Film Music

by Peter Spellman
 ©2000, Peter Spellman, MBS Business Media,


Music and film have been intertwined since the earliest days of the cinema: one of the first major composers to write music for a movie was Saint-Saens. Even "silent" films were not silent -- whether it was an eager pianist in the pit (Shostakovich was one such) or a small orchestra playing a primitive collection of mood pieces, there was always music.As the cinema acquired sound and developed in sophistication, the scoring did the same. Some great names wrote for films: Walton, Vaughan Williams, Copland, and Prokofieff. Other composers, no less distinguished, made writing for the screen their primary careers; their work is only now attracting the attention it deserves. For there are scores whose terrors rival those of the Bald Mountain, and whose beauties approach the gentleness of a faun's afternoon. And more people have heard--and accepted--12-tone music in films than in all the country's concert halls.

Film music is music, primarily instrumental, which works in conjunction with dialogue and image to establish the mood and tone of a movie; classical, jazz, electronic -- regardless of genre, any material composed or scored expressly for use in a motion picture can be defined as film music.

A soundtrack album, on the other hand, is not necessarily film music, as many of the songs which make up the record (as with those for American Graffiti, The Big Chill, Dirty Dancing and so forth) were not originally intended for use in the movie, and other times (as in Batman Forever) don't even appear in the actual feature at all. In this article, however, I‚m speaking with both of them in mind.


The Motion Picture Soundtrack: Over the last few years, as entertainment conglomerates have acquired both record labels and film studios, the bond between the film and music industries has tightened. Motion picture soundtracks have become a magnificent cooperative marketing opportunity for movies and music, in which each drives sales of the other.

Some happenings of note:

In 1997 Space Jam (Atlantic) was the year's top-selling soundtrack with sales of 4 mill., followed by Romeo & Juliet (Capitol, 3 mill.). And of course, Titanic (currently at 10 mill) is destined to break all records for soundtrack sales. Just as an aside, there are currently (3/16/00) 16 soundtrack albums on the Billboard 200.

Four soundtracks went double-platinum (2 million) during the year: Evita (WB), Gang Related (Priority), Men in Black (Columbia) and The Preacher's Wife(Arista). What did all these movies have in common?

All of the movies scoring double-platinum albums starred pop music stars (respectively, Madonna, Tupac Shakur, Will Smith and Whitney Houston).

Film soundtracks that feature an original film score are becoming less common. Of the soundtracks mentioned, only Evita featured a score.

Labels are taking advantage of this hot market by using popular movies to market only peripherally related compilations. "Music inspired by the motion picture" is a phrase that appears on several alleged soundtrack albums (Batman & Robin, K2, Dangerous Ground, The Nutty Professor).

Why are soundtracks so appealing to record labels? They entail low overhead and have a built-in promotion dimension. Why are soundtracks so appealing to movie studios? A hit song that sells a million copies all but guarantees an opening weekend of $10-20 million in box office receipts.


1/ Hang around film schools, find the most talented director and offer to put your music on his movie. The UCLA Graduate Film Students Program approaches Warner Bros. for someone to score first-time director Jeff Fines‚ "No Easy Way," and ended up with American Music Club Mark Eitzel.

2/ Take a movie by a director you‚d like to work with and create your own score for it. When Robert Rodriguez first asked Los Lobos to do the score for his movie Desperado, he suggested they get a tape of his first album, "El Mariachi,"and put their own music to it as an exercise.

3/ Find out who the leading film and video editors are and send them your music. Editors often put their own "temp" music track on films they're working on to liven up the cuts and sometimes they and the directors become so enamored of it, they end up using the music and the final score. See MusicBizInsight #6 ( for some helpful resources.

4/ Learn how to work on a computer. We‚ve come a long way from the first synthesized movie soundtracks, but now everybody is using a PowerMac and Midi sequencers. Get used to it.

5/ Let your publisher, ASCAP or BMI know you are interested in film work. Performance Rights agencies are in touch with the film community and know if a movie is coming up that is looking for someone to do a soundtrack.

6/ Establish a distinct musical identity, but be prepared to abandon it in favor of diverse vocabulary. Sound like yourself. Artists like Hispanic-American Los Lobos and Irish-American Seamus Egan originally broke into films of very specific ethnic genres but have managed to convince directors they can either work outside that style or make the style work apart for its normal connotations.

7/ Be able to work as part of a team and accept direction. Your typical modern pop artist is used to being his own boss, answering to no one and having absolute creative freedom. In movie, TV or commercial soundtrack work, the musician must answer to a director, a producer or a client.

8/ You must communicate with people who know nothing about music. Says Lobos‚ Steve Berlin, "You have to forge a new language to reach that common ground."

9/ Deadlines, deadlines, deadlines. A rock star can work on a record for as long as he wants. Soundtrack and score composers are working on strict timetables. Usually, they need it "yesterday."

FILM MUSIC WEB HUBS: The Art of Film and Television Music

Film Music: The Industry‚s Source for Information, Education and Communication

Jump site for Film Music Magazine, Film Music Network, Film Music Store, Film Music Institute, and Film Music Online.

Film Music Resources

The premier source of information about film soundtracks, composers and movie music news.

Film Music Collections in the United States: A Guide

Originally published as an issue of The Cue Sheet, this important resource is now available in electronic form here on the Web. H. Stephen Wright's Guide lists nearly fifty different film music / manuscript collections located at libraries, universities, and museums throughout the United States. Also included are contact information, and, where possible, information about the type and degree of cataloging that has been done for each collection.


Film Score Monthly, English, Monthly / Edited by Lukas Kendall.

Information and suscriptions: 5967 Chula Vista Way #7 - Los Angeles, CA 90068 - USA

New Zealand Film Music Bulletin, English, 24 pages A5, Quarterly / Edited by Colin A. Adamson. Information and suscriptions: 35 Jenkin Street - Invercargill, New Zealand

Score, Dutch, 20 pages 17x24 cm, Quarterly / Edits Julius J.C. Wolthius. Information and suscriptions: Postbus 406 - 8200 AK Lelystad, Netherlands


Pro Musica Sana, English. Official magazine of the Miklós Rózsa Society which is sent to their members. Edits John Fitzpatrick. Information: 319 Ave.C, Apt.11-H - New York, NY 10009 - USA.

Quarter Notes, English. A brief leaflet edited by the International Film Music Society, reviewing his activities on the preservation and remembrance of the music from the movies. Information and suscriptions: 112 Harvard Avenue, Suite 223 - Claremont, CA 91711 - USA.

1996 FILM/TV Music Guide / English, 90 pages 24x28 cm / Stupendous and complete Guide of Labels, Publishers, Music

Departments, Composers and their Representatives, all oriented to the professional sector / Edited by Music Business Registry,

it can requested from the editor at 7510 Sunset Blvd. #1041 - Los Angeles, CA 90046-3418 - USA for $80 + shipping.

U.S. Soundtracks on Compact Disc - The First Ten Years / English. Absolutely complete catalog of all CDs issued on USA between 1985 and 1994. Includes market value for each CD in American dollars. Written by Robert L. Smith, and edited by Lukas Kendall, its a limited and numbered edition of 1000 copies which may be requested from the editor at RFD 488, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568 - Estados Unidos for $9.95 + shipping.

McNally's Price Guide for Collectible Soundtrack Records / English, 240 pages. Centered exclusively on collectible LPs published between 1950 and 1990, not only the American ones but also from the rest of the world. Includes market value for each LP, black & white image for most of them, and a complete and interesting article about how to price a private collection. Very useful. Written by Keith y Dorie McNally, and edited by West Point Records, it may requested to the editor at 24325 San Fernando Road, Newhall, CA 91321 - USA for $29.95 + shipping.


The ART of Film Music:

Risky Business. Rock in Film by Denisoff, R. Serge and Willia D. Romanowski.(1991) Transaction Publications

Settling The Score: Music and the Classic Hollywood Film by Kathryn Kalinak (1992)

The Celluloid Jukebox. Pop Music and the Movies since the 1950s by Michael Romney & Adrian Wootton (Eds.) (1995).

The CRAFT of Film Music:

The Art of Film Music by George Burt (1996, Northeastern University Press).

Complete Guide to Film Scoring by Richard Davis (1999, Berklee Press).

The Composer in Hollywood by Christopher Palmer (1992, Marion Boyars).

Film & Television Composer‚s Resource Guide: The Complete Guide to Organizing and Building Your Business by Mark Northman & Lisa Ann Miller (1998, Hal Leonard Publishing Corporation).

Film/TV Music Guide, The Music Business Registry, 800-377-7411.

Getting the Best Score for Your Film : A Filmmakers' Guide to Music Scoring by David A. Bell (1994, Silman-James Press).

How to Make Money: Scoring Soundtracks and Jingles by Jeffrey P. Fisher (1997, Emeryville, CA: MIX Books).

Music on Demand: Composers and Careers in the Hollywood Film Industry by Robert R. Faulkner (1983, New Brunswick, NJ: Transactions Publications).


(thanks to Chris Malone's 'Fascinating World of Film Music' web site.)

What exactly is a film music recording engineer?

An in depth look at some film music recording engineers

Why are some scores re-recorded for album?

Digital Re-Mastering - what is it?

 ©2000, Peter Spellman, MBS Business Media,

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