Researching Film Music – Where to start?

For anyone who’s ever embarked on the journey of writing an academic essay, the feeling of having a mind full of ideas but not being sure where to start researching them will be all too familiar.

I’ve conducted research in many topics over the years – women in music, disability, and music, nineteenth century music, New Orleans jazz, performance practice, but ultimately as it came to starting my PhD, I knew that my favourite topic would take the reins and shape my scholarly work- film music.

Film music scholarship has flourished in recent decades, as has music for screen media. Considering we now live in a world dominated by screens, it’s hardly surprising that there is growing fascination for how these bright rectangles and the images that appear on them interact and add new meaning to music.

Despite this, material around film music may not be as easy to find as you think. There are many wonderful books and anthologies which provide a good start for any aspiring film musicologist but what about if your topic is a little more specific? How do you find and navigate the wonderful world of academic research to find just what you’re looking for? Here are some good places to start.

So those wonderful books- let’s start there, shall we?

Getting to grips with some of the most influential and in-depth texts out there will help you really start to understand this field and some of the most influential musicologists within it. They include

  • The Cambridge Companion to Film Music – Meryn Cook and Fiona Ford
  • The Encyclopaedia of Film Music Composers – Thomas S. Hischak
  • The Oxford Handbook to Film Music Studies – David Neumeyer
  • Music and Cinema – James Buhler, Carly Flinn, and David Neumeyer
  • Film Music: A Very Short Introduction – Kathryn Marie Kalinak
  • History of Film Music – Mervyn Cook

What about specific composers?

Some of the most interesting texts that have been written about film music are centred around the works of individual composers. Indeed, your research may focus on one such person. Here are some great resources to tap into:

  • Bernard Hermann’s Vertigo: A Film Score Handbook – David Cooper
  • Film and Television Music: A Guide to Books, Articles and Composer Interviews – Warren M. Shrek
  • Ennio Morricone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: a film score guideCharles Leinberger
  • Bernard Herrmann: Film Music and Narrative– Graham Bruce
  • John Williams: Music for Films, Television, and the Concert Stage – Emilio Audissino
  • John William’s film music: Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Return of the Classic Hollywood style – Emilio Audissino
  • Knowing the Score: Film Composers Talk About the Art, Craft, Blood, Sweat and Tears of Writing for Cinema – David Morgan
  • Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s The Adventures of Robin Hood: a Films Score Guide – Ben Winters
  • Film Music Notebook – Elmer Bernstein
  • Music for the Movies – Thomas Tony
  • Kubrick’s Cinema Odyssey – Michel Chion

What do you mean the Hollywood Style?

The Hollywood style is commonly mentioned in film music scholarship and refers to the idioms, orchestral techniques, and musical practises of film scores in the early era of American Hollywood movies that combined both music and image. Early examples of this style occurred in what’s often referred to as “the golden age” of music production for film roughly between 1930-1960. Much of the scholarship focuses on that style, specifically musicals and blockbuster hits of the time, but there are plenty of more contemporary works citing Hollywood techniques today:

  • Hollywood Musicals, The Film Reader – Steven Cohan
  • The Hollywood Film Musical – Barry Keith Grant
  • Musical Groups in the movies, 1929-1970 – Roy Liebman
  • The American Film Musical – Rick Altman
  • The Hollywood Film Music Reader – Mervyn Cook
  • American Film Music: Major Composers, Techniques, Trends, 1915-1990 – William Darby and Jack Du Bois
  • Strains of Utopia: Gender, Nostalgia, and Hollywood Film Music – Caryl Flinn
  • Hollywood Theory, Non-Hollywood Practice: Cinema Soundtracks in the 1980s and 1990s – Annette Davison
  • The Melody Lingers on: The Great Songwriters and Their Movie Musicals – Roy Heming
  • American Film Music: Major Composers, Techniques, Trends 1915-1990 – William Darby and Jack DuBois
  • The Composer in Hollywood – Christopher Palmer

This is all rather American- what about world cinema?

It’s true that most film music scholarship is centred around American and Hollywood Film right now, as most films were and continue to be produced from there. However, this leads us to the exciting opportunity to investigate film music in cinema from other areas of the world. Some people who have done this include:

  • British Film Music – John Hurtley
  • British Film Music and Musicals – Kevin Donnelly
  • Hindi Film Songs and the Cinema – Anna Morcom
  • Bollywood: The Films, The Songs, The Stars – Amitabh Bachan
  • Light of the Universe: Essays on Hindustani Film Musi – Ashraf Aziz
  • Hindi Film Song: Music Beyond Boundaries – Ashok Da Ranade
  • European Film Music – David Burnano and Miguel Mera
  • Mongolian Film Music: Tradition, Revolution and Propaganda – Lucy Rees
  • Thirty Years of Contemporary Chinese Film Music – Su Hai Ming
  • The Chinese Cinema Book – Song Hwee Lim
  • The Japanese Cinema Book – Hideaki Fujiki
  • Soviet Film Music – Tatiana Egorava
  • World Cinema Critical Approaches – John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson
  • Popular Music and the Moving Image in Eastern Europe – Ewa Mazierska and Zsolt Gvori

Popular Music in Film- that sounds interesting

A few people have indeed studied the use of popular music, chart hits and conventional pop and rock tracks in films

  • Jammin’ at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema – Krin Gabbard
  • Pop Fiction: The Song in Cinema – Matthew Caley and Steve Lanin
  • Popping the Question: the Function and Effect of Popular Music in Cinema – Popular Music Vol 18 (3)
  • Popular Music on Screen: From Hollywood Musical to Music Video – John Mundy
  • Celluloid Jukebox: Popular Music and the Movies Since the 50s – Jonathan Romney and Adrian Wooton
  • Body and Soul: Jazz and Blues in American Film 1927-63 – Peter Stanfield
  • Rock on Film – David Ehrenstein and Bill Reed
  • Magical Musical Tour: Rock and Pop in Film Soundtracks – Kevin Donnelly

What about the use of sound?

An area I’m personally massively interested in is the use of sound effect in film. Both sound effect and sound design have often been neglected when examining the musical score and integrated soundtrack for film. Here are some good reads around this topic:

  • The World of Sound Film – Phillip Brophy
  • Cinesonic: The World of Sound in Film – Phillip Brophy
  • Film Sound: Theory and Practise – Elizabeth Weis and John Belton
  • Sound Theory and Sound Practice – Rick Altman
  • Hearing the Movies: Music and Sound in Film History – David Neuymeyer, James Buhler and Caryl Flinn
  • Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen – Michel Chion
  • Sound Design: The Expressive Power of Music, Voice, and Sound Effects in Cinema – David Sonneschein
  • Sound and Image: Aesthetics and Practices – Andrew Knight- Hill
  • The Music and Sound of Experimental Film – Holly Rogers and Jeremy Barham

What about going earlier?

Again, we’d be in the same boat. I’m fascinated by the early practises around film music and sound. It’s value, both historically, culturally, and musically are often underappreciated – but not by these authors:

  • The Gendered Score: Music in 1940s Melodrama and the Woman’s Film– Heather Laing
  • Film Music: A Summary of the Characteristic Features of its History, Aesthetics, Technique, and Possible Developments – Kurt London
  • Music and the Silent Film: Contexts and Case Studies – Martin Marks
  • The Emergence of Cinema – Charles Musser
  • Music and Sound in Silent Film: From Nickelodeon to the Artist – Ruth Barton and Simon Tresize
  • Silent Films, Loud Music: New Ways of Listening to and Thinking About Silent Film Music – Philip Johnston
  • Music for Silent Films 1894- 1929: A Guide – Gillian B. Anderson

I have a specific genre in mind

When conducting research into something, it can be good to condense it down to a more refined and focused area. When it comes to film music, choosing a particular genre or concept within film might be a good way to do this. You can already find a lot about the musical genre in Hollywood/ “the golden age” scholarship. Here are some other examples of genre specific research:

  • Tunes for ‘Toons: Music and the Hollywood Cartoon – Daniel Goldmark
  • Music in the Horror Film: Listening to Fear – Neil Lerner
  • The Magic in the Music of Disney – Sarah Casse, Cedarville University
  • Music in Science Fiction Television: Turned to the Future – Philip Hayward and Kevin Donnelly

Ok, so that’s a lot of books – where else should I look?

There are some great journals out there specialising in film and screen music including:

  • Music and the Moving Image
  • Music, Sound and the Moving Image
  • Journal of Film Music
  • Journal of Film and Video
  • The Score: A Music Magazine
  • The Soundtrack
  • The Cue Sheet – The Society for the Preservation of Film Music
  • CinemaScore
  • Journal of British Film and Television Music
  • Journal of American Film and Television Music
  • American Society of Music Arrangers
  • FIAF: International Index to Film Music Periodicals Plus
  • Oxford Music Online

What about websites?

Good question! There’s a brilliant guide to these from Emory Libraries including:

  • Academy Awards
  • Classical Music in Movies
  • Film Music Magazine
  • Film Music Network
  • Film Music Review
  • Film Music Society
  • Film Score Monthly
  • Film Score Rundown
  • Moviemusicom
  • SoundtrackNet

But there are also some others you can find great archives and articles from including

  • FIAF: International Film Archives
  • Music Library Association
  • Association for recorded sound collections
  • The British Library
  • British Film Institute
  • BBC Archives
  • The National Archives
  • Academy Film Archives
  • CineFiles
  • Historical Film Archive
  • Media Archive for Central England
  • ITV archive
  • Film Archives online
  • The International Association of Sound and Visual Archives

Are there any societies, events or associations I could join ?

Other than the RMA there is also

  • BARN Virtual Colloquia – fosters an international, virtual community of scholars and practitioners from all disciplines engaged with the study of music and sound in audio-visual media. Online events, research presentations, interviews with composers and more
  • The College Music Society – promotes music teaching, creativity, research, diversity and interdisciplinary interaction
  • Film Music Society
  • Music Library Association

This is only the beginning

These are some really create pieces and places to engage with in order to develop a strong foundation of your knowledge of film music and begin to get a sense of the current discussions ongoing in the field. By going through and interacting with this material, you will be able to build a strong piece of research. For as you make your way through the deep cavern of film music scholarship, you will find bits of information, references, and topics which excite you and take you down paths you may not have anticipated.

Niamh Gibbs

RMA Student Committee Member

One comment

  1. Hi! I thought you might like to include my book Music for Silent Film: A Guide to North American Research (A-R Editions, 2016), and my site, the Silent Film Sound and Music Archive (

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