A Score Is Born: The Story of Movie Soundtracks

Have you ever thought about how much you listen to so-called classical music? Perhaps your first instinct is to answer “hardly ever.” Listen closely to that delightful musical accompaniment to whatever show or film you’re watching, and you’ll often find classically-composed music.

Jul 1st 2021 by Moodagent

Alfred Hitchcock's sonic right-hand man Bernard Hermann conducting (Photo: Michael Ochs Archives)

Roaring 20s

In 1924, Erik Satie was officially the first ever creator of a cinematic film score with ‘Gymnopédies' for the silent Dada movie Entr’acte. Like much of Western cinema’s scores for many decades to come, the music was orchestral and without vocals. Speed forward a century, and of course world cinema has opened our ears to wide-ranging types of scores.

Out of this world

The idea alone of a musical score relies on the audience’s suspension of disbelief – unless, that is, the score is diegetic, meaning the sound originates from the film’s constructed world. Non-diegetic is therefore the more common musical accompaniment. If someone is singing for real onscreen, it’s diegetic. As for musical movies… it’s anyone’s guess. The brain combusts. Ennio Morricone and John Williams are more of the biggest names, behind Once Upon A Time in the West and Jaws, respectively.

Hitchcock's leading man

Bernhard Herrmann’s unnerving scores have become synonymous with the famous slasher sequences, devastatingly handsome heroes and haunting divas of Hitchcock’s films. Louis and Bebe Barron were the husband-wife duo behind Forbidden Planet’s scores – with Bebe sadly one of the few female talents in early composing history to be acknowledged.

Leading ladies

Composers such as Elisabeth Lutyens (Theatre of Death, Never Take Sweets From A Stranger) made very quintessentially British ‘house of horror’ scores for Hammer Film Productions in the 60s. The 70s gave us the majorly undersung talents of Wendy Carlos, who scored A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Tron. By the 80s, power composers like Danny Elfman couldn’t have created the magic of the Batman music without composers and behind-the-scenes right hand women like Shirley Walker. It took till the 90s for artists such as walker to get their own space, as she did with Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.

Silver screen

Composers like Delia Derbyshire made stunning television scores worthy of the big screen some time before cinema really embraced it in a big way. After analysing classical recordings for years at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, she began rummaging sounds electronically. The Doctor Who theme was born. The weird and wobbly scores she made were in the same sort of realm of Pauline Oliveros or Sun Ra Arkestra’s obtuse underwaterness.

Pioneers and neo-luddites

Miles Davis paved the way for jazz scores in French films such as Elevator to the Gallows which many musicians have long admired: Cat Power even called it the best record ever. Ryuichi Sakamoto helped bring Japanese composition to Western screens - he agreed only to appear in the Bowie-starring war drama Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence if he could score the film too (and what a turn at both he pulled). The rise of electronic music made way for some pretty terrorising synth-led scores in the 80s and 90s, but better work by Hans Zimmer and Vangelis (Blade Runner) inspired a generation of experimentalists bored of stuffy scores.


The magic of ambient music has comfortably found its place on screen. Scores by the likes of Nils Frahm (Victoria), Nicholas Jaar (Dheepan, Ema, and a contemporary rescore of The Color of Pomegranates to name an awesome few) and Johan Johansson (The Theory of Everything) accentuate the artistry of amazing new cinema - sometimes classic old films find themselves reimagined with new scores. Hildur Guðnadóttir (last year’s only female composer nominated for an Oscar) made an affecting soundtrack to the multi award-winning ‘Joker.' Bjork, Mica Levi, Lesley Barber and Lisa Coleman are some of the most famous in the 21st century. Check out the dramatic playlist specially curated by us.

Words by Alexandra Pereira

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