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Timeline: How Film And Music Became Forever Intertwined

U.S. Public Domain
This film projector, called a bioscope, was used around 1900. The noise from this machine is what led movie houses to employ musicians to play live music during screenings.

Originally aired April 10, 2017... 

In the 20th century no medium affected culture more than film. The music written to accompany the images, story and dialogue has become a huge part of the movie-going experience. In many cases it’s impossible to separate the musical theme from the film itself; the two become one in our minds.


It’s been said that the practice of having music accompany film was born out of necessity. Something had to drown out the incessant noise of the projector as it droned on and on. So from the beginning movie houses employed pianists, organists and in some cases entire orchestras to perform and improvise as the movie was played. They used to have set themes for the musicians to use, like a hymnal of cinematic moods. They could pick and choose what to play in reaction to the images on the screen.

In the 1910s, several well-known composers were commissioned to write original scores for the movies. The sheet music would arrive alongside the canisters of film. Louis Gottschalk, Victor Herbert, Camille Saint-Saens and Erik Satie are early examples of film composers.

When sound was introduced to the moving pictures, original film scores stopped for a while. Then came 1933’s King Kong which displayed the true power of music accompanying the moving image. Max Steiner’s score was the first of its kind, original and synchronized to the action taking place on the screen.

In the 40s, the scores of Steiner, Bernard Hermann and even Aaron Copland helped to connect the music of the film directly to the drama of the story. The next decade saw the inclusion of jazz and popular styles with the work of Henry Mancini, Alex North’s score to A Streetcar Named Desire and the film Anatomy of a Murder which featured Duke Ellington and his orchestra.

Hermann’s score to Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho challenged audiences with its extreme dissonance and atonality. In the 70s, rock music became inescapable in the American cinema. For the film A Clockwork Orange composer Wendy Carlos rearranged works by Purcell, Rossini and Beethoven for synthesizer. Electronic music became a powerful tool in film making.

By the end of that decade, huge blockbusters with scores by John Williams enraptured audiences. Movies like Jaws, Starwars and Raiders of the Lost Ark saw a return to the lush orchestral background of the previous generation.

Today, when it comes to film scores, there are conventions but no real rules.

Today, when it comes to film scores, there are conventions but no real rules. Many contemporary composers have found a home writing for the moving image. The medium of film has truly become a melting pot of many art forms into one experience.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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