Music In Movies

Matthew Broderick and cast in Ferris Bueller's Day Off
(1986, John Hughes, Courtesy Paramount)

For many people the magic of movies is what you see on screen, the cinematography, or the CGI used in a high-tech movie and the resulting effects, or maybe the actors and what they say and do. Consequently, for most people the music in a movie is a small part of their viewing experience. Yet for decades now the music has been an important part of the movie, and for many movies, a driving force directly related to the eventual popularity and success of that movie.

For the first three decades of film the music was solely created by musicians or orchestras playing along to the showing of the movie. It wasn't until the 1930s before synchronized music could be directly added to the film reels (See our MIH article "The History of Film: Part 4 - The Sound Era" for a more indepth discussion of the early days of sound in film).

The first twenty or so years of synchronized music in film however, typically involved either classical compositions or music written and scored just for that movie. Then around the late 1940s the use of popular music in movies slowly built up. The use of classical music and original compositions however did continue, and indeed still does, even to this day.

Also around this time production studios began to release music from the movies as a way to promote the movie. First in the 1940s, it was mostly for films that were of musical nature to begin with, such as broadway or theatre adaptations. These were releases that were dubbed "original cast" recordings. Then in the 1950s the industry moved on to releasing music from movies that comprised original scores or original compositions. These releases came to be called Original Motion Picture Soundtracks.

The 1960s and 70s saw a growth in the release of Original Motion Picture Soundtracks, or OSTs (Original Soundtracks) as they later came to be called. Also growing was the use of popular, previously released, songs in the movies. Examples from this period are Steppenwolf's Born To Be Wild from Easy Rider (1968) and The Doors' The End from Apocalypse Now (1979). The use of original compositions and scores also continued and were still very popular during this period. Indeed one of the best selling scores ever came from 1977; John Williams's score for Star Wars.

While popular music is still used today in many movies, besides the use of original compositions, perhaps the "hey-day" of popular music in movies was the 1980s and early 1990s. Some movies that are almost as well known for their soundtracks as the movie themselves include examples such as, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), Highlander (1986), and Dazed and Confused (1993).

Since this hey-day more and more soundtracks are being released to album it seems. It also seems that the object of these releases has moved more towards their importance as a separate revenue stream for the studios and producers, as opposed to a promotional tool for the movie itself. Evidence of this can be seen in a number of factors; the sheer number of releases including movies that don't even seem to have "much" of what could be considered a "worthwhile soundtrack", or the release of a soundtrack that includes music that is not even from the movie (2001's I am Sam for instance), or finally, the release of multiple versions (Each movie from the Lord of the Rings Trilogy had a soundtrack released with compositions from the movies and then there was a huge 10 disc box set released that had over 11 hours of music, more than the actual theatrical movie lengths).

Possible future revenue grab aside, the use of music in movies, whether original compositions or previously recorded popular music, is an important part of film.
So if you think you are one of those people who doesn't pay too much attention to the music in a movie, you may have to think again if you know what movie this comes from: Bowmp bowmp. Chuck, chuck-a-chuckaaah!!

This MIH is dedicated to the memory of director John Hughes.


Here are some lists we thought might interest you.

Bullz-Eye's 2006 critics list of top 40 popular music moments in movies: ""

Scene-Stealers top 10 uses of pop songs in movies: ""'s top 10 original film soundtracks: ""

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