A Brief History of Film Scoring (Video)

+ This lesson is courtesy of Soundfly’s new course, Intro to Scoring for Film & TV. Learn to compose and produce cues for TV, films, and other media.

The history of film and TV scoring is long and convoluted — and way too complex for us to try to summarize in a single video or post, but that didn’t stop us from trying! There’s so much to learn from the pioneers who came before us; let’s dive in!

As we state in the video above, which premiers today courtesy of Soundfly”s new course, Intro to Scoring for Film & TV, this creative discipline’s history can be organized loosely into a few different eras: 

  • The Silent Film Era (1890s-1920s). This era marked the early days of film before sound and film went together. Films were often showed with live music, whether full orchestras or solo pianists. To help create consistency in the ’10s, theaters and musicians would use “photoplay” music, compendiums of short themes that match different types of scenes, like diminished chords for villains, etc. 
  • The Golden Age (1930s-1940s). Synchronized scores were invented in the late ’20s and kickstarted the Golden Age of filmmaking. This was the era when Hollywood became the center of the filmmaking world, with five major production companies dominating the industry and churning out films as fast as they could. The music was primarily orchestral and romantic, with a few major composers monopolizing the work.
  • Era of Experimentation (1950s-1960s). After the war, the major studios broke up, if slightly, and the music entered an era of more liberal experimentation, with scores influenced by modernist composers, jazz, and even rock music. 
  • Return of the Golden Age & Arrival of Synths (1970s-1980s). In the ’70s, John Williams and his score to Star Wars almost single-handedly resurrected the orchestral scoring traditions of the Golden Age. At the same time technological advances led to the big synth-inspired scores of the ’80s, like Midnight Express and Blade Runner
  • Modern Era (1990s-present). The modern era has been defined by a wide diversity of musical styles and composers, as well as an unlocking of technological potential. In particular, the ability of a lone composer to create an elaborate score entirely on their own on the computer has profoundly impacted who and what gets made. 

The list of impactful film scorers throughout history is long, even if for way too long it’s been dominated by a single demographic — something we’re optimistic is beginning to change meaningfully. Regardless, these are some of the names you might want to know.

We fully acknowledge that this is skewed toward American and Hollywood composers in particular (and film over TV), but encourage you to explore composers from all different backgrounds and experiences! 

Intro to Film Scoring poster

Golden Age Composers

These composers define the sound of the Golden Age of films, especially in the 1930s and ’40s. While some of them worked into the 1960s, they’re probably most known for this era. Many of them were European immigrants who found work and success in Hollywood:

  • Max Steiner
  • Erich Wolfgang Korngold
  • Dimitri Tiomkin
  • Miklós Rózsa
  • Franz Waxman
  • Alfred Newman

Post-Golden Age Composers

Some of these composers may have started their careers in the Golden Age, but they’ve become more identified with the increasing experimentation that came after the demise of the studio system in the 1950s and ’60s. Modernism, minimalism, jazz, new instrumentation, even pop, blues, or folk influences — they took scores in new directions:

  • Bernard Herrmann
  • Elmer Bernstein
  • Quincy Jones
  • Ennio Morricone
  • Jerry Goldsmith
  • Alex North
  • Maurice Jarre
  • John Barry
  • Henry Mancini
  • Isaac Hayes
  • André Previn

Pioneering & Electronic Composers

In the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, there were a number of composers experimenting with synths and electronic music to push scores forward:

  • Louis & Bebe Barron
  • Wendy Carlos
  • Giorgio Moroder
  • Brad Fiedel
  • Vangelis
  • John Carpenter

Modern Composers

The cut off here might be slightly arbitrary (John Williams’ first Oscar nomination was in the 1960s!), but these are some of the composers whose names you may still encounter today in film scores. Many of them work in the hybrid style made popular by composers like Hans Zimmer — electronics and orchestras together. 

  • John Williams
  • Alexandre Desplat
  • Hans Zimmer
  • Philip Glass
  • Rachel Portman
  • A.R. Rahman
  • Danny Elfman
  • Terence Blanchard
  • Michael Giacchino
  • Nicholas Britell
  • Jeff Beal
  • Thomas Newman
  • Hildur Guðnadóttir
  • Jonny Greenwood
  • Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
  • Ludwig Göransson

There are so many countless others — it would be impossible to name them all! So, come at us! Who have we left out? Who are your favorite film scorers in history? If you’re a Soundfly subscriber, feel free to yell at us on Slack.

And now, please enjoy this fairly epic playlist of historical film scores: 

Study a composer through one of their scores.

Pick a historical era or iconic composer mentioned in the video above and dive into a score from that era or by that composer. Spend some time listening to it and reflecting on it. You can listen to the score on its own, or try to find a copy of the film and watch it.

What feels unique and different about this score to you? What things do you notice that feel appropriate to the era, and what things feel unique?

Go ahead and share what you discover in the #scoring-for-film-and-tv channel on Slack!

Have you checked out Soundfly’s courses yet?

Continue your learning with hundreds of lessons led by innovative, boundary-pushing, independent artists like Kimbra, Ryan Lott (Son Lux), JlinKiefer, Com Truise, and RJD2. And don’t forget to try out our newest course, Intro to Scoring for Film & TV.

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