aug 4

Movie music isn’t classical music

I don’t know if it was my mom, or my wife who I first heard say: ‘If it weren’t for movies, classical music would be completely extinct.’ And while I share their opinion, my reply is always a bit of a meltdown…

Movie music, is not classical music. Films that have a grand score, while they can seem to be something that would be in a symphony hall, is only orchestral.

At best, a John Williams score, say, has great musical moments. And when it’s good, it can evoke emotions not unlike Brahms or Dvořák.

But unfortunately, this has nothing to do with classical music at all.

In a nutshell

Classical music is an artform, that takes place, mostly, in the auditory realm. It’s abstract — though there’s always debate about this — and the composer usually sticks to formulas when laying out his work.

Formulas like: the fugue, the sonata, tone poem, etc. These forms typically afford the composer a framework to follow, so he, and the listener, can follow along with some sense of familiarity. You can think of these forms as hand-rails.

(And, of course, the greatest composers are not pedantic about coaxing listeners along hum-drum musical paths. They are quite masterful in mixing forms, leading listeners along one, then swapping it for another.)

All this to say, the classical form is a jumping off place for a composer’s creative output, and isn’t an end in itself.

Movie music, on the other hand, has an altogether different goal. Yes, it can be orchestral. But let’s just take that for granted for now.

When a movie is in post-production, a composer is brought in to pair musical motifs and moods to edited scenes, tying it together, tastefully, with something that fits the tone of the movie.

Here’s how that might go…

Pretend you’re watching a rough edit of ‘City Slickers’ — with no music added. You are the composer, and every time Billy Crystal is on scene doing something heroic, you want to play a little musical ditty that says: ‘This is Billy Crystal.’ And so, you run to your piano and come up with a eight-second musical motif for him. You do the same for any supporting characters. And the villains. Soon, you have some ditties for all the characters that deserve them.

Next, you probably want to steal some Copland-esque American frontier music as your filler. Then for a given scene, you can time your music, and your character ditties, to the visuals at hand. Repeat this for all the scenes you’ve been hired to fill out, and voilà, your job is done.

(I’ve never written movie music. To my ears, this has to be not far off.)

Inspired vs. derived

Now, I’m a huge movie fan… though perhaps less and less over the years. And a good score can elevate film beyond any given symphony (maybe). But orchestral music is no more classical than the screenplay is literature.

In a real way, movie music is just arbitrary sounds. Their composers are at the service of what the edits dictate, and the pacing is completely at odds with that of classical music.

That isn’t to say that movie music can’t seem classical. It surely can. But that shouldn’t ever be confused with the falsehood that movie music is classical music. It is not.