Cinema and Media Studies Pop, Blues, and Jazz in Film
Michael Jarrett
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 January 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 January 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0175


Let “pop” equal vernacular music that followed in the wake of Elvis Presley. Let “jazz” equal a broad range of syncopated dance music (what jazz fans call “merely jazzy”). And let “blues” equal the blues. Also, “film” means movies, not cognate media (television and music video). Even given all this, the boundaries that structure this bibliography are not tidy and tight, because pop, jazz, and blues are best understood as shifting markers designating musical territories that cinema was reluctant to annex for half a century. Which is to say, pop, jazz, and blues have conventionally functioned as movie music’s “other,” despite inclusion in films virtually from the origin of cinema. This bibliography understands movie music’s “other” by repeating a distinction that might appear subtle to a fault. There is the “soundtrack,” the recorded music associated with films, and there is the “sound track,” or the audio mixes of films, comprising everything one hears while experiencing movies (music, noises, and voices). Popular music finds its initial expressions in cinema as embedded sound. It is music with origins—either seen or implied—inside a film’s world. Pop and jazz and blues—like songs in musicals (see the Oxford Bibliographies article on Musicals)—enter cinema as eruptions. Such music is performed in films (it’s part of the sound track) before it is incorporated into film scores (soundtracks). Until the mid-1950s, soundtracks were scores composed in the idiom of tonal classical music. Received truth held that this music communicated “naturally” and universally. All people everywhere automatically understood it. The musical devices of Hollywood derived from (rationalized or supported) this belief system. No one needed to learn what “scary,” “sad,” or “courageous” music sounded like. This assumption has everything to do with Hollywood’s long-held belief that good film scores are self-effacing: they supplement the images, without calling attention to their presence. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score for High Noon (1952) announced a significant variation of this formula. Over the film’s opening credits, Tex Ritter sang “Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darling,” a country-and-western song composed by Tiomkin. The film’s score worked permutations on the country tune. Hollywood’s orientation toward “the popular” had shifted, and the relationship between song and score had been reconceptualized. The notion that a soundtrack could be a collection of previously recorded pop tunes begins with High Noon. In short order, the film scores of Henry Mancini would retroactively install jazz in the collective imagination as the sound of film noir, and rock-derived scores and on-screen performances would soon feature stars of popular music.

General Overviews

One might ask, overviews of what? No book takes a comprehensive look at vernacular music in cinema. Limbacher 1974 pulls together a number of (early) short pieces, most originally appearing in the popular press, to portray the topic of composing scores for cinema. Taking a broader view, Burlingame 2000 examines soundtracks—scored and compiled—mainly by spotlighting cinema’s key composers. Atkins 1982 theorizes the use of diegetic music in motion pictures—that is, music that originates inside the dramatic world of the film. Generally, popular music found its way into film through this route. Prendergast 1992, however, conceptualizes film music—underscoring or nondiegetic music—by employing the analytical tools of musicology. Less concerned with aesthetics (great works) than Prendergast 1992, Larsen 2005 surveys roles assigned to the film score. Reay 2004, a handy, pocket-sized guide to film music, follows suit, but it locates test cases in the realm of pop music. Romney and Wootton 1995 surveys the use of rock-based music in cinema since the 1950s. Karlin 1994 directs the attention of readers to production aspects of the soundtrack.

  • Atkins, Irene Kahn. Source Music in Motion Pictures. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1982.

    Source music is what film studies labels “diegetic music.” Atkins sets three goals for her introductory text: (1) to show how source music enhances narrative and drama, (2) to discuss the “intrinsic musical merits” of embedded compositions; and (3) to reveal problems encountered by industry personnel when choosing or composing musical material.

  • Burlingame, Jon. Sound and Vision: Sixty Years of Motion Picture Soundtracks. New York: Billboard, 2000.

    After a brief history of original soundtrack recordings, Burlingame presents a guide to soundtracks (meaning, biographies of iconic composers, plus descriptions of representative films), followed by a short guide to compilation soundtracks.

  • Karlin, Fred. Listening to Movies: The Film Lover’s Guide to Film Music. New York: Schirmer, 1994.

    Every conceivable aspect of film scoring—from conception (planning and composing) to production (working within the studio system, recording, and mixing) to consumption (how to evaluate a score)—is covered. Profiles of composers are inclusive, spanning the history of US cinema.

  • Larsen, Peter. Film Music. London: Reaktion, 2005.

    Cinema has assigned multiple tasks to film music, tasks that have changed, sometimes significantly, during its history. Blending musicology and film theory, Larsen investigates how film music has fulfilled its tasks. The Graduate (1967), American Graffiti (1973), Star Wars (1977), and Blade Runner (1982) serve as case studies for an analysis of contemporary cinema.

  • Limbacher, James L., ed. Film Music: From Violins to Video. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1974.

    Indexes of movies and the men who scored them (during three-fourths of cinema’s history) make up the bulk of this book. Otherwise, the book’s first quarter, a patchwork of short articles that forms a history of film scoring, is a handy compendium of, predominantly, journalistic writing about movie scores.

  • Prendergast, Roy M. Film Music: A Neglected Art: A Critical Study of Music in Films. 2d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.

    Prendergast devotes little space to jazz- and pop-based film scores. Instead, he concentrates on Western art music, which he, as a musicologist, finds more analytically and aesthetically rewarding. Nonetheless, his assessments of the limitations of jazz and pop scores are worth visiting.

  • Reay, Pauline. Music in Film: Soundtracks and Synergy. London and New York: Wallflower, 2004.

    Popular music is emphasized in this introductory text. For example, a case study investigating the functions of film music singles out Paul Thomas Anderson’s use of Aimee Mann’s music in Magnolia (1999). Attention is also paid to history and to industry economics.

  • Romney, Jonathan, and Adrian Wootton, eds. Celluloid Jukebox: Popular Music and the Movies since the 50s. London: British Film Institute, 1995.

    Members of the British music press walk the line between academic and popular writing in the essays found in this profusely illustrated book. There’s no other word for it, the essays are fun—targeting a very hip mass audience.

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