so you can’t exactly blame him. At his defense many film directors will frequently request music that sounds “like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring” or “the operas of Richard Wagner” something along those lines when coordinating with the film composer. I do not doubt John Williams has had more than one request like that in his day. For a prime example listen to this side by side comparison of the Star Wars opening theme and the opening theme to Korngold’s score from the 1941 movie entitled “King’s Row.”

Not a note by note flagrant ripoff, but it was obvious from early on that Williams was drawing very heavily from external sources.

If you have been writing film scores for over half a century you are bound to run out of ideas, which is why I felt William’s score to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) was pretty much a dusting off of his score from Hook (1991). However, even in his later years he shows that he has some tricks up his sleeve. Listen to the opening sequence to Catch Me if You Can (2002) and you will see Williams adopt a completely different style to fit the tone of this throwback to the 1960s.

Overall Impressions:

I’d say overall John Williams deserves much of the respect he has earned, if not for developing original ideas but being incredibly adept at using a huge variety of styles in an effective way. Also, you simply can’t deny that hearing those opening chords to Star Wars doesn’t make you want to stand up and cheer every time. Let’s close with one of my favorite musical selections from Empire Strikes Back:

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