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Journal of Film Music 5.

1-2 (2012) 199-205


ISSN (print) 1087-7142

ISSN (online) 1758-860X


Towards a Theory of Musicodramatic Practice in

Film: Questions of Method
David Revill
University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Abstract: Preliminary considerations are set out for a reassessment of the lineage of music for motion pictures,
its cultural or social significance, and adequate methods for its analysis. These considerations mostly take the
form of metaquestions of a methodological nature. Some of the strands in the development of the language
of film, and film music specifically, are identified. Awareness of the shortcomings of a given monolithic explanation may lead not to a more refined explanation but to substituting a different single cause. Importantly, the
field of study encompasses different generations of film music and film composer, each with differing priorities
and limitations. Certain trends and key individuals create a weighting or gravitational pull in favor of certain
expectations and conventions. The potential relevance of phenomenological method is considered. The impact
of conceptual lag on methodology is examined. The central question becomes: What is specific to music in film
compared to other types of music?
Keywords: Methodology; phenomenology; metaquestions; analysis; language; conceptual lag

I Preamble
The present time sees a reassessment of the lineage of
music for motion pictures, paralleled by a reevaluation
of its cultural or social significance and of adequate
methods for its analysis.
The classic narrative of the history of film music
has been of a genre aspiring to the status of an art,
and generally being seen as falling short.1 There has
also been a more specific connection made to opera.2
In the reassessment currently under way, two elements
have been identified as neglectedindeed, some might
say, marginalizeduntil recently: theatrical music,
1 Consider, for example, the title of Prendergasts 1977 book, A Neglected Art.
2 A connection which persistssee Joe and Theresa 2002.

particularly perhaps the music of the melodrama,3 and

(within film music itself) stock and library music.
An attempt is made in this article to set out some
preliminary considerations for such reassessment,
mainly in terms of metaquestions of a methodological
nature. As can be seen throughout the present issue,
our essays in a new approach to the musicological
study of film (as with any seriously undertaken
plumbing of new depths within a discipline) tell us a
great deal about both ourselves and our assumptions;
in connection with this, it is hoped that the
methodological findings may have a wider applicability.

3 Its precise rle remains under-researched. Has its importance been

established, or are we simply hypothesizing it because it would explain
perceivable effects, as astronomers did before the sighting of Pluto?

Copyright the International Film Music Society, published by Equinox Publishing Ltd 2013, Unit S3, Kelham House, 3 Lancaster Street, Sheffield, S3 8AF.


II The Development of Film

These considerations can begin through examination
of a number of strands in the development of the
language4 of film and, specifically, film music. Indeed,
movies provide a rare opportunity of a documented
encapsulation, over a relatively short time perioda
little over a centuryof an entire language from the
start. If it might be hypothesized that this instance is
(in many respects) representative, it would offer a very
useful test case for broader sociological theory.
Much more remains to be done in terms of tracing
which were the earliest elements of film language,
both visually and in sound, to be developed. The
problems lie not only with understanding the
development of the languagewhat practitioners saw
as appropriatebut also the corresponding problem of
the audience familiarizing themselves with it. In both
cases, we can seek antecedents, anticipations, and
conditions of possibility.
Some of the answers lie within film itself: by
tracing the first appearance of a given innovation. At
times, doing so points towards a particular national
form, or subgenre. However, to more thoroughly
address the development of the language and the
audience learning the language, it is necessary to
look further back. For instance, the dissolve, as
a transition, has its origins in a purely chemical
process. (Incidentallyas a thought experimentif
the language of film was beginning to be developed
today, the dissolve might not be an element which
would be pursued.) Yet that was not its sole origin.
Part of the reason the chemical process could be
recognized and catch on as a symbolic element is
because, as John Fraser notes in his book on Mlis, it
bore a resemblance to some of the staging conventions
of theatrical melodrama. The elaborately detailed
naturalism of the plays of Henry Irving and David
Belasco, he writes, depended on dissolves achieved
by lights, scrims and breakaway scenery to effect
smooth, rapid scene transformations without recourse
to a drawn curtain.5
And Frazer notes elsewhere, Gauzes to simulate
water were a common theatrical effect, used on stage
to effect transitions from one scene to the next, the
nearest theatrical equivalent of the motion picture
4 The term language will be used here as a shorthand, allowing for the
possibility that it may need careful qualification or definition, or another
term such as sign system or codes might turn out to be preferable.
5 Frazer 1979: 85. One possible source on the development of the language of
film might be Sanderson 1977.

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dissolve6 and Mlis drew on them for underwater

scenes such as those in his Visite sous-marine du Maine.
Similarly, part of the reason that shot changes
and editing techniques such as cross-cutting were
able to be recognized and could catch on as a
symbolic element is that comparable techniques
what might they be called? parallell?can be
found in other, earlier cultural forms. It has been
suggested by scholars of the early comic strip such
as Francis Lacassin and David Kunzle7 that some
of the groundwork for the comprehensibility of
various elements of film language, such as parallel
construction, the pan (in stages), and the close-up,
could have come from the early strips of graphic artists
such as Rodolphe Tpffer8 and Wilhelm Busch.
Procedures analogous to other elements of the
language of film could be identified in literature. As
Arthur Krows wrote at the dawn of talkies, Stage
delights, picture closeups, long-shots, fadebacks and
instant changes of scene have in reality been employed
in literature for centuries. Homer used them; think
of that!9 Famously, Eisenstein10 points out how the
agricultural fair scene from Flauberts Madame Bovary
(the book, rather than the numerous film adaptations)
is intercut in a way which provides ironic commentary
on Rodolphes attempts at seduction:
We, now, why did we meet? What turn of fate
decreed it? Was it not that, like two rivers gradually
converging across the intervening distance, our own
natures propelled us towards one another?
He took her hand, and she did not withdraw it.
General Prize! cried the Chairman.
Just now, for instance, when I came to call on you
Monsieur Bizet, of Quincampoix.
how could I know that I should escort you here?
Seventy francs!
And Ive stayed with you, because I couldnt tear
myself away, though Ive tried a hundred times.

None of this is to suggest anything as clumsy as

causation, but simply antecedents and, in certain
cases, conditions of possibility.
The same steps might be undertaken in giving an
account of the development of the musical language.
In a fuller exploration, for example, the earliest
conventions of sound in film to be developed might be
traced. Again, however, to more thoroughly address
6 Frazer 1979: 65.
7 See Kunzle 1973, 1990; Lacassin 1971, 1972.
8 Kunzle 2007.
9 Krows 1930: 7.
10 Eisenstein 1977: 12f.
11 Flaubert 1950: 161.

Towards a Theory of Musicodramatic Practice in Film 201

the development of the language of musicand, as

will be raised below, of film audio in generalit is
necessary to go further back. Michel Chion sums up
some of the key aspects nicelyin a postulation noted
[A]ll the other cases or types of voices in cinema
may have derived from older dramatic forms. The
synchronous voice comes from the theater; film music
comes from opera, melodrama, and vaudeville; and
voiceover commentary from the magic lantern shows
and from older arts involving narrated projections.12

Once more, the problems are both the audience

learning the language, and the corresponding problem
of what practitioners found appropriate to dothe
most obvious instance being the period immediately
following the introduction of sound. Music was no
longer going to be a continuous accompaniment, and
nor was it going to be the only auditory element, so,
once a couple of years of technical development (and
becoming accustomed to the marvel simply of having
synchronized dialog) had passed, the challenge to be
solved in practice was what its place should be.
Steiners often-quoted memoir is useful here: The
feeling among producers and directors at this time
[early 1930s] was that the music should have some
reason for being in the film. And so, he says,
A constant fear prevailed among producers, directors
and musicians, that they would be asked: Where does
the music come from?
Many strange devices were used to introduce the
music. For instance, a love scene might take place in
the woods and in order to justify the music thought
necessary to accompany it, a wandering violinist would
be brought in for no reason at all.13

While it may be very easy to smile condescendingly

about this, just as people are tempted to do when
watching performers break the fourth wall and bow to
the audience in early story films, it is not appropriate
at times such as these when the codes were either
not established or differ from those which became

III Against Univocal Explanations

If the examination of the development of the language
of film can serve as a background for a more subtle
12 Chion 1999: 4.
13 Steiner in Hubbert 2011: 222, 223, latter also quoted in Prendergast 1977:

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reassessment of musicodramatic practice, the risk in

the consequent paradigm shift (in this case, moving
from the valorization of the art music strand to
theatrical, stock, and library music) is that awareness
of the shortcomings of a given monolithic explanation
might not lead to a more refined explanation but to
substituting a different single cause. Reassessment
should not automatically, in other words, replace art
music dominance with an idea of theatrical or library
music dominance.
The problem is not the particular form of
explanation but the pattern of inappropriately
reducing to univocal explanationstaking one
inaccurately simplistic notion and replacing
it with another: the greatest obstacle here is
oversimplification, of throwing out the baby with the
pendulum swing.
One factor is that the subculture of film is not
comprised of a unified group of actors, socially
speaking. It is useful here to draw on theorization
in the sociology of organizations, where numerous
studies have shown how an apparently unified social
entity has subsets of disparate aims and goals within
its horizontal and vertical structure. With music for
film, there has tended to be a tension between its
position in the schedule and in the organizational
hierarchy and the high art aspirations of some of
those composing it. Composers may have artistic
aspirations; the front office goal, all things being
equal, is to make money.
Sociological theory has been grappling for
generations with the idealism versus materialism
debate, the interminable argument concerning
whether ideas or material conditions are dominant.
The immediate problem with this is that, like the
nature versus nurture argument, the question of
which is dominant is simply not solvable. People who
think it is are either stupid or they allow a neurotic
desire for conceptual simplicity to trump their
Does the fact that it is impossible to answer
the question rule it out as a question? The allusion
here is, of course, to the verificationism of the
logical positivists: the doctrine that a proposition
is cognitively meaningful only if there is a finite
procedure for conclusively determining its truth.14
Is, indeed, the reason this might not be cognitively
meaningful because it is the wrong question? Are there
multiple determinations or, more precisely, multiple
influences? In this case, a model could be proposed
in which all levels are considered and all are a factor,
14 See, for instance, Carnap 1932.


but none, a priori, are assumed to be dominant. W. G.

Runciman has carried out some interesting work in
this direction in his Treatise on Sociological Theory,15 but
there is much more to be done.
This, then, is one of the metaquestions referred
to at the start, which might help us approach the
development of musicodramatic practice in film with a
greater degree of subtlety and then, in a benign circle,
contribute to developing methodological principles of
wider applicability.

So in which specific cases, and how, might priority be
established? One aspect to bear in mind is that our
purview takes in different generations of film music
and film composer, each with differing priorities and
limitations. As a minimum, we might separate silent
cinema and sound cinema; perhaps the prehistory
of cinema should be added (Mlis, the Edison
films, Porter) and the brief transitional period of the
early talkiesto add categories within the assumed
subcategory, a model of reframing or refocusing akin
to Deleuze and Guattaris substitution of the various
machines for the presumed unified subject.16 At a later
stage, it can be broken down further by asking whether
there is potential value in considering individual
practitioners priorities and limitations.
The advantages of library music for the silent
cinema are clear: while a pianist could watch the
screen and improvise, the composition of live
ensembles in different movie houses was variable,
limiting the scope of a specially composed score,
and so music had to be chosen to suit each film.
Sound film, by contrast, embodied the move from
the individual player or players and their more or less
improvised live accompaniment to multiple analogs of
15 Runciman 1983, 1989, and 1997. This is not to proffer the assumption that
Runcimans work is authoritative or conclusive in any respect, nor, perhaps,
without (as is often the case) its own political program; but it opens up some
directions which avoid the univocal explanatory model under discussion
here, and is unusual in recent decades simply by virtue of broaching broader
questions of social theory on the large scale. With respect to film studies,
Nol Carrolls advocacy of piecemeal theorizing (Carroll 1996: 58; see
p. 2) has some similarities to the idea of multiple influences rather than
monolithic determinations; Carroll is writing against what he understandably
capitalizes as Theory, meaning the sweeping brushstrokes of Althusser,
Lacan, and Barthes and those who have applied their ideas to film. For
Carroll, piecemeal theorizingmeans breaking down some of the presiding
questions of the Theory into more manageable questions (p. 58). This
approach to film studies and the approach to social theory proposed here
share a common pragmatic wish to focus on useful, answerable, questions.
The polemic against what the present author has elsewhere termed creative
misunderstanding (of, in this case, the Continental theorists) underlines
the dangers of importing specialist concepts and terminology into another
discipline, and thereby reinforces what usefully might be a new golden rule
for intellectuals: dont dabble.
16 Deleuze and Guattari 1984: 1, 36, 284-85.

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the same recording of the same scoremirroring the

distinction drawn by John Berger between the value of
the unique cultural object versus the value generated
by multiple copies, a distinction which originates
in Walter Benjamins The Work of Art in the Age of
Mechanical Reproduction.17
Whenever one sees a strand which is valorized
within a field while another is not, an interesting
question is why this came about. Should the dominant
discourse be one which valorizes art musicand
why that was the case, and then ceased to be the
case, would be the next questionthe connection to
demotic theatrical music is likely to be downplayed.
Likewise, cue sheets and library music function
according to a kind of industrial, production-line
model, which sits well with the realities of film
production, but ill with any kind of artistic aspiration.
Another aspect to bear in mind in establishing
priorities is that certain trends and key individuals
create a weighting or gravitational pull in favor of
certain lines of development. There are key figures
historically (or, at least, in each successive version
of history, bearing in mind Aragons suggestion that
history is something which needs to be invented).
Griffith, for example, was a key figure in establishing
shot conventions, even if not all survived the advent of
There are also key demographics. A critical
coincidence here is that at a pivotal moment in the
development of sound film there was a sizeable
migration of Austro-German composers to the United
States. Certain composers had parallel careers in
concert music (Korngold being the obvious instance).
Many more (probably most) were trained in art
musicSteiner, Waxman, and Salter, for example
sometimes by teachers who were eminent within that
field (Schnberg being perhaps the best example). It is
therefore unsurprising that their compositions worked
motivically and evince a taste for a late Romantic
harmonic languageand that they sought to stress
their art-music credentials. These inclinations may
have already been present within film music (art music
being valorized as it was at the time), but the wave of
migration may have given it critical mass.
From here it is possible to identify a kind of
apostolic succession: Rzsa, although born in
Budapest, studied at the Leipzig Conservatory under
Regers successor Hermann Graebner, and Rzsa in
turn taught Goldsmith.
17 Berger 1972: 34; the Benjamin text is available online at www.marxists.
org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm , accessed 15
March 2012.

Towards a Theory of Musicodramatic Practice in Film 203

V Phenomenological Perspective
In turn, might it be important to examine what the
composers thought they were doing, their own statements
and views? Which composers saw themselves as
continuing a tradition emerging from art music? Or as
jobbing tunesmiths? This opens up questions which
would require considerably more than another paper
for effective consideration. Is it defensible to accept
the subjects own categories and work within them,
or is it more useful to apply the general categories
of the discipline? When is it appropriate to place the
researchers interpretation above the subjects own
statements? Whatever the answers, it still will be
necessary to choose a position between an objective
and a subjective methodology and to follow through
the consequences of that position.
The latter has a longer history, but the former
has been fruitfully developed over the last century
in developments of phenomenological method in
philosophy, psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, and
sociology. The broader issue at stake in this part of
the argument is the old methodological chestnut: how
can the object of study be comprehended, rather than
simply confirming existing patterns and expectations?
A related problem is carry-over or lagthe
tendency, well explored in the sociology of science,
to give undue weight to preexisting methodologies
and conceptual connections, at the risk of overlooking
what is unique, and at the expense of generating
a methodology better suited to the new subject.
Historical and structural connections often tempt
writers into reductive thinking.
One of the regularities of the social construction
of the discourse of a given field is that the range
of examples (the musical repertoire or corpus, for
example) on which the argument is based is much
narrower than one might expect, making it what
might be dubbed a covert synecdoche. For example,
what little work has until recently been carried out
in relation to cinematic performance seems to lead
inexorably to Charlie Chaplin,18 without any explicit
evaluation of whether studying one actor (Chaplin)
within one point in the history of cinema (silent
cinema) can give general lessons.

VII What is Unique?

Perhaps, however, the most important question to
emerge from resisting univocal explanations is: What
18 See Naremore 1988: 114-30; Baron and Carnicke 2008: 89-112.

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is unique here? The subject of cinematic performance

was touched on in the previous paragraph, and
new, ongoing work in performance theory,19 while
accepting the connections and precedents of film
performance in stage performance, is exploring what
is specific to acting in movies, including factors such
as discontinuity of delivery and the importance of the
technical context, for instance lighting, photography,
editing (and, indeed, underscoring). As a similar
corrective, a theorization of film music could usefully
explore not only its historical connections, but
characteristics in its own right.
Features specific to mature sound film include the
relation of musical structure to the temporal structure
of the edit, and notation in relation to time. One
aspect is the locking to a very specific time position,
be it cues spotted to time code or feet and frames
or simply minutes and seconds. This is not a feature
of music in theater nor of concert music (except for
electroacoustic pieces involving fixed-timing electronic
sounds and live instruments), and it was technically
impossible for it to be a feature of silent cinema.
At the other extreme is the floating (non-metered)
cue. The closest thing in traditional art music is the
flexibility of the orchestral parts within a recitative or
cadenza, but in many ways it anticipates certain openform elements of post-World-War-II art music.
Also, it is possible to see more general
orchestration principles extended due to the
peculiarities of the medium. Steiner, for instance,
noted how
[I]t pays to watch the particular pitch in which a
person talks. A high voice often becomes muddy,
with high-pitched musical accompaniment, and
the same is true of the low pitch. I rarely combine
these except when I want to obtain a special effect,
such as matching voice and orchestra so that one is
indistinguishable from the other.20

VIII Ways Forward

As can be seen throughout the present issue, our
essays in a new approach to the musicological study
of film (as with any seriously undertaken plumbing
of new depths within a discipline) tell us a great deal
about ourselves and our assumptions. In the present
article, some preliminary considerations have been
outlined for a reassessment of the lineage, cultural, or
social significance and analysis of film music. Since
much of this reassessment has been accomplished
19 By the British film scholar Sharon Coleclough.
20 Steiner in Hubbert 2011: 226.


through methodological metaquestions, it is hoped

that the findings may prove more widely applicable. As
a first step in this direction, this article will conclude
with a brief discussion of further avenues for analysis
and practicemostly in terms of extending these
methodological concepts to audio technology and post
production in film (ADR, Foley, effects, sound design,
and, indeed, music qua mix element).
When and why, for instance, did sound film
develop the convention of presenting interior
monologue and/or flashback through a band-limited
voice-over with artificial reverb? It can be found, for
instance, in Hitchcocks Rebecca, but this is unlikely
to be the earliest example. When and why, too, did
it become feasible for the sound to bridge one scene
to another, in split edits such as the J or L cut, letting
audio lead out of the previous or anticipate the next?
Again, there are multiple influences and key
figuresWelles in Citizen Kane is one, given the
importance of his radio experience in his sensitivity
and innovations. Many approaches to library music
might also be applicable to effects, and stock or library
effects specifically. For instance, the B.B.C. Year Book
of 193121 included an article on The Use of Sound Effects
which lists six totally different primary genres of Sound
The Realistic, Confirmatory Effect
The Realistic, Evocative Effect
The Symbolic, Evocative Effect
The Conventionalised Effect
The Impressionistic Effect
Music as an Effect

21 British Broadcasting Corporation 1931: 194ff.

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And finally, what would constitute an adequate

means for the analysis of production elements?
Faltering steps are being made in analyzing popular
music production as suchas production, rather
in terms of the musical content, the songwriting
or composition, for which it could be seen as the
medium. And, as is also the case in terms of analysis
of (for instance) spatialization or the use of tonecolor in contemporary art music, it is unclear which,
if any, of the analytical models used for music will be
The highly-specialized global ghetto world to
which all kinds of professionals (whether intellectuals,
doctors, engineers, or rabbis) are condemned may
seem inimical to making discoveries; it may seem
that the time of big strides is long gone. Then all that
is needed is the realization that a given program of
research has led to deeper insight but also to more
questions, and opened up the possibility that this
circumscribed field could blow open in terms of its
priorities and methodologies. It is hoped that the
present article, necessarily sketchy, offers a framework
for investigation not only in the area under immediate
investigation, but more broadly too.

Towards a Theory of Musicodramatic Practice in Film 205

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