Though the first cinema films had no sound track, the early picture palaces were not silent. To blot out noise from the projector and the audience and also to create atmosphere, a piano, organ or band, sometimes with many instrumentalists, nearly always provided music. The music was often extemporized or adapted from a stock repertory, but was sometimes composed specially for the film. Increasingly ingenious attempts to replace live players by mechanically reproduced sound led in 1928 to the first talkies. Their sound track carried not only speech but also the film’s musical backing, though the orchestration had at first to make allowances for distortions inherent in early sound systems. By the mid-1980s, film music was developing as an essential part of cinematic art, not just in musicals and other films that more or less naturally called for music but also in productions of every sort from light comedy by way of the Westerns to heavy drama.
The vogue grew also for giving a film a ‘theme tune’, either a song or an instrumental motif that was given great prominence. In 1931–2 an Oscar was awarded for Best Sound Recording, but in 1934 there were Oscars for Best Song and Best Score. In Britain, Arthur Bliss composed the score for Korda’s film of H.G.Wells’ Things to Come; his example was followed by William Walton (The First of the Few, 1942, and Henry V, 1944). Ealing Studio’s Ernest Irving regularly commissioned leading British composers, such as Vaughan Williams (Scott of the Antarctic, 1948). Malcolm Arnold, with eighty film scores to his name, won an Oscar for his music for The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Particularly when not foregrounded but used rather to help create mood, film music offers the composer opportunities for experiment both in musical forms and orchestral coloration. Like nineteenth-century composers who quarried orchestral works out of their incidental music for the theatre (for example, Georges Bizet’s Arlésienne suite (1872)), the earlier writers of film music often made concert arrangements of their scores. Today, CD versions of scores for successful films, such as John Horner’s music for Titanic, sell well. The use of music in radio and television parallels developments of film music, though generally (despite exceptions like Benjamin Britten’s score for a BBC adaptation of T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone in 1939), on a more modest level.