In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Film Music

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Guidebooks
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Theory
  • Histories
  • Early Studies
  • Region-Specific Studies

Music Film Music
James Wierzbicki
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0113


The English-language literature on film music dates back to c. 1909, when advice columns on film accompaniment (likely for solo piano) began to appear in the numerous trade magazines that sprang up to serve the needs of the cartel-linked companies that provided one-reel films to nickelodeon-style cinemas. Film music was for the most part professionalized after World War I, when one-reel films were replaced by multireel features, and when the typical venue for films changed from the small nickelodeon to the capacious “movie palace” that required accompaniments played by an orchestra or by a single performer at the newly invented instrument called the “theater organ”; accordingly, the literature shifted from practical articles to a combination of critical commentaries and “human interest” stories centered on music directors for large urban cinemas. The 1930s witnessed the publication of a number of theoretical books and articles; the 1940s and 1950s saw not many books on film music but a proliferation of film music criticism (by writers such as Hans Keller and Antony Hopkins in England and Lawrence Morton in the United States) in journals normally devoted both to film and “serious” music. As noted in the next section, in the 1970s there appeared books on film music aimed at the lay reader, but film music scholarship as it is known today was not launched until the mid-1980s, when musically attuned scholars from the established field of comparative literature and the relatively new field of film studies began to pay close attention to film scores. With very few exceptions, the musical precincts of the academic world paid no attention at all to film music until the mid- to late 1990s; nevertheless, since 2000 the study of film music, from the perspective both of film studies and musicology, has been one of the academy’s “hottest” fields. This bibliography progresses from general works, through anthologies, guidebooks, bibliographies, and academic journals now being devoted entirely to the burgeoning field of film music, to, finally, specialized studies, early studies, and region-specific studies. The ten subsections grouped under the heading Specialized Studies, which includes literature on the film-related areas of television and video games, represent only the most prominent of the field’s subcategories. The section labeled Early Studies deals not with studies of the early period of film music, but, rather, with studies of film music that appeared relatively early in the field’s history; the section labeled Region-Specific Studies deals for the most part with studies focused on film music in various ways geographically distant from the Hollywood mainstream.

General Overviews

Books that sing the praises of famous composers and famous film scores have been in circulation, with a fair amount of commercial success, since the mid-1970s (for example, books by Tony Thomas and Mark Evans). Perhaps due to the rise of film music scholarship in the 1980s and 1990s (beginning especially with Gorbman 1987 and Kalinak 1992), books that attempt to explain film music in general (e.g., Duncan 2003, Larsen 2007, Chion 2009, Kalinak 2010) are a more recent phenomenon.

  • Brophy, Philip. 100 Modern Soundtracks. BFI Screen Guides. London: British Film Institute, 2004.

    Although most of the films treated here date from the early 1980s onward, Melbourne-based filmmaker/composer Brophy begins his survey of “interesting” soundtracks with Fritz Lang’s 1931 M. The discussions are short and arguably superficial, but the writing is consistently engaging.

  • Chion, Michel. Film, a Sound Art. Translated by Claudia Gorbman. Film and Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

    Originally published in French in 2003, this book by former composer and current film critic Chion eloquently makes the case that since the late 1920s the cinema has been—at least for some filmmakers—an art form as much sonic as visual. Special attention is paid to the work of Jean Vigo, Max Ophuls, Jacques Tati, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and Andrey Tarkovsky.

  • Duncan, Dean W. Charms That Soothe: Classical Music and the Narrative Film. Communications and Media Studies 9. New York: Fordham University Press, 2003.

    Although its focus, as the subtitle suggests, is on the role that so-called classical music plays in the cinema, this highly readable book nevertheless covers film music’s broad range.

  • Gorbman, Claudia. Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

    Trained not in music but in French-oriented comparative literature, Gorbman triggered the current wave of film music scholarship with this dissertation-based monograph. Her neat list of seven musical “conventions” in the so-called classical-style film is ubiquitously cited, yet the book itself remains available only in its original edition.

  • Kalinak, Kathryn M. Settling the Score: Music and the Classical Hollywood Film. Wisconsin Studies in Film. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.

    Like Gorbman 1987, Kalinak in the late 1980s and early 1990s approached film music from the perspective not of a musicologist but from someone trained in literature-based film studies. She covers the same ground as does Gorbman but focuses on different examples and thus offers different insights.

  • Kalinak, Kathryn M. Film Music: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780195370874.001.0001

    In keeping with the brief of Oxford’s series of “very short” introductions, Kalinak within a small number of pages not only surveys the entirety of film music but also—often quite brilliantly—articulates the concerns of today’s film music scholar. For academics new to film music, this is an excellent introductory text.

  • Lacombe, Alain. Hollywood Rhapsody: L’âge d’or de la musique de film à Hollywood. Paris: Transatlantiques, 1983.

    This is an “appreciation” of film music geared toward the general public. Although it stems from France, its focus—as suggested by the title—is the music of mainstream Hollywood films.

  • Larsen, Peter. Film Music. Translated by John Irons. London: Reaktion, 2007.

    Larsen teaches in the Department of Information Science and Media Studies at the University of Bergen in Norway. His focus is for the most part on music in Hollywood films, yet his grasp of film music practice is impressively universal.

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