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Description the Characteristics of the Classical Film Score

Categories: FilmMusic

1) Ben-Hur is the last great film score in the tradition of the golden age until 1977. Describe the characteristics of the classical film score as exemplified in this film. Include a description of significant themes and scenes. (10 points) William Wyler directed a 1958 American epic historical drama film, Ben-Hur. This film is well known to be one of the greatest film scores reflecting in the classic traditions. The film portrays lives of two men (i.e., Jesus Christ and Judah Beh-Hur), in which the plot illustrates number of parallels and reversals.

Rozsa utilizes modal harmonies and parallel chords to deploy the spirit of the Roman era. Throughout the film, he embraces traditional love themes for the three separate love relationships. Rozsa incorporates overall stylistic harmony by applying musical ideas that are associated with Roman, Hebrew, and early Christian. Furthermore, it can be seen that Rozsa chose many of the melodies to be modal. He also used parallel harmonies to maintain the same pitch correlation from chord to chord and limits any possible sense of harmonic progression.

For example, the first three chords of the score move in parallel motion where each pitch moves down a entire step and returns back to the original pitch.

Throughout the “Redemption theme”, the overture plays a melody that implies the Phrygian mode. In the Christ theme and several of the Roman marches, the Western triadic chords can be heard. The score also displays a complex system of leitmotifs. The “Christ theme” plays an organ with a wavering sound where high strings with harmonics are often added.

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These combinations create a halo effect around the melody. In addition, the number three is an important symbol for Christianity due to the Trinity where it consists of three-note chords. Moreover, it can be seen through the Redemption theme that the first three pitches played are exactly the same as that of the Christ theme. It is interesting to observe the Friendship theme between Judah Ben-Hur and Messala contained with warmth while he also uses disturbing elements to foreshadow the Hate theme displayed by triton interval. During Ben-Hur’s desert march, chromatic melody strongly correlates to the Hate theme. These musical melodies support for dramatic moods, settings, characters, and actions, which can be seen throughout the film. Rozsa also uses significant orchestral medley to establish his principal themes during the overture and the opening credits. Most recognized and impressive is the powerful bass sound playing during the credits. In regards to the climax and resolution, Rozsa composes two musical climaxes (i.e., one for Christ and one for Ben-Hur).

The Ben-Hur’s desert march consisted with chromaticism and dissonance underscoring the moment filled with bitterness. When Miriam and Tirzah gets cured after the storm, The Christ theme comes in with full orchestration. Throughout this film, we can see that Rozsa extensively uses music and exploits full range of orchestral colors as seen through general characteristics of the classical film score established during the mid-late 1930’s. 2) Psycho helps usher in the New American Cinema era. Using Psycho as a model, discuss the major changes to film music in the 1960s. (10 points) There were a significant transformation during the 1960s, where decline of Hollywood traditions and the rise of a new style initiated. Europeans influenced the way into the new era for the filmmakers in a global-scale. Innovative plots with uncertain beginnings and endings, unclear moral implication, and unusual plot lines started to emerge. We can clearly see that Alfred Hitchcock chose to shoot the film Psycho in black and white to signify the cold and empty atmospheric moods as well as to lower the production costs, which can be linked with the European imports.

Bernard Herrmann supports Hitchcock’s visual and narrative effects where music is written for a string orchestra, where limited orchestral colors are prominent rather than a full symphonic ensemble. He correlated the usage of single tone color with the black and white cinematography. Herrmann utilized a unified score that is constantly dissonant. Although there are variation of mood from loving sound to the terror of the shower, all the cues are observed to be used with minor seconds and major sevenths. He also uses distinct sound using the “percussive-sounding strings” through deploying microphone close to the instrument to demonstrate the sound to be harsher, which can be seen as some of the new approaches that Herrmann accomplished through this film as the start of “a New American Era”. In addition, new approach in film scoring can be seen through the lack of contrast in a cue. When a cue starts, it stays consistent and repeats the mood with no variation where there are absence of shifts within a cue. Moreover, descending and ascending chords of the Transition theme have an aloof characteristic with no display of emotions.

This in return provides an overall disquieting mood to the story. During the Norman’s story, Hermann employs ostinato to maintain tension and discomforting sound of melody. 3) Discuss the growth of the various types of popular music in films from the late 1940s through the early 1970s. Please mention specific films, styles, and composers when you can. (20 points) Throughout late 1940’s through the early 1970’s, the growth of various types of popular music and trends are historically observed. Starting from postwar trends dating back from the late 1940’s where World War II delivered significant changes in filmmaking, which also had a huge impact on film music.

During this time, pessimism and cynicism were two primary themes in films. It is clearly evident that there were three significant developments where music composed for Film Noir, the appearance of several outstanding scores reflecting the American nationalist musical style, and the resurgence of European centers. Film noir gave numerous unique characteristics consisted of one prevailing mood (primarily dark and pessimistic), minimal usage of musical cues, orchestration for small ensembles, predominantly low-pitched instruments (e.g., bass clarinet), focus on the lower registers of the strings, non-traditional orchestral sound, angular melodies, harsh dissonant harmonies, and the usage of jazz.

Miklos Rozsa, one of Hollywood’s finest composers, earned much respect for film noir scores including his work through Double Indemnity and The Killers. In the late 1940’s, many of the excellent film scores reflected the musical style of American nationalism. Hugo Friedhofer created one of the most memorable score The Best Years of Our Lives, where he integrated many of the features of Copland’s American nationalist style. As for Aaron Coplan, he composed his last two scores for films The Red Pony and The Heiress. In the 1950’s, the American film industry suffered from decreasing revenues and increasing costs due to major competition from television industry. This in return made American filmmakers to respond with outputs of excellent films, which also had a major influence on the development in film music. The expanding role of popular music began in the early 1950’s. Newer forms of jazz (bebop) followed by its characteristics of hard accents, rapid notes, and increased volume and intensity. Other trends in popular music in the 1950s are country and western, and rock and roll.

Elmer Berstein employs intense sounds of jazz along with traditional symphonic scoring through one of his first film scores, The Man with the Golden Arm. Dimitri Tiomkin, one of Hollywood’s veteran composers, brought a key innovation to film music when he incorporated a country and western song to High Noon. He also includes Leimotifs for the theme song, colorful orchestrations, and orchestra underscoring tension and action. A film, The Blackboard Jungle, introduced the rock music for the teenagers to rapidly adopt this exciting new kind of music in mid-late 1950’s. The birth of the blockbuster occurred in 1956. In films Around the World in 80 days and The Bridge on the River Kwai were both seen with the application of popular melodies, that is, walz tune and a British march. Adolph Deutsch employs traditional symphonic scoring in the film Something like it Hot. He liberally integrates popular music to underscore the fun where it includes musical, scurrying saxophone line, and use of the tango. In addition, a film Touch of Evil: Beginning in the late 1950’s is described as the last great film noir.

Henry Mancini includes the mixture of Mexican and American popular musical styles. Variety of other popular musical styles are heard throughout the score, which includes country and western music, rock music, and intense jazz. Variety of modern styles in the late 1950’s are also seen through films such as Big Country, Vertigo, and North by Northwest. For example, Jerome Moross’s score for Big Country displays an influential new western sound, where he made concrete western sound. New Wave were greatly influential on American films in the early 1960’s. Through music in the New Era, music in from the films in 1960’s tends to create general moods rather than to illustrate specific or varying emotions. While filmmakers were faced with economic challenges, increased reliance on a smaller collaborative performance rather than the standard orchestra provided financial savings. It was also clearly observed that both popular and modern musical styles were well suited. These musical styles are demonstrated through three films in the early 1960’s, which are The Hustler, The Pawnbroker, and The Manchurian Candidate.

Through the film, The Hustler, musical cues are often scored for jazz ensembles. However, in The Pawnbroker, Quincy Jones gets incorporates a modern style as required. One of the most distinct instruments employed throughout this film was harpsichord, which is a keyboard instrument used to renovate earlier form of music for a more authentic sound. Furthermore, David Amram, who composed a film score for The Manchurian Candidate, uses various modern styles (e.g., American nationalist style for scenes of the soldiers returning to the US, and avant-garde styles to represent disoriented nightmares that some of the soldiers had. As observed in To Kill a Mockingbird, Elmer Bernstein’s musical score indicates small number of instruments used throughout the film along with general modern style. By 1967, sexuality and graphic violence were prevalent. In the film Bonnie and Clyde composed by Charles Strouse, most feature instruments associated with country music.

From 1968 through early 1970’s, American society drew much concerns and frustrations due to many shocking events (e.g., Martin Luther King assassination, Robert Kennedy’s death from shooting, public view on Vietnam War, and war protests). As a result, filmmakers continued to use traditional musical scoring to maintain strong sense of reality. In Planet of the Apes, Jerry Goldsmith’s score consists of avant-garde style. John Barry mixed variety of popular styles with a few passages of modern electronic music through the film Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider. It also included rock style to relate the prominence of drugs in the plot. Finally, during the films of the early 1970’s where tensions were observed throughout America’s society, films often went with modern musical styles to underscore the hindrance of America due to widespread criminal activities and corrupted government officials.

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Description the Characteristics of the Classical Film Score. (2016, Aug 09). Retrieved from

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