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Film Scoring Before the Digital Era

Info: 9584 words (38 pages) Dissertation
Published: 9th Dec 2019

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Tagged: Film Studies


The pre-digital era in the film industry is the era we can call the electronic, analog and mechanical era. These are the characteristics of the technology that was born in the late nineteenth century, as a result of inventions such as electromagnetism, photography, radio transmitter, and many others derived from the invention of electricity.

Precisely the invention of cinematography was one of the great advances of the end of century XIX. And it turns out to be also that film and its creators have been continuously taking advantage of all the technologies developed since its invention –it does not matter if they were technologies specifically designed for the cinema or not– and implementing them in this “fifth art”. The curiosity and the creative eagerness has caused that the filmmakers have always wanted to use the latest technologies available to surprise the public.

The evolution of film music through the last century, how could it not be otherwise, have been clearly a consequence of the new technological discoveries and the technological developments, especially in audio and visual technology. Musically this have been represented by stylistic changes. Before the computers and the digital technology started to play a real revolution in filmmaking and film scoring, there were already some important changes related to technical improvements that influenced on film music.

I divide film scoring before the digital era in three big categories or periods:

  1. Film music using classical scores and pop songs without synchronisation.
  2. Original composed film music with synchronisation and the Hollywood style.
  3. Film music with synthesizers and analog technology.

In this chapter we will go through these categories and explore some representative scores and composers of each, how these scores were made in a technological and musical way, and what influence technology have had on the evolution from one category to another from a musical perspective.


As we have seen in a previous chapter, in the beginnings of film, music was not a part of the film, because of the lack of a proper synchronisation technology between audio and visual (film) –there was only silent film until 1927–. Instead the music used to be played live. Mostly this live music was played by musicians improvising according to the scenes on the screen in that very moment, using fast rhythms for chases, bass sounds for mysterious moments, and romantic melodies for love scenes.

Another common practice was to use already composed classical scores and pop songs. One of the reasons for that was that they wanted to attract the public with the music they know, so a large amount of the film music came from famous classical pieces and pop songs from that time. This is a very important point to highlight, because the fact that films used a music typically in a romantic style, which was the most popular at that time in terms of classical music, had an enormous influence later on the music of the so-called golden age of Hollywood.

In this period it was therefore very common to listen to the music of composers such as Rachmaninov, Debussy, Poulenc, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, etc. But also popular music of that time, such as jazz songs, blues, gospel, swing, ragtime, and other genres that were gaining popularity over time among the people. An example of it, we find the music of Brahms and his 5th Hungarian Dance in the film “The Great Dictator” (1940) by Charles Chaplin.

However, in spite of the lack of possible synchronization, soon in films appeared the need for music to have expressive purposes and therefore to create music that accompanied concrete images and scenes. In 1908, French composer Camille Saint-Saens composed the first original music for the film “L’assassinat du duc de Guise”. But Saint-Saens was not the only classical composer asked to compose a music for a film. Many of the previous list they also composed music specifically for films.

It is important to note that this music was not synchronized and its function was to help the viewer to enter the expressiveness and the ambient of the scene. Therefore this music was composed in a way not unlike a classical score. We could say that there was not much difference for a composer between composing programmatic music and composing music for film, except that in a film the scene has a certain time, and that the images are explicitly shown.

The Pictures of an exhibition (1874) by Modest Mussorgsky would have been perfect movie music, if it had originally accompanied some scenes about it, and no one would have noticed the difference of whether that music was composed for a film or for a concert.

As a summary, the conclusions we can draw from the first period or first category of the pre-digital era in film music are as follows:

  • Scenes were musically live performed with improvisations and composed scores at the beginning, and later gradually the need to create original music appears.
  • There was no synchronisation, music ambient and accompanies the scene, but the timing is difficult to adjust to the film.
  • Most of film music originating from classical music was composed about popular styles of the era, ie romantic, post-romantic, impressionist, nationalist…
  • Jazz and pop music were also included, because they were the novelty and what was at that time more fashionable. This type of music was also used as a measure to attract the public through music.
  • Composing techniques of film music was not so different from composing another kind of classical work.


After the proper technology was developed, the synchronisation of the film with music was finally possible, and with it composing original music for a film became a practice with even more sense than ever before. And Hollywood became by that time the venue where film lived its so-called “Golden Age”.

In his article, Tim Robey (Robey, 2013) highlights the importance of Jewish immigration during the 1930s from Europe to North America. Directors such as Fritz Lang, Max Ophüls, Fred Zinnemann, Robert Siodmak or Otto Preminger landed in North-America, ready to change the history of film forever. But not only a large number of these directors were the creators of the new Hollywood; many composers coming from Europe also created school and created the famous style of Hollywood films that everyone knows. Some of the most famous names are Max Steiner, Bernhard Herrmann, Franz Waxman or Dmitri Tiomkin, among others.

Each of these composers has a different story about how they landed in Hollywood. But they all had something in common, which made Hollywood music in its Golden age have a romantic orchestral color: the European musical tradition. T

Thus, while in Europe the music of Romanticism was slowly declining, giving way to contemporary avant-gardes and trends in popular music, this same musical style from Romanticism found in Hollywood films the place to keep growing until it became one of the biggest and most important musical styles of the 20th century. This also makes sense because the first film music used many elements of romanticism and even whole pieces to accompany scenes or the entire film. Therefore, the public was accustomed to a kind of sonority, which could not easily change, in the fear of losing the favor of the public in a movie.

This however was both an element used by some directors to distinguish their films, and we find example in the films of Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock or more recently Kubrick and David Lynch. These directors entrusted the respective composers to create a music closer to the European avant-gardes to musicalize their films.

One of these composers was Franz Waxman, who worked with Hitchcock up to four times, and to whom we can attribute the sound characteristic of Hitchcock films. But he also worked with other directors like James Whale, with whom he made one of his most memorable contributions in the film Bride of Frankenstein (1935) with a famous motif of three notes: fundamental note – eighth – second minor descending.

As a result of the first period of film, and despite not being the most usual practice in Hollywood, some directors have continued to use classical themes or pieces, of very different genres, instead of composing new pieces.

Stanley Kubrick, for example, decided to use a lot of music already composed of Ligeti in his film “A Clockwork Orange” (1971). We can find a lot of examples of classical pieces in famous movies. Following we name some of them:

  • Sull’aria… che soave zeffiretto from “The Weddings of Figaro” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the film “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994) by Frank Darabont during a turntable scene.
  • Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni in the film “The Godfather 3” (1990) by Francis Ford Coppola during the final scene.
  • Barcarolle from “The Tales of Hoffmann” by Jacques Offenbach in the film “La vita è bella” (1997) by Roberto Benigni during a grammophon scene.
  • O Fortuna from “Carmina Burana” by Carl Orff in the film “Excalibur” (1981) by John Boorman.
  • Dies Irae by Hector Berlioz in the film “The Shining” (1980) by Stanley Kubrick.
  • Grand Polonaise Brillante in E-flat Major, Op.22 by Frederic Chopin in the film “The Pianist” (2002) by Roman Polanski during the concert of the final scene.

The difference between this film music and the one used in the previous period, although both come from already composed classical works, in this period the synchronisation was already possible, in a way that the film editors could choose accurately in which point exactly the music has to start or to end, and even make a recording of the piece in a predeterminate tempo, so that it fits to the tempo of the scene.

The work of the film composer in the Golden Age of Hollywood was mostly following the steps described in chapter three. They used to compose in what Davis (1999) call the “traditional film scoring”.

This traditional way of composing closely resembles the traditional composition of classical music. It is not surprising since the musical tradition of Hollywood comes precisely from the romantic music, as we have already pointed out before. But film music has something that other kinds of music do not have, and this is the will and the purpose to serve to the movie, to serve the dramaturgy, and to enhance the picture, and not necessarily to create an emotion by itself, but rather to reinforce the emotion of the scene or the character.

We will use as an example the composer Jerry Goldsmith, one of the great geniuses of film music, who has composed over 400 scores for films.

The academy award-winning Jerry Goldsmith used to compose from the piano and make notes into a score, as many composers in the past did. Then the same composer would orchestrate this music or a team would help him or orchestrate it for him. This practice was the most common during all this years before the digital era. However, composers as Ennio Morricone used to orchestrate their own scores, because they were good in orchestration –actually Morricone came into the film industry at first as a great arranger–. Another composer who is also an extraordinary orchestrator, John Williams, used to orchestrate most of his music, but then he has increasingly delegated this task to orchestration assistants.

The reason of why Jerry Goldsmith was so famous was not only that his music was good composed, but also that he enjoyed a very good communication with many directors, and he knew how to read the needs, in terms of music, of a film.

We can corroborate this in an interview to “The Movie Channel”[1], where Goldsmith spoke thus of his music for film:

“(…) music is the most emotional all the arts, it reaches depths with no other form of art can communicate, no other personal experience can reach. My first experience in how some people look at (…) music promotion pictures happened years ago on the first films I scored, and I went to the preview (…) of my own picture. Afterwards come out with the executives and someone came to me and said ‘the music must have been good, I didn’t notice it. (…)”

And he continues:

“(…) music for the screen, there’s a lot of functions, but the basic function is to reinforce the emotional, the unseen element on the screen”

“I think the last western I did was a picture called the “Wild Rovers”, and William Holman was being chased by the bad guys and he knew what was gonna happen. He was: ‘they are gonna kill him’. And to me, and I finally got wise and I said, as I said, the predominant emotion here is not the movement which we see. It’s fear. This man is very fearful to what’s gonna happen to him and he knows what’s gonna happen, so I wrote and it’s very static (…)[2]

This is a confirmation of the film music theory named in chapters two and three. The very important work of the film composer is not only making a good music, but to make a music which makes the spectator to feel the emotions that words and pictures cannot say, and to work with the image as it would be only one thing.

Unfortunately so far, we see no special influence of the technology over the film scores, except the improvements in sound and technical audio matters. But the music itself, it was not very different that in a previous period.

As a proof of that, we can show a couple of examples:

  • The main motif of the Main Theme of “Star Wars” by John Williams, it is actually quite similar to the titles of “King’s Row”, scored by Erich Wolfgang Korngold in 1942; or to “How the West Was Won”, scored by Alfred Newman in 1963.
  • Also in Star Wars, the music in the Tattooine planet is almost identical as some measures of “The Rite of Spring” by I. Stravinsky.
  • The composer James Horner uses a motif that is a quick up and down notes rounding a specific note in several of his scores, such as “Troy”, “Enemy at the Gates”, “The Wrath of Khan”, or “Avatar”, which is the very same motif of the beginning of Rachmaninov’s first Symphony.

The conclusion we can take from this, is what Theodor Adorno (1979) criticized: that film music is anything else that a remake of the same formula for similar scenes, so that they know that a certain music works well with a certain kind of scene.

So, in terms of music composition, there was not a big evolution of film music, and actually there was not a proper technology that was bringing new possibilities either, only in audio quality. So that in order to create some effects for a score, like horror ambient, they had to use extended techniques of the same old instruments of the orchestra, or just copy the style of some contemporary music, which created an ambient similar to what the composer was looking for. Influences of other music works, those were the Temp tracks of the pre-digital era.


The latest technological revolution of film music before the digital era was the discovery and use of synthesizers. Specifically, this came to its highest popularity from the synthesizer developed by Robert Moog from 1963 (Fig. 4.1). But its popularity was not only in films, also pop music quickly adapted itself to the new invention. It was fashion. Synthesizers began to be everywhere.

But this was not the first time composers used electronic sound. In 1951, the composer Bernard Hermann created the score –he was nominated for the Golden Globe– for “The Day the Earth Stood Still” of Robert Wise, in which he had Theremins in the orchestra to represent the arrival of an Alien Ship to Earth. And also in pop music, artists as Pink Floyd or Jean Michel-Jarré used the Theremin.

Especially electronic music at the beginning was associated with Science-Fiction films (e.g. space traveling).

The big explosion of synthesizers in the film music began with italian composer Giorgio Moroder and his score for “Midnight Express” (1978), which was mostly created with electronic sounds. Later in 1982, the score of Vangelis for “Blade Runner”, a film of Ridley Scott, was scored in its totally with synthesizers and analogue electronic devices and became one of the most famous film music scores.

Finally the sound of Hollywood renewed itself. The electronic sounds were changing the way music was made for the Hollywood composer, since they provided features for previously unexplored film music, since effects such as a sinusoidal sound, or an endless sound – since in a Synthesizer sounds can be eternal as long as there is electricity – were and are impossible techniques for the typical acoustic instruments of the orchestra.


Fig. 4.1 – Example of a Moog 3C[3]



The Digital Revolution or Digital Era –also known as the Third Industrial Revolution–, is one of the most important technological eras in the last century. Its precedent is the Space Age while the Information Age has covered its place afterwards since the Internet became the most powerful information instrument ever.

The Digital Revolution refers to the creation of the first computers and the implementation of elements, practices and tasks on them (e.g.: computing a big list of numbers). Although the beginnings of the digital revolution come from 1947 with the invention of the transistor, the impact into the musical world would not be a reality until the Eighties.

Music came into computers thanks to the discovering of the digital audio, which is a digital codification of an electric (analog) signal, which represents a sound wave. Thanks to that, it was possible to codify and compute the signal recorded by microphones into a computer.

The development of this technology came to the first CD-ROMs (Compact Disc Read-Only Memory), which was capable to record and reproduce the digital audio through a compact disc reader.

The Digital Revolution brought to the music industry (and film industry) an enormous change in their way of music making and consumption. In the Seventies the vinyl was still the standard support for recording and listening to music, meanwhile today we can easily listen to a huge library of music from streaming platforms such as Spotify, Youtube or Pandora. In his article (2016), Patricio Sánchez explains how we came to this:

Although officially introduced in 1980, the compact disc (CD) did not become popular until the late 1980s, and with it the industry took a giant leap for the consumer. With the vinyl the music could only be copied to a cassette and copied to other tapes was simple but it had a problem: with each copy made a quality part was lost. Moreover, it was necessary to be very careful as much with the delicacy of the vinyls, as with the sensitivity of the tapes. It was therefore a system in which there was a cost of quality in each use and in each copy.

With CDs, the record industry put consumers in their hands pure digital parts, that is, they could be copied with existing technology without any loss of quality. So there was no limitation on the number of copies. If a non-original CD came into your hands, it did not matter how many copies were behind it. Its quality was going to be like the original.

This made the 90’s a tumultuous year for the music industry to get to work on reliable copy-copying systems. But while the record companies invested billions of euros in this, two technologies made their way with great force: Internet in the houses and the mp3. At the same time, in the mid-1990s the bandwidth of internet connections was increasing and the flat rates for the first time appeared. On the other hand, a group of audio standards experts (MPEG) developed a compression algorithm by which a 50-megabyte sound file (about the size of a song) could occupy about 3 megabytes. Once compressed, with very little loss of quality. From that moment they could send songs in mp3 through Internet (email or similar).

At the end of the 90s the music turned into files with very manageable sizes and fast connections to the internet caused the increase of the file exchange. In 1999 Napster was born, the great interchange of songs in Internet, which in the end had to close after several years of glory, prosecuted by the logical demands of the discographic companies. But before it closed in November 2001, the internet was already plagued with applications to download music (illegally) for free.

Consumers had discovered a very simple way to get songs, despite the limitations of the legislation. Record labels stopped making millions of dollars (8% a year in 2002) and the musicians complained bitterly. The digital revolution in music had opened Pandora’s Box.


The Digital Revolution in audio have changed a lot the workflow of the film composer in comparison with the analog era. A new bundle of tools were then available to perform a faster and more efficient work on film scoring. Hereafter, we will comment on the tools and innovations of the digital world that have had the greatest influence in musical composition for films since the digital era.

5.2.1 Temp Tracks

Using Temp Tracks is another common practice in film scoring nowadays, although it is a quite recent development. It is basically a pre-existing music attached to the movie that the film composer receives from the production or direction in order to get an idea of the sound that they have in mind for the film or for certain scenes. This refers mostly to tempo, style, instrumentation, rhythm and sound atmosphere.

It is interesting to remark that in the past, Temp Tracks were neither existent nor known by this name, but nevertheless, as already mentioned in chapter four, the Temp Tracks of the pre-digital era were simply references from other previous composed works –both classical works and other previous soundtracks– from which directors were giving as references and composers were getting ideas from. In this way, again the digital technology doesn’t add a very new concept to film scoring, but redesign and adapt it for a better and easier workflow (since it is already attached with the film).

There are many pros and cons of Temp Tracks. The advantage is that it gives a more concrete idea of what the director wants for the movie in terms of music. But in my opinion, there are more disadvantages. Usually directors choose a music they like and get used to it. This makes it difficult to suggest other musical ideas that are far from the sound of Temp Track music. This is a challenge for the composer because naturally a good original soundtrack (like any serious musical work) should not be the same as other compositions, but have their own personality. Hans Zimmer is also against this practice because of the high level of conditioning that it has for both the director and the composer.

Some examples of famous cases of Temp Tracks are mentioned in the book of Davis (1999: 96):

“[…] the temp track of Titanic was built from music recorded by the Irish singer Enya. Composer James Horner then had to adapt this kind of flowing, ethereal, New Age style to fit the action. Another good example is the temp track for Star Wars. This was Gustav Holst’s 1917 classical piece The Planets.”

Also another point to take in account is that Temp Tracking usually takes place during the post production, and it helps during the film editors to assemble the movie in a way that fits to that music, and during the composition and the synchronisation the film composer has to be aware of it.

5.2.2 MIDI

One of the biggest changes that the digital revolution brought to the music world was without a doubt the MIDI.

MIDI is the abbreviation for “Musical Instrument Digital Interface, and it is a technology standard that describes a protocol, a digital interface and connections between electronic instruments, computers and other midi devices”[4]. A MIDI connection can transmit until 16 different information channels. The big advantage of MIDI was that for the first time it was possible to program many parameters of musical instruments into digital information, with a very little file weight.

This system was created and standardised in 1983 by MMA (MIDI Manufacturers Association). The MIDI organises their information always in a range of 0 to 127 (128 programs in total). Each one of these programs can be set to send a different parameter, for example which General Midi instrument, pitch, velocity, expression, modulation, sustain, etc.

MIDI changed many ways for music composing. The creative possibilities that this technology brought, allowed the access to music creation to people without ability or knowledge for a traditional musical writing.

In terms of composition, MIDI can be edited in a MIDI Editor, where the composer can manipulate a large number of parameters (some of them named previously). Many DAWs include already MIDI Editors. This brings to the composer a complete control of a sampled sound.

5.2.3 DAWs

The DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) has become since the digital revolution in the main music producing and composing tool, not only for film composers, but also for pop music. A DAW can be an electronic device, or a computer software and its main functions are recording, editing, arranging and producing music or any kind of audio and sound effects.

The DAW is nothing else but a reproduction of an almost unlimited studio “in-the-box” with all the possibilities that it can bring. Most of its functions, as we have already explain, are a copy of what would be the same in an analog studio. But about all the DAW is a sequencer.

Using the DAW is what is nowadays known as composing / mixing “in-the-box”. The reason is that everything is programmed and controlled by computer software, instead of analog devices (e.g. mixer of the daw as a reproduction of an analog mixer). The DAW gives to the composer a very wide range of possibilities. In the example of the mixer, there’s probably any analog mixer which can support as many inputs, outputs, plug-in and sends as the mixer of a DAW can.

Some of the most famous software DAWs nowadays are Logic Pro, Cubase, Pro Tools, Digital Performer, Studio One, Nuendo, Ableton Live, Reaper, etc.

For the film composer the DAW has become a very important part of his workflow, thanks to the ease of being able to quickly create and listen to musical ideas, and create demos or mock-ups of their music, which we’ll talk about later.

5.2.4 Plug-ins (Digital Emulators)

A plug-in is a software that adds functionalities to other software. In this case, audio plug-ins are typically used inside a DAW. There are two main categories of Plug-ins, the VST and VSTI. VSTs are normally related to audio or MIDI effects, and VSTIs are Virtual Instruments.

A very important point to take in account, is that most of plug-ins are just a digital emulation of an analogical or mechanical physical device. We are talking for example about Compressors, Equalizers, Instruments, Amplifications, etc. All of these effects come from the analog era, where there was an electronic device (or acoustic in case of instruments) what made that compression or equalization function. Of course, the digital technology has brought more possibilities to plug-ins that they never had in the analog era. However, in musical terms, there’s still very few things that you could only do with a plug-in, and not without it. Plug-ins are nowadays used in the music production, or in the production of mock-ups, but mostly of their functionalities are related to the audio and the sound rather than the music composing process.

5.2.5 Virtual Instruments

The most important innovation for the film scoring since the beginning of the digital era has been without a doubt, the creation of Virtual Instruments.

Virtual Instruments, or Sample Libraries, are plug-ins designed mainly to work in a DAW, which contain some recorded sounds programmed with MIDI. This libraries provide to the composer recorded sounds of a specific instrument, so that the composer can reproduce them through MIDI.

The Virtual Instruments have given to film composer a very powerful tool to work with real pre-recorded sounds while being able to synchronise them with the film. And every year sample libraries are more and more complete, realistic and have more parameters to manipulate in order to create a very realistic sound of the real acoustic instruments. Today a Virtual Instrument gives the possibilities to a composer features such as choosing exactly the kind of legato in the strings that they want, if he wants the sound of the pedal in the virtual piano, if the brass sound more bright or mellow, etc. A huge bundle of parameters that emulate all the possibilities of real instruments. Composer Mark Isham talked about this evolution of libraries in an Interview to Timespace.com (2010):

“I think the biggest impact that virtual instruments have had is that things are so much quicker, and yet more sophisticated, there is so much more available to simply try and experiment with. It opens up the door for unique sounds in a much quicker environment.

10 years ago we were still using a lot of outboard instruments and processing, it would always take time to get them patched up and work through what you were going to do. Now it’s in one very quick and easy environment. Of course the other thing is, at least in my profession, we have to emulate sounds, acoustic sounds, sounds that you’re familiar with. The plug-ins that are geared towards that, again, are much quicker, much easier. Each plug-in can be designed for a specific task. You get a piano plug-in and it’s really designed to get the piano sounding just right.”

(Mark Isham in: Timespace.com, 2010)

In the past, composers used to compose sometimes on the piano –or with another instrument– and they had always to imagine the sound of the instruments in order to get an idea of how would it sound in a performance. Virtual instruments can give to the composer an idea of how the score will sound when played by real performers. And this is very helpful because it can save a lot of time for corrections that, without this emulation, was only possible by trying and rehearsing directly with performers, which costs more time and money.

5.2.6 Mock-ups

Mock-ups have become one of the most important elements for film scoring since the applications of the digital revolution became fully effective in the world of film.

A Mock-up, or MIDI mockup, is a demo of a music built with instrument samplers instead of recordings of real acoustic instruments. This track is made with virtual sounds usually taken from recorded samples of real instruments –although electronic sounds such as synthesizers are sometimes not pre-recorded but programmed instead.

The first idea of the Mockups was to give to the director an idea of how the music sounds, before going to the recording session. That is the reason why a Mock-up score is a crucial practice today, because it allows to exchange and modify many of the musical ideas with the director or the music supervisor, which can be modified quite easily, and save a lot of time if they wouldn’t hear if they like how exactly this music sounds like only after a recording process. Further musical modifications after a recording session would be very expensive for the production.

However, today the virtual instruments provide a very high quality sound, and many of TV Shows, short films and feature films today, they still contain a lot of virtual sounds or even they are completely made of them.

In this case, the idea of mock-up as a preview version of a final score, has become into a full Track made completely or partially with virtual samples, ready to use in the film or any other kind of motion picture.

In order to create a Mock-up of a cue in a modern Digital Environment, the first step is to run a DAW in a computer. It is possible, of course, to score in other kind of environments, such a notation program, but the DAW has become the most popular environment today for the creation of mock-ups, for its large variety of tools in order to produce a realistic sound, which, at the end, is the purpose of the mock-up: to create a track as similar as possible as the final recorded and produced music for the film will be.

Inside the DAW, we always have a timeline that can be measured by time or by beats. In most of the cases, in order to score for a film, we will have to load the movie (or a part of it), set a tempo of our project, and take a look of the synchronisation points (mentioned previously in the chapter about Film Scoring) and other important events to score. Usually it is possible to use Markers for it, which make the navigation around the project faster.

The production of a mock-up can be made with sounds provided from 2 main different sources:

  • Audio Samples: These are files with recorded samples, in which only parameters related to audio –volume, panorama, gain, frequency, etc.– can be modified.
  • Virtual software Instruments: These contains also audio samples, but many parameters can be modified thanks to the MIDI possibilities. In order to play and modify parameters of these samples, it is necessary to load a Sampler or Virtual Instrument. Some famous examples are Kontakt, Omnisphere, Aria Player, or Play.

Although the use of audio samples can be useful for some purposes, nowadays most of the sounds come from Virtual Instruments, which contain virtual sound libraries.

During the sketching of the mock-up, the composer does not use many different sounds. Some composers use a MIDI Keyboard connected to the computer, and they like to play along with the movie to try and improvise some first ideas, and get a better timing of the music in relation to the picture. The composer Hans Zimmer talks in many interviews of how this process is especially interesting for him, since this allows him to have a more direct and intuitive connection with the picture, and at the same time, to be sure that all the music has come out of their fingers playing the keyboard, piano or any other controller. At the end of the sketching, the composer can start to organize the ideas and to development to follow the needs of the picture, especially in timing and expression terms.

Working with MIDI is especially useful for this task, because adjusting the MIDI recorded or programmed data to a specific grid of beats is really easy in a digital environment. Also it is possible to edit any time parameters as velocity, expression, etc. This tools give to the film composer a lot of control over the sound. For example, if a composer program a virtual string quartet to end a cue in a specific time code, but later he decides to finish a bit earlier, he just have to slightly adjust the tempo of the track in order to make it coincide with the new synchronisation point.

A feature that a digital environment offers that the in the analog was hardly possible, is the removal of certain limits. For example, in a Mock-up it is possible to program more than four hundred virtual violins, which in real life and without digital tools would be hard to achieve. Another example would be making play wind instruments extremely long notes by programming a very long sustained MIDI notes. This wouldn’t work in real life, because real players need to breath. It is very important for a composer who composes music in a DAW with Virtual Instruments to take all these things in account if the score has to be recorded. If you fake the sounds too much, the music will not work in the same way when it comes to a recording with a real orchestra or instrumental group.

Some composers, for example Hans Zimmer, use to sketch melodies and harmonies in the DAW, but later other composers or orchestrators are the ones who take care of finishing a realistic orchestrated sounding Mock-up. Always under the supervision of the main composer and the music supervisor.

After the MIDI Mock-up is composed, synchronised to the pictures, orchestrated, and programmed, it usually needs some mixing and mastering processes. But we are not going to deal with these issues, which, despite being a standard in the workflow of the current film composer, belong more to a sound engineering field than to music composition.

5.2.7 Orchestration and Music Preparation

In the big film industry, it is not common anymore that composers orchestrate their music themselves. An orchestrator would normally receive a project in the computer instead, where the basic melodies and harmony lines would be scored together with the synchronisation of the film. Then they would, with the supervision of the main composer, orchestrate the music with Virtual Instruments into a Mock-up.

But then, if composers and orchestrators work directly with a computer and a sequencer, how they get the scores for the recording session with real players? The answer is following: A very common practice of film scoring in the digital era is actually not to write the score in a notation program from the beginning, but rather export and adapt the MIDI files from the Mock-up. On this way, the music preparator does not have to write all the notes, but only add some articulations, expressions and dynamics, and proof that all notes are correct. This practice also saves a lot of time.


One of the big changes that digital technology has brought to film industry was actually a matter of economy. Paying orchestras and all musicians during a long period of recording was a very expensive practice. In the times when the digital technology was not available, editing music and re-recording was too expensive, so when the score was done, the movie would have to deal with it as a final version.

Probably the biggest revolution of computerized composing is that with a mock-up, the director can listen to music even during its composition process, so that he o she can make suggestions, reject some themes, adapt some scenes, etc. And this practice is hugely cheaper and quicker. The end result is a music created for a computer to play.

5.3.1 Hans Zimmer

Hans Zimmer was one of the most important composers who changed film music since the digital era. He is important because he was a pioneer on the use of computers to make music. One of his first scores for a film, “Driving Miss Daisy” in 1989, was already completely digital produced.

As we have seen in the section about Mock-ups, composers can create a sounding music with a keyboard and a computer from the very first moment:

“The writing in the computer, the way I do, is that you perform every note. At one point or another, every note that is in the score has been played by me.”

(Hans Zimmer, on the Score for “The Dark Knight”)

The music of Hans Zimmer is very interesting to analyse from a relationship music-technology perspective. His scores are the perfect example of not only the total implementation of “the digital” in the film composer workflow, but also of the new possibilities that the technology through the digital manipulation of sounds has enabled new forms of film scoring. For example, in the Batman Trilogy, Zimmer rejects almost completely to create a traditional music with melodies and harmonies, and ends up composing what would rather be a landscape of sounds. For creating the sound of the theme of the Joker, there is not a motif, but digitally distorted and manipulated the sound of strings instead, creating just a unique texture, a sound that was possible to get only thanks to digital technology and computer processing of audio.

So the main impact of digital technology on film music is this: the substitution of traditional melodies and themes by sound landscapes and textures obtained from the manipulation of sounds and the combination of them.

5.3.2 The “new” digital film scoring business

John Williams is probably today one of the few film composers still writing music by only using a piano, pencil and music paper. But Williams is an exception, only as a consequence of his already proven success and also because he works with directors (e.g. Steven Spielberg) who have trust in what his music will sound like.

According to the Chair of Berklee’s Film Scoring Department Dan Carlin in an interview (Ventresca, 2008), for the rest of composers, nowadays is hard to find a director who “will settle for anything less than a highly refined mock-up of the score before it is recorded”. And still many directors want a mock-up as good sounding as possible in order to use that music for the trailer, teaser, etc. to catch audiences without yet spending a big money in a recording.

Because of the mock-up became so important in the work of a film music composer, nowadays computer skills with music notation and music production programs is a must. As Carlin points in the interview, some years ago, music students were not required to take technology and computer classes. However, if you want to make a film scoring career today, it would make no sense if the College or University would not teach how to work and specific knowledge about “computer tools, software, middleware, and hardware that enable you to produce mock-ups”.

One of the advantages of a composer nowadays is that by a quick production of a mock-up as a temp track for a film can make a director take your work before thinking about other Temp tracks (or other composers). This is a great advantage because as we have seen in the section about Temp tracks, they have a very high potential influence on the later scoring of the film, which is not always a help to create a new original and unique film music.



The digital era has changed the world forever. And in the film industry it has not been different. The new technology has allowed to create more quality, more creative, faster films than ever before.

In the field of film music, the evolution from a pre-digital to a digital era has been a breakthrough in many ways. To begin with, digitization has facilitated and accelerated all traditional film scoring processes. Now almost all tasks can be done in much less time, and in a more optimized way. Above all the sound quality is one of the aspects in which it has been improved, since the digital audio processing allows to make adjustments in the audio that were not possible before.

After a comparison of the work of the film composer before and after the digital era, the most important changes from analog to digital changed especially tasks as music production, music preparation and music distribution.

This does not mean that the composition has not been affected. The way of composing music, from a piano and with paper, to the direct composition in the DAW, has been a necessary advance for the film industry. As we said before, the film industry has increased the speed of its productions (and continues increasing it), therefore it was necessary to find a workflow for the composer to adapt the creation of his film music to the timings of film production.

Below I have prepared a table that summarizes the most important points that have changed between both eras before and after the adoption of the digital in film music.

Composers with formal music education. Composers with formal music education, or a music self-taught education.

Computer skills is a must. Also knowledge about audio and virtual instruments highly recommended.

Traditional composition: Handwritten score with the help of a piano and / or other instruments. Non-traditional composition: Scoring Mock-ups on the DAW. Written (digitalized) scores exported from the MIDI.
Composer usually orchestrates. Composer not always orchestrates, since some of them don’t have that knowledge.
Several months up to a year to score a film. Few months, and in some occasions only few weeks to score a film.
High costs: everything has to be recorded in order to find out how it sounds. Any modification of the score would demand a re-recording, which is expensive. Lower costs: with Mock-ups, editing and making changes in the score is possible during its compositional process. When the score comes to the recording session is already the final version.
Not possible to create music exceeding the limits of acoustic and analogue instruments. Digital technology has less limitations and more possibilities to manipulate music and sound.
References from other existing composed works. References from Temp Tracks.
Large music composition and theory knowledge. Knowledge of electronic devices is not a must. Computer skills is a must. Also knowledge about audio and virtual instruments highly required.
 Analog Sound (Stereo and Mono)  Digital Sound (Digital Surround 5.1, Dolby Pro Logic, etc.)
Director can listen to the score when it is recorded. Director can listen to the music along all the composition process, allowing a better and faster feedback with the composer.
 Music processing not available  Possibility to process Audio Samples


 Table – Differences in the work of film composer before and in the digital era.

Nevertheless, it is true that by comparing film music created before and after the arrival of digital technology, there are still many similarities between the two. Musical styles remain similar and little evolution. We can check today that except for some very famous film composers with a clear “personal sound”, the rest of film music we hear in different films is quite similar, as it was in the period before the digital.


There are many conclusions to extract from this work which explored quite deeply film music and film scoring. At the beginning of this thesis I mentioned that it had two objectives: to know the way in which a film music composer works, both in the pre-digital age and in the digital age; and then to analyse the changes that this technology has really contributed to both the way the film composer works and the film music produced as a result.

The digital era has brought a great bundle of new possibilities for the composer of film music. Most of its tools are emulations of mechanical, acoustic or analog tools. But also many others make possible the creation of sounds that are only possible to obtain in a computer.

I think one of the most remarkable consequences in the emerging film composer today, is that technical and computer skills are now totally required for getting into the film scoring business. And it seems like music composition techniques have lost importance in favor of sound quality, which is now probably more and better valued. Composers with a better sounding mock-ups get the jobs instead of those with more knowledge in music but less computer skills. Of course both are important, but the judgment of the industry is now like that. So probably the digital has changed more the business than the music itself.

The proof of that, is that the most important task of a good film music composer, which makes that film music belongs to other category of music separated from classical, pop or jazz, is still to interpret the pictures, and to find sounds, motifs, melodies, and themes appropriated for them. And this has not really changed from the analog to the digital. When a composer has to sit and watch a movie over and over, and make notes about musical suggestions, and decide the cues, etc. it is still the same work today, that it was fifty years earlier. The difference, though, is that now we have more tools to do the task in a faster and more comfortable way. For example the Temp Tracks give us already an idea of the sound and the music that the director has in mind for each scene. And also improvements such a Mock-up allow the film composer to quickly listen to these ideas that he or she may have while interpreting the pictures.

So, technology changed indeed the workflow of the film composer. Now is easier, cheaper, and therefore more accessible to everybody. But the musical side of film scoring is still suffering the same problems as always. And the result is that you do not innovate enough in music. We have new tools that are focused on creating effects and improvements in audio, but there is no breakthrough in a musical style. The majority of film music remains anchored to a classic romantic tradition or redo existing soundtracks to recreate a certain sound that fits into a certain cinematic situation.

In that sense, it takes the same path as the film productions themselves. Well, most movies are nothing more than repeated stories told in a different way. There are few films that innovate in theatrical and dramatic aspects, and on the contrary, there is much innovation in the effects and quality of the film. Exactly the same thing happens with film music.

I think the conclusion that as a composer I get from this work is that because of the technology we have, it is not technology that will make us create good music. Technology helps us, it is true, it gives us many tasks and opens up new horizons. It also gives us new musical possibilities that were not possible before. But the germ of musical creation is in the composer himself, and this has not only not changed after the digital age, but has never changed.




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[1] Available [online] at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wnp0cClT-Bo [Accessed: 19th June 2017]

[2] Transcribed by the author.

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