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Film Music Evolution in the United States Research Paper

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Updated: Jul 7th, 2021


It is generally accepted that watching a movie is a singularly visual experience. However, music plays a significant role in how films are perceived as it creates mood and initiates an emotional response. The listener does not need to know the artist or the orchestra playing the music to understand its meaning in a particular scene. This paper provides an analysis of how film scores performed by orchestral instruments change over time using the examples of movies. The report also discusses how various musical elements are utilized differently and evolve in the music scores. The paper concludes that orchestral film scores have changed significantly over time and become more diversified.

The History of Film Scores and the Use of Instruments

The first films that had musical accompaniments are dated 1895, when the Lumiére family screened their early works, including Sortie des Usines Lumière à Lyon, in Paris (Salmi 8). In America, the first films started to emerge from the beginning of the 1900s. It is evident that there is a significant difference between the scores used in modern cinema and the music composed during the early history of film music. Devairakkam-Brown notes that in the late 1800s, film scores were so-called “music attractions”, to which the audience could sing along (4). Typically, early film screenings had small orchestras or pianists playing along with the movie. The early music accompaniment was not necessarily related to the film and could be different at every performance.

When the length of films started to grow, the scores also enhanced. For example, although at first the accompaniment was mainly performed by piano, violins, cellos, and other instruments were introduced with time (Salmi 8). Truelove reports that, currently, violins have become particularly present as a part of scores (1). For example, Song of Love (1947) features several solo parts along with orchestral pieces. Violas are used as associates for violins; they double melodic lines, are utilized for inner voices, rhythmic configurations, and harmonic underpinnings of a score (Salmi 19). Cello is also used extensively, doubling other instruments and offering expressive melodic lines. An example of the utilization of cellos is the score from the Interstellar series (2014).

Basses have a unique place in the formation of an orchestra as they are used to support the lower register in scores (“Double Bass”). It is possible to note that before the classical period, ensembles could not be considered orchestras as many instruments were unavailable. However, with time, basses have become a crucial element of an orchestra; it is used in the majority of modern film scores to show the rhythmic structure. To summarize, orchestral instruments, such as violins, violas, celli, and basses were not used from the beginning of the film era, while the piano was utilized for creating accompaniment extensively. However, movies of the 20th and the 21st century implement these instruments for creating the mood and accompaniment for scenes.

The Use of Musical Elements and Notation


It is possible to say that during the early history of music, the importance of style was not considered. Salmi reports that orchestras played various classical pieces of music, which were not written for movies specifically, to accompany the scenes (8). As scores were not selected to match the plot, they did not have a specifically chosen style. However, with time, film scores played by orchestras started to acquire a large variety of distinguishable styles. For example, pieces introduced in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Star Wars (1977) can be considered integral parts of the plot for their heroic style, while scores played in the Harry Potter series represent fantastical and fairy-tale music. It is necessary to outline that due to an extensive number of genres, it is impossible to say that modern music has a single style common for current times.


As mentioned above, at the beginning of the film era, all available tools were used to convey the mood and meaning of the scene. Due to this reason, rhythm played a more significant role at that time because it was one of the few methods available. Through rhythm, the feeling of urgency and unsettlement was conveyed, as it was done in the Lumiére family’s films (Salmi 8). However, as currently the scores for movies are written and many genres, which implies a broad variety of rhythmical patterns, it is possible to say that with time, rhythm has become a less significant tool.

Music Notation

It is possible to say that music notation has not evolved significantly since the time when the first film was screened. The most significant change that can be outlined is that at the end of the 1890s, notes were written by hand, while modern musicians use printed versions of notations. In addition, currently, it is possible to implement computers in the process of composing music, as well as use various software to analyze how instruments will sound together.


Initially, musical accompaniment in American movies followed rules similar to those practiced in other countries at that time. For example, when a villain was presented on screen, performers played minor chords to convey an eerie feeling (Khaled). With time, such an approach was changed because it made the movies realistic. These days, scores are used to create an impression on the audience and are often recognized as significant parts of films. For example, Interstellar (2014) is famous for its orchestral scores as they create a mystical impression using choral elements, organs, and string ensembles.


It is challenging to identify whether the articulation of orchestral scores used in films has evolved significantly. Salmi notes that types of articulation highly depend on the style of music (19). As at the end of the 1890s, the majority of artists used classical pieces as an accompaniment for films, it is possible to say that articulation has become more extensive during the past two centuries. The primary reason for it is that composers started to have access to more techniques that allow for creating pieces of music in various forms and with the use of different articulation patterns.


Several changes in the intonation of film scores can be outlined based on the theories presented by Nikolsky. The author notes that classicistic melodies, such as the ones used in The Phantom of the Opera (1925), can be defined by the prevalence of double unison, which is not as common in the present day (Nikolsky). It is possible to note that the intonation music created in different parts of the world differs as well.


The tempo of scores played a significant role at the beginning of the film history as only a limited number of tools were available to convey the mood to the listeners. For example, for dynamic scenes, orchestras or artists played fast-paced pieces to help the audience to feel the intenseness of the moment. However, with the expansion of available methods to transmit the meaning and mood of the scene, the tempo of the music started to vary (Hung). For example, the main theme from Casablanca (1942) that has been played by various orchestras since the premiere of the movie, is a piece introduced in various tempos and renditions.


It is possible to say that the dynamics of the scores have a similar history as the tempo. During the start of the film industry, the use of dynamics was more simplified compared to modern times. When a comedy was screened, an artist had to make a distinguishable dynamic expression, which was mostly loud because it was necessary to make the music heard over the ambient noise (Devairakkam-Brown 6). As people started to create scores for particular films and scenes, dynamics began more diversified. For example, the pieces played in the Pirates of the Caribbean series (2003-2017) and Interstellar (2014) is very different in tempo and dynamics although created around the same time.


The analysis shows that film music has evolved significantly over the past two centuries as more instruments and techniques have been introduced. At the beginning of the history of cinema, orchestral instruments were used rarely; the pieces were not designed for particular films and could be the same for different scenes. As the industry evolved, a wide range of styles, rhythms, and other musical elements was introduced. Today, orchestral instruments, such as violins, violas, celli, and basses are used extensively in film scores to create mood, initiate emotions, and convey the meaning of scenes.

Works Cited

Devairakkam-Brown, Carina. 2016, Web.

“Double Bass.” Philarmonia Orchestra, Web.

Hung, Jamie. Odyssey, 2016, Web.

Khaled, Fatma. Egypt Today, 2018, Web.

Nikolsky, Aleksey. Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 6, 2015, Web.

Salmi, Juho. Using Sample-Based Virtual Instruments to Produce Orchestral Strings in Film Music. 2018, Web.

Truelove, Caitlan. The Evolution of Solo Violin Performers in Film Music History. 2017, Web.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "Film Music Evolution in the United States." July 7, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/film-music-evolution-in-the-united-states/.


IvyPanda. (2021) 'Film Music Evolution in the United States'. 7 July.

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