A good movie soundtrack makes sure that you see the scene in the film right in front of you when you hear the music. Think about ‘my heart will go on’ by Céline Dion for example. When we hear this song, we all think about Rose and Jack in the film 'The Titanic'. In this article, you will learn more about the history of movie soundtracks and the effects it had on the movie industry.
The silent film
Nowadays it is completely self-evident that movies come with a soundtrack. If you would start to watch a movie and you would not hear anything, you would probably think that something is wrong with your tv. But that has not always been the case. To learn more about the beginning of movie soundtracks, we have to go back in the history of films. Before the 1920s most films were silent. This period is also called the silent era. In that time, films only existed of moving image, and there was no sound at all. Did the viewers of the film just watch in silence then? No, some solutions were made up to add sound. Silent films were shown while a pianist or a small ensemble played live music in the cinema or theater. Because of the limited space, the music was played by only one person or just a few persons. In larger cinemas there was the option to have a bigger ensemble. Also, larger cinemas, could have an organ, on which they could play special sound effects to complement the film. They also had to find a solution to explain what happened in the film, because the actors did not speak. Therefore some explanations were needed to understand the story. These explanations were provided by the ‘explicateur’ who explained what was going on and what otherwise would be unclear for the viewers.
The invention of the soundtrack
In the 1920s, the soundtrack was developed in the film industry. This can be seen as one of the most important inventions in film history. This invention allowed for pre-recorded music to be used in a film production. It also made it possible for actors to speak during acting. This was a big change for many actors, because they used to compensate for not being able to speak by using their body language and facial expression to show emotions. This all had to change when the soundtrack was invented. Because the music did not have to be played live in the cinema anymore, it became possible to use much larger orchestras to play the soundtrack, which would not have fitted in a cinema. There were four categories of sound which could now be added to films: the spoken word by actors, background sounds, special sound effects and of course the film music. The first film that got its own soundtrack was the film King Kong in 1933, with music of Max Steiner.
Consequences of the soundtrack
This change had a lot of consequences for the film industry. To begin with, suddenly films became linked to specific language areas. Previously, films could be used in many different countries, with an explicateur who spoke in the language of the viewers. But now the spoken language was inextricably linked to the film. Since a large part of the world’s population spoke English, the English speaking countries had a great advantage of the other countries, because they were able to reach a much larger audience. Nowadays, this problem has been solved, by the possibility to add subtitles to a film or to dub the audio.
The effect of music on films
Watching a film with or without music is a completely different experience. Film music really brings the world to life in the film. The most important function of music in films is to emphasize the tension. As you probably know, when something exiting or dangerous is about to happen in a film, the music complements this tension. Just try to watch a thriller or an action film without music once. You will experience that it is really not that exciting or scary anymore. Music adds an extra sense to a film. You do not only see what is happening, but you can also hear it. By adding an extra sense, the film becomes more realistic to the viewer. Another very important function of music in films is to enhance the atmosphere of the scene and express emotions of the actors. During a sad scene in a film, the music plays a very important role to convey the emotions.
Fun fact about movie soundtracks
Many people never think about this while watching a film, but it is almost always the case that the film music can only be heard by the viewer of the film and not by the characters who are in the film. This only happens in a few cases, most of the times when the music is really played in the film, for example when you see a band playing or the characters listen to music on the radio.
Do you feel inspired to listen to more movie soundtracks? This radio station broadcasts movie music all day long!