When Does ‘Classic Film Music’ Become ‘Classical Music,’ or Can It?

March 11, 2021 Updated: March 11, 2021

In recent years, as symphony orchestras have struggled to remain in the black, they have adopted increasingly innovative programming to sell tickets. One way to do that has been to increase the number of better-attended pops concerts and decrease the number of classical concerts during their season. Even in the classical concerts, they have taken to playing suites of film music excerpts, which used to be performed only in the pops concerts. Often, these have taken the place of the concert’s “new music” slot, formerly reserved for often dissonant contemporary pieces.

While leading pre-concert discussions, I have frequently been asked by an audience member something like this: “Isn’t film music really the new classical music?” It seems a reasonable question, given that fewer people than ever in the populace as a whole even know that the so-called contemporary, “academic” genre of classical music even exists. It also seems reasonable because so much film music has long endured and is loved. It is often written for the same orchestral instrumentation as many classical pieces and in a late Romantic style, influenced by classical composers like Richard Wagner or Gustav Holst.

However, there are also some crucial differences between film and classical music, from which to argue that they are fundamentally different genres. That is not to imply that one might be better or worse than the other, only that it is more of an apples-versus-oranges comparison than some people may realize.

Erich Korngold’s composition for “Adventures of Robin Hood” is ranked 11th by the American Film Institute as one of the greatest of film scores. But is it classical music or a different genre entirely? (Public Domain)

Differences of Length, Form, and Purpose

The most obvious difference between film music and classical music, with some exceptions, is that film music must be parsed into short “cues,” being frequently interrupted by dialog or a complete change of scene or mood on screen. Simply in terms of length, film music may be likened to a collection of poems, while a classical symphony is more like a novel. No one can say that the novel as a genre is “better” than poetry as a genre, just different.

However, the literary analogy to music also holds in terms of form and structure. A sonnet, for example, may have a form of 14 lines, usually in iambic pentameter, while a novel may require a vast outline weaving many elements into a climax near the end. A film cue may, typically, have one or two statements of a melody in one key, while a symphonic movement in sonata form may have a vast outline, weaving themes and developments of themes through many keys to a musical climax.

Also, an obvious difference is that film music requires collaboration between the composer and the filmmaker, in the sense that film music must “obey” what is on screen, or be compatible with it, moment by moment. A classical work is autonomous and its own master, in terms of content.

Hidden Differences Between Film Music and Classical Music

If I’m not mistaken, not everyone realizes that almost all film composers work with one or more orchestrators, so the music itself is actually a collaboration between them. While a classical composer is personally responsible for creating a finished, written conductor’s score with every note for every instrument on it, film composers usually create only a piano sketch, or a “short score” of a few staff lines, and hand it over to an orchestrator. The orchestrator is sometimes not credited on screen at all, or is listed in the “fine print,” somewhere among the hundreds of names that scroll by at the end of the film.

John Williams, for example, has long worked with an orchestrator named Conrad Pope, who created the full scores for such films as the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy, the “Indiana Jones” films, and the “Harry Potter” films. However, John Williams is known as a composer who includes in his sketches a great number of detailed prose notes about what instruments should play what parts, for the orchestrator just to flesh out on the large score. Williams, in a sense, both composes and arranges the music, only in a condensed version.

However, many other composers provide far less to the orchestrator, so the orchestrator really must also become the arranger of the music, composing things like countermelodies and accompaniment figures not supplied by the composer. This is a much more significant creative role, as may be evident in the accompanying illustration. On the left, from an actual film (which shall remain nameless), is what the composer provided to the orchestrator: just a tune with chords. And on the right are the same measures done by the orchestrator on the finished conductor’s score. It would seem fair, if such a score were ever to enter the canon of classical music, to credit the name of the orchestrator as a co-creator.

film score
A film score demonstrating the musical idea (L) created by the composer and the fleshed out arrangement composed by the orchestrator. (Courtesy of Michael Kurek)

Another fundamental difference between film music and classical music is that film music almost always contains what is called “underscoring,” music of an ambient nature to be played while actors are speaking in the foreground, to set a mood. However, every moment of a classical composition is on center stage, must command the listener’s interest, and move the musical “plot” forward. When film music is brought to the concert hall, the underscoring is omitted and only the memorable parts are assembled into a “suite” or medley of excerpts. Such suites are also common in the concert hall from ballets and operas, though.

When classical music is brought into a film, then the reverse is done: It gets chopped up into shorter cues, and original new underscoring is added where needed. At that point, it might be speculated that it ceases to be a classical composition in that form, but rather makes reference to the original classical piece from which it was taken.

Finally, and as an arguable generalization, much film music seems to be purposely derivative of a particular classical source, as this short video illustrates in comparing one moment in the “Star Wars” score to the almost identical moment in Holst’s “Mars” movement from “The Planets.” It can be argued that much classical music is also derivative of other classical pieces, though perhaps more often accidentally or less obviously.

The Marriage of Film and Classical Music

Perhaps the lines between the two genres were most genuinely blurred by the very successful classical composer Austrian-born Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897–1957), whose classical works were performed worldwide, including at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Korngold was invited to Hollywood in 1934 to rework classical composer Felix Mendelssohn’s music for a film adaptation of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”  With the rise of Hitler at that time, the Jewish Korngold decided to stay in Hollywood, where he became a pioneer film composer, scoring a total of 16 films.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold, 1934–35. The photo is a gift from the Musical America Archives. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

In those early films, Korngold went on writing his classical compositions for movies like “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938) with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, and without bothering to shorten it into cues. In those early days of film, music was often playing almost continually as a classical piece and, sometimes to its detriment, would just be turned down lower when dialog required it to be. Later, especially with the rise of film composer Bernard Herrmann (1911–1975), for example, with his 1958 score forVertigo,” the modern method of shorter cues was born.

In recent years, some of Korngold’s film music has been recorded and performed in the concert hall as fully classical music—a marriage of two worlds, indeed.

American composer Michael Kurek is the author of the recently released book “The Sound of Beauty: A Composer on Music in the Spiritual Life” and the composer of the recent Billboard No. 1 classical album “The Sea Knows.” The winner of numerous composition awards, including the prestigious Academy Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he has served on the Nominations Committee of the Recording Academy for the classical Grammy Awards. He is a professor emeritus of composition at Vanderbilt University. For more information and music, visit MichaelKurek.com