There is More to Music Than Music

This week’s Film Music Magazine Opinion article was written and contributed by Piet De Ridder. Piet’s professional activities are divided between graphic design for the music industry and composing music for film, television and contemporary ensembles.

A considerable number of people, it appears, seem to go through life thoroughly enjoying all kinds of (orchestral) film music, maybe even studying it with love and dedication, and yet, if you suggest to them to spend some time in the company of a classical composer, they shudder and turn away. Why is that? Why is it that so many people love orchestral film music passionately, but have to admit — some with conviction, others with embarrassment — that they find most of the classical stuff boring / tedious / incomprehensible / pretentious, even though both these idioms very often have plenty in common, musically speaking?

I think that those who prefer orchestral film music to classical music very often reduce music (or, to put it more accurately: all that music can be) to a comfortable, easily accessible and predictable trigger of emotions. In other words, they confuse musical appreciation with emotional response. It’s not necessarily a fully conscious decision and there’s more to it than just that of course, but this confusion does play a large part nonetheless: people are absolutely convinced that they are enjoying the music, when in fact they’re overwhelmed by something entirely different: some memory, association, emotion, fantasy or other. Nothing wrong with that, certainly not, but it is not an experience driven by music alone, despite what many may believe.

If you’re listening to the ‘Raiders March’ for example, and you feel that familiar and pleasant rush of excitement going through your body, you’re not really listening to the music itself (and I mean: the naked musical content, the dots on the paper), but you are carried away into the realm of imagination, memories, feelings, projection and/or fantasy.

Audiences that cheer and applaud ecstatically the moment Williams launches the Boston Symphony into the first bars of the ‘Star Wars’ music, are not really applauding the music itself — well, in part they do, naturally — but are most of all releasing the excitement they feel as a result of the many emotions and associations which this music invariably stirs up. The expression ‘carried away,’ which was used earlier, is in fact pretty accurate in this context: one is carried away from the objective, abstract musical content into the subjective world of emotion, association and imagination. Music has to have some real musical power and merit for that to happen of course, but the moment that it happens, it is a response that is, paradoxically perhaps, no longer a purely musical one.

Listening to (most) film music requires very little effort and yet, you do get a whole lot in return. Instantly and also (and this is very important) unambiguously. The musical language of film music may or may not be a complex one, that’s irrelevant here — what is relevant however (and very much so, I believe) is that its ‘meaning,’ the message it hopes to convey, is usually and for obvious reasons very much narrowed down to one single unambiguous and impossible-to-misinterpret message, and it is this absence of ambiguity which, in my view, is a fundamental element contributing to film music’s great and lasting appeal: people easily recognize the emotion which the music is supposed to underline or generate, they fully accept the music’s function and purpose (and the inherent limitations this implies) and … it never gives them the uncomfortable feeling that they might not understand it.

This last element – the certainty about understanding the music – is not without importance: the creative force (the talent, the craft, the dedication) behind most film music is fairly easy to measure, even for uneducated ears, and this gives the listener a stimulating sense of satisfaction and self-assurance (on top of his/her musical enjoyment). It is quite easy for most people to distinguish between powerful, inspired work and bland mediocrity in film music. Besides, each person is free to use his/her own yardstick for evaluating these things anyway, and you can always feel pleased about your choices as well, because film music doesn’t carry the enormous weight of ‘high art’ either: there’s never any embarrassment if you profess to like a less established or even obscure film composer.

Not so in classical music: be careful about what you like, and whom you decide to share it with. This music has a patina of near perfection, it is only to be listened to in evening dress or tailcoat, it’s been endlessly analyzed, discussed and revered by some of the greatest minds that ever lived, and it would therefore be very unwise to approach it without appropriate amounts of knowledge, respect and even awe. Which places, of course, a paralyzing burden on the shoulders of a casual listener.

And yet, present people with an unfamiliar Mozart symphony, on the one hand, and a work of a much less talented contemporary, on the other (or even a great and a minor work by the same composer), and chances are that most people simply won’t be able to determine which is which, absent a label. A most disconcerting predicament to find yourself in (particularly when among a supposedly cultured audience) and one that causes a great deal of unease and frustration. (This unease and frustration does eventually get buried under a safe coating of spineless but stress-relieving hypocrisy that finds nearly everybody in blissful agreement with what generations of esteemed academics have said before them.)

And while we’re here, let’s maybe also have a quick look at ‘modern’ classical music: a vast majority of the audience (and their number must be much larger than just those who are prepared to admit it) simply doesn’t have a clue if they are listening to a complete hack or a genuinely talented composer. This lack of expertise or guideposts when confronted with modern art music generates an almost immediate and complete breakdown in communication between audience and music, a divide that quickly and inevitably results in boredom, apathy and/or dismissive irritation.

Many listeners find this music very hard to enjoy, not only for aesthetic reasons, but also because it makes them feel limited, small, unsophisticated or culturally under-prepared. Even if some learned and amiable authority tells them that a given piece is really very good, they still find themselves quite incapable of truly enjoying the ride. It’s just too much trouble to have to go through. Most people really don’t want to have to bother with any of this, nor do they like to be told what they’re supposed to appreciate in music. They simply want to make choices for themselves and, above all, be able to feel good about those choices, without any inhibitions.

Film music is ideal for that: just pick whatever you happen to like, enjoy it without having to worry that you might be appreciating music which is deemed not all that great, and then simply let the music take you wherever your imagination allows you to go. Easy. Straightforward. Perfect.

And not only do many classical pieces require some extra effort, but the rewards may not always be that obvious or clear-cut either. Another reason, I think, why many people have serious difficulty with it: “serious” music demands trust (in the integrity, talent and good intentions of the composer), goodwill, empathy and concentration (which, put together, is already a great deal to expect from the average listener) and even then, it remains to be seen if you get something truly enjoyable in return. Or even, in some cases, comprehensible.

Furthermore, in order to completely ‘receive’ a classical piece — at least the way it was conceived and intended — one is also required, to some extent anyway, to be somewhat familiar with its idiom and its musically-technical language: you have to have your antennae out for things like form, structure, style and development, both horizontally and vertically. A Beethoven symphony, for instance, has an extra, largely hidden layer of immense musical pleasures if you’re willing and able to explore its complex maze of thematic threads that are woven throughout the entire structure.

When, by contrast, you listen to an inspired film score, what do you get? None of classical music’s confusing problems, but a near constant flow of fairly easy-to-follow melodic material, the pleasantly regular appearance of a few rousing ‘big themes,’ loads of exciting rhythms, spectacular sonics, the exhilarating and dazzling sound of craftily orchestrated music, the ever-present ‘poignant’ moments and most importantly: plenty of pointers which indicate, unequivocally, what this music’s intention is and how you are supposed to respond to it. Film music may be on the inside just as complex, sophisticated, clever or multi-layered as any classical piece, but on the surface, it almost always has a distinct and unambiguous message, making it much easier to absorb and enjoy. It’s accessible, its meaning is crystal-clear, it requires very little effort, it’s fun, it triggers repeatable sensations, and it moves or excites with unfailing and predictable impact.

Why do people invariably single out ‘Nimrod’ as the ‘best bit’ in the ‘Enigma Variations?’ I mean, is it indeed the best-written, most inspired music in that work? Maybe, maybe not, but it certainly is the most ‘filmic’ one, by which I mean: it’s the bit that requires the least effort and yet provides the biggest return. Again: it’s not a purely musical return (all sorts of emotions awaken during the performance of this fragment), but it’s a very powerful and gratifying return nonetheless. And that makes it, to most people, the highlight of the work. It’s the bit that asks very little and gives plenty back. Same thing with Rachmaninov’s ‘Paganini Variations:’ many people are simply waiting for the easily identifiable and unambiguous beauty of variation nr. 18, and all the other bits are ‘sat through’ dutifully and politely, if somewhat indifferently and impatiently.

Which brings me to the feelings of embarrassment, sometimes even guilt, that one often hears expressed by people who readily admit to loving film music, but fail to ‘get’ the serious classical stuff. Classical music has this aura of being ‘better,’ more profound and elevated, but is it? And if it is, should that difference in quality or artistic merit be a damper on the joy of those who prefer film music?

One reason why classical music (great classical music, I mean) is musically more rewarding than film music, is that the art of music can be practiced more completely in a great classical piece than it can in a piece of film music. And by ‘more completely’ I mean: the composer can use more of music’s linguistic, semantic, structural, referential, intellectual and emotional powers, and often to a fuller extent as well. This, however, doesn’t necessarily make the classical piece intrinsically ‘better’, but there’s no denying that, in a good work, classical music offers much more and richer food to the musically hungry.

To give an example: there is a lot more musical food in Prokofiev’s third piano concerto than there is in, say, John Barry’s much-loved ‘Out Of Africa’ music. (And this is in no way meant as a put-down of Barry’s work). To many people, the food offered by Barry might be far tastier and much more pleasantly digestible, but the fact is that the Prokofiev does present a much richer and far more varied musical plate.

But … does that make the Prokofiev ‘better?’ Is listening to Prokofiev’s third a more profound, more ‘complete’ experience than listening to Barry? Mmm, difficult question. In absolute and pure, abstract musical terms: yes, it is. Undoubtedly. But the power (and mystery) of music is such that there’s a lot more to it than simply communicating abstract musical ideas and/or qualities. The way people absorb and respond to music, the many fascinating and unforeseeable ways in which they invent and wrap a non-musical context around a piece of music, each with his or her own intellect, background, taste, emotions and imagination, is something which is largely (not entirely of course) beyond the composers’ control. The music has moved from the composer’s desk, where music rules, into the listener’s territory and there, music may very well not be (and usually isn’t) the absolute monarch. So, which type of music provides the ‘best’ or most meaningful experience is, at the end of the day, something that can or, perhaps, should not be evaluated on purely musical grounds alone.

If you listen to a Mendelssohn symphony with the same ‘hunger’ (intellectual and/or emotional) as to ‘Dark Knight,’ there’s going to be very little pleasure to be derived from that encounter, it seems to me. Likewise, people who sample Zimmer’s music with the same or similar expectations as they have for Brahms’ second piano concerto, are invariably left terribly frustrated and disappointed. Strictly musically speaking, the Brahms concerto is infinitely richer, more interesting and rewarding than the ‘Dark Knight’ score (and this is not a subjective observation but a musically very objective one), but … there is a lot more to music than music. And here we arrive at the central idea of this entire essay:

there is a lot more to music than just music.

Film music gives people (those that figured prominently throughout this text, I mean) everything they hope to find in music, and it does this in a generous, assuring, non-confusing and often musically satisfying manner, a manner that much classical music, despite (or because of) its often abstract musical superiority, simply isn’t capable of. And that is why many people’s preference for film music is entirely and perfectly understandable and certainly nothing for them to feel embarrassed, uncomfortable or awkward about, or for others to think little of.


  • April 12, 2011 @ 10:45 am

    I really enjoyed the article, but had a couple of things to say in response to it. I posted this on my blog, and would love to discuss it further with you.

    “This is a pertinent article that tackles a question many people struggle with: what is film music? That is essentially the dilemma of the film music fan. It is too classical to be pop music, is too programmatic to be pure music, and is too melodic to be neo-classical music. In addition, the requirements of film may ask the composer to write music that approaches many different styles, from classical to rock to jazz and everything in between. As an example, the Oscar-winning score to The Social Network is not an electronica album, is not an extension of Nine Inch Nails, but is rather a unique approach for a film score. It exists as “film music” even though comparing it to Star Wars is a useless endeavor.

    That is the one function of film music that I think de Ridder misses. He focuses mostly on the difference between “classically-styled” film music and classical music, the former being mostly orchestral, mostly thematic, but not with the strict rigors of classical music. But film music has a much larger tent, and thus offers something for everyone. If you like big thematic fanfares, John Williams has you covered. Go to John Barry for soaring romantic melodies, Quincy Jones for Hollywood jazz, Henry Mancini for a film-pop song. If you want big themes with a more streamlined outer shell, Hans Zimmer delivers. Someone who likes “film music” can essentially like any one of these genres. Someone who likes film music in general has a place where he can find these different sounds on any occasion.

    In addition, the accessibility of music increases when people have something to relate to. People might not know what to think when they hear a Wagner opera. But when people hear it in a memorable scene of helicopters bombing Viet Nam, or in a Looney Tunes parody, it becomes relatable, and the music itself becomes memorable. People certainly might be confused upon listening to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and yet its popularity flourished because of Fantasia. I would argue that it is not film music itself that is somehow “simpler” or “easier to understand”, but it is ability to understand music through a narrative that serves as a gateway to understand the music. I doubt many people think that they have listened to music by Ligeti in their lifetimes. But they have if they’ve watched Kubrick films, and understanding the music as it relates to the film first enables people to overcome fears they have about new or classical music and allows them to eventually become comfortable with said music.

    Film music is a gateway into multiple worlds, not just the classical one. One who hears film music jazz will look for other film music jazz, and eventually for non-film music jazz. One who hears an atonal score like Johnny Greenwood’s There Will Be Blood might realize that he is more comfortable with that kind of music than he thought, and not only that, that he actually enjoys that type of music, and will look for others, like Penderecki or Bartok, who satisfy this new desire. I’m not saying that much film music is not more streamlined than classical music – it is. I take issue with this, however, from the article.

    “And yet, present people with an unfamiliar Mozart symphony, on the one hand, and a work of a much less talented contemporary, on the other (or even a great and a minor work by the same composer), and chances are that most people simply won’t be able to determine which is which, absent a label.”

    The above happens with film music as well. Present people with a John Williams piece that doesn’t have a recognizable theme and they’ll think it’s the work of a classical composer. I understand that the author is saying that people can like film music because there is less pressure, but I disagree with that too. They like it because they can relate to it. In the absence of musical and aural training (which most people who aren’t musicians do not have), people like approaching music visually. I think that’s why may people still like going to concerts and operas and shows – it gives them something to look at, and in processing the narrative visually, they can start to get a glimmer of the music’s meaning, and can intellectualize what they’re hearing. Films give musically illiterate people a different narrative language and, ironically, a visual language, so that they too can understand aural meaning. “

  • Ben Pearson
    April 12, 2011 @ 11:16 am

    As a young composer who enjoys both classical and film music I found your article very interesting and would agree with a lot of what you said, especially how film music can offer instant satisfaction and how classical music can perhaps take more time and effort to discover that same feeling. One important factor that i think you overlooked however was the actual film itself! I do find i naturally picture scenes to classical music but regularly (wether i’ve seen the film or not) I will imagine something taking place when I listen to music written for film. In relation to your argument i think one of the main reasons that people less musically inclined can appreciate film music is because they can make sense of any other emotions or richness in the image and the dialogue, which consequently means the music is perhaps more straight forward. This then carries on to an extent when they go back too listen to it on its own.
    A good example would be the very popular Music by John Murphy that was used both in sunshine and recently Kick ass, that when listening too one can instantly imagine gun shots being fired in slow motion. Where as Mozart’s very popular clarinet concerto does not have the same effect because it was not written for an audience that went to the movies. However if one were to take the time to listen to it there is intense amount of emotional satisfaction to be gained, it just doesn’t have an actual movie to speed the process up.

  • April 16, 2011 @ 1:33 am

    Prokofiev was also a film composer. Prokofiev worked with Eisenstein. He composed the music for Alexander Nevski and Ivan the Terrible. People who make films I understand would want to show the best they can do. It’s not for nothing that they get not only Oscars. Some composers go to considerable time length in their writings which is not necessary for a film. However the music input to a film has to be consistent from beginning to end to make it worthy which adds a special decorative ability to those concerned by the work. This decorative ability unique to each composer or film director is a constant in film. Having a great piece is one thing, having a great and entire film score is yet another. This special ability will in most cases respond in it’s fairness to the ‘today’s cliches’ that one wants to convey in his film aided by the music. It’s aesthetic to the images at one time. But is the movie story really trustworthy ?.Classical music has the evocative and rare power to propell us into the past where it originates. Both will alter one’s perception into a certain time frame. One may not want to scroll the past, one may prefer to beat on the present. This being said I think people just enjoy the evocative power from a score embedded to the motion picture, it’s a special effort just like good photography and carries an additional pleasure to the view.
    A purely orchestral or symphonic work does not necessarily have to follow these rule settings. It’s up to the composer whatever his commitment. The precious archives from the past simply don’t share a common denominator with the modern sounds of today and I don’t see why one would want to impose one or the other. It’s a matter of personnal taste.

  • Michael
    April 18, 2011 @ 3:17 am

    Think about it in terms of investment.

    Hans Zimmer may have to write upwards of 2 hours of music in a matter of 3 months for a film. John Adams takes a year to write half that amount of music. They satisfy different needs and exist in different worlds and in that sense I’m not sure its very beneficial to compare them, but if you do I’m afraid that film music just cannot compete.

    The goal of a film composer should always be to write music that could hold its own on a concert stage, but that so rarely happens. Harmony in todays film music is decidedly of the romantic era, in some cases maybe we see some chromatic essence that speaks of the Prelude from Tristan Und Isolde, but there are clear cut chord progressions whose ultimate goal is to reach a V-I cadence.

    In the concert world bad music has a tendency to sit in the shadows, there will always be bad music being written, but when the LA Phil commissions a piece of new music it doesn’t commission crap, no one like that does. Whether you enjoy Carter or Wuorenin or not is besides the point. These men are pushing the boundaries of music and are of the most competent musicians alive. Their concepts are solid. I simply cannot understand how the romantic comedy composer can find his work creatively stimulating, the music being written for these sorts of films, which is the vast majority these days, is overdone, processed, and wildly un – stimulating.

    I love film music, and will always love film music, but it has lost its way in many senses. Jerry Goldsmith could play ball with anyone, you can’t really say that about anyone anymore.

    May 3, 2011 @ 12:16 pm

    I think one should bear in mind that there are 2 kinds of film music; one that is written to lend credence to what is taking place on the screen. Imagine how tame a car chase could look without sound effects and dramatic/heroic/etc music. The othewr kind is the sort of music that can do the latter but also stand on its own feet (as it were) in the concert hall without visual image accompaniment. One has only to listen to John Williams’ ET music (eg. Flying scene) or his music for Superman, Star Wars and Schindler’s List to appreciate what I mean by the second kind of music.

  • May 17, 2011 @ 8:44 pm

    Interesting article. A great musical score can mean the difference between a good film and an award winning film. It sets the tone and emotion for the film. Striking the perfect match is necessary. Whether it be Chemical Brothers for “Hanna” or Leos Janácek for “Unbearable Lightness Of Being”.

  • May 18, 2011 @ 1:05 am

    I think the reason film music is as popular as it is, is somewhat unrelated to classical music entirely, and has much to do with the popular music movement; which is very much about finding the ‘hook’, the essential turnaround & melodic phrase that makes the music memorable.

    It is almost a moot point to compare film music to classical music. Yes, film music owes much of it’s roots to classical music, but I think the reason why film composers still employ orchestras is simply because of the emotive range that is possible from such a diverse range of timbres available. But in more recent times you are starting to see those timbres exchanged for other instruments – synths, guitars, [insert instrument here].

    Film music is now a divergent species from classical music – it shares a common ancestor, but film music has moved on to adapt to it’s environment, as has its distant cousin in modern art music. None are better than any other, just more suited to it’s little niche.

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