- One of the most frustrating aspects of film music scholarship is the
surprising difficulty one faces in finding literature on the subject.
Although there are useful and worthwhile writings out there, everything
seems either out of print, outrageously expensive, or scattered among
tiny journals. Part of the problem is the interdisciplinary nature of
film music studies; a mainstream musicology journal is loath to print
an article using jargon from another field, especially if the music
is widely thought to be prima facie of a subservient nature,
and therefore second rate. Within film studies, the same situation applies;
the majority of their readership is unfamiliar with the vocabulary of
musicology, or even (especially) the ability to read music. This has
led to a situation in which scholars, like savvy antiquers, have been
reduced to scouring used bookshops or circulating tenth-generation illegal
photocopies amongst themselves like black-market scavengers. With copies
of Claudia Gorbmans essential and long out-of-print Unheard
Melodies (1987) going for up to one hundred dollars in paperback
at bookstores, this underground network of Xeroxed distribution makes
those interested in writing or reading about film music a very small
- Kay Dickinsons new book Movie Music: The Film Reader
is the first anthology that attempts to compile many of the most important
out-of-print and hard to find essaysthese are the ones that have
been most frequently cited and have influenced film music scholars for
at least the last 15 years. Dickinson is well qualified to edit this
collection; she is a lecturer in Film Studies at Middlesex University,
London, but is equally acquainted with the methods and language of musicology,
having also written and published a great deal on popular music, especially
as it has related to technological innovation.
- This perspective has led her to arrange the collection into four parts,
with each part containing three or four essays: first, The Meaning
of the Film Score summarizes different perspectives concerning
a theoretical grounding for the role of music in film. Part Two discusses
the role of the song in film both commercially and aesthetically.
The third section engages with the political implications of music on
film, and the final section collects three essays concerned with the
visual representation of musicians in film. All of the essays are worthy
of reprinting, and each contributes something new and important to the
subject of film music.
- In her introduction, Dickinson outlines more specifically the theoretical
and methodological orientation of her selections. She attempts not only
to make available hard-to-get important articles, but also to redress
what she sees as an imbalance in the emphasis within the field on orchestral
scores to the exclusion of popular music in film. Her introduction contains
an excellent brief history of film music combined with an account of
how scholars have tended to discuss that history. It is a nice way to
include a mention of some of those writers whose work couldnt
find a place in this collection for various reasons. Among these, Michel
Chions groundbreaking work on film sound, Anahid Kassabians
more culturally inclusive writings, and Daniel Goldmarks recent
monumental project concerning Warner Brothers cartoons are particularly
missed (see bibliography).
- This is a thin book, coming in at just around 200 pages, and part
of the limitations Dickinson must have faced is evident in the editing
of many of the essays; she has been forced to cut most of them down
from their original size. I initially thought this might be a problem,
but skillful editing has meant a focusing of each essays message
effectively. The first section is undoubtedly the most problematic,
another indication of space limitations. In just four essays she attempts
to cover both the theoretical writings on film as well as the range
of work on orchestral scoring. All her choices were essential but each
complicates rather than explicates the goal to map out a method for
analysis of the orchestral score. The first essay, Kathryn Kalinaks
The Language of Music: A Brief Analysis of Vertigo,
is the best chapter of her essential book Settling the Score,
but is hardly about the theory of film music. Rather, it is an excellent
summary of musical language for non-musicians, defining common terms
like interval, tempo, and pianissimo
within a casual discussion of Herrmanns Vertigo score.
For example, Kalinak uses the following figure to explain interval and
the “dis-ease” of seventh chords, as well as harmony more
Only two paragraphs deal with the interaction of music and image.
- Reprinting Theodore Adorno and Hans Eislers Introduction
and Prejudices and Bad Habits from their influential Composing
for the Films was also essential as a historical document, but given
such a prominent location could lead one to believe their writing is
still as relevant as it once was. The conventions they are upset bythe
leitmotiv, stock music, the geographical illustrationhave all
long ceased to be the main elements of film musics composition.
This problem is slightly heightened by the lack of publication dates
for any of the articles. It would have been nice to have been given
this date next to the article title, since even in the acknowledgments
the only date given for this particular article is a recent 1994 reprint.
- Claudia Gorbmans essay Why Music? The Sound Film and Its
Spectator from Unheard Melodies is one of those essays
that is quoted everywhere and has rightly attained a position of authority,
but here as the sole contemporary example of theorizing orchestral film
music it comes across as being slightly eccentric. Gorbmans theory
is that much (orchestral) film music acts like easy listening music
to smooth over the artificiality and constructedness of
film, covering the seams as it were. Here Dickinson faced a problem.
She had to include Gorbmans influential essay; as I mentioned
above, it is one of the most quoted and hard-to-find essays in the field.
At the same time, the theories it expounds have been accepted as near-universal
by scholars since then, who have come to understand the orchestral
score as always working in this way. As there has been nothing
to supercede it in the literature, orchestral music has hence been a
problematic subject for those interested in writing about it. They must,
by necessity, engage with Gorbmans essay, but feel limited by
its authority as well. How one would discuss, say, a jarring orchestral
score by Jerry Goldsmith, or a score that insists on a more culturally-informed
reading for understandingany ironic, post-modern, Gen-X film score,
for exampleis still largely unexplored territory.
- Probably the essay that stands out the best on its own in this first
part is Tim Andersons history of the music for silent film and
nickelodeons. Granted, it is less about a theoretical understanding
of how the music works and more a sociological examination of the cultural
distinctions between high and low culture during the first decades of
the twentieth century and how this influenced musical choices. It does
question Gorbmans assumption of the primacy of the visual image,
however, and is one of those rare combinations of peerless archival
research combined with engaging storytelling.
- If I seem to focus disproportionately on the first section of the
book, it is because this is the area of film music for which the literature
has traditionally been most disappointing. As Dickinson points out in
her introduction, although the vast majority of writing has been on
orchestral music and composers, it has traditionally been limited to
shallow biographies or surface descriptions of the music. The rest of
Dickinsons book is much less problematic. Jeff Smiths article
that opens Part Two, Banking on Film Music: Structural Interactions
of the Film and Record Industries, is in many ways the heart of
the collection. Reprinted from his book Sounds of Commerce, it
shows how the modern synergy between a film and its pop soundtrack (commonly
thought to be a recent development) can be traced back to the beginning
of films history. Again, he flawlessly combines archival data
with the stories of individual publishing houses to tell a fascinating
- Highlights from the rest of the book include Dickinsons own
essay, Pop, Speed and the MTV Aesthetic, a discussion
of how film style has been influenced by the pop music supposedly subservient
to it. Krin Gabbards essay Whos Jazz, Whose Cinema?
insists on an understanding of early sound jazz films within
the terms of their own creation, rather than the later, more artistically
autonomous definition of jazz that meant the devaluation of these films.
- The final section of the book, concerned with the image of the musician
in film, contains three strong essays, each devoted to a different aspect
of representation. Keir Keightleys essay, Manufacturing
Authenticity: Imagining the Music Industry in Anglo-American Cinema,
195662 deals with that fascinating genre, the industry
insider picture. He demonstrates the ways these films helped articulate
a generations concern with their own musics authenticity,
in films such as Expresso
Bongo and The Girl Cant Help It.
- Dickinson has done a remarkable thing by combining the voices of the
most prominent people working in film music scholarship today. Through
a skillful mix of editing and selection, she has pieced together a representative
collection of essays that accurately depicts the state of the field.
I recommend this collection as a perfect introduction to film music
studies: it both demonstrates how much room exists within the field
to grow, and more importantly presents the already high standard of
University of California, Los Angeles
Chion, Michel. Audio-vision: Sound on Screen. Trans. and ed. Claudia
Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
_____. The Voice in Cinema. Trans. and ed. Claudia Gorbman. New
York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
Eisler, Hans. Composing for the Films. London: D. Dobson, 1951.
Goldmark, Daniel. Happy Harmonies: Music and the Hollywood Animated
Cartoon. Diss. University of California, Los Angeles, 2001.
Goldmark, Daniel and Yuval Taylor, eds. The Cartoon Music Book.
Chicago: A Capella, 2002.
Gorbman, Claudia. Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music. Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1987.
Kalinak, Kathryn. Settling the Score: Music and the Classic Hollywood
Film. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.
Kassabian, Anahid. Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary
Hollywood Film Music. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Smith, Jeff. Sounds of Commerce: Marketing Popular Film Music. New
York: Columbia University Press, 1998.