Re: Is Film Soundtrack a genre?

Fran has asked if ‘Film Soundtrack’ is a genre. So in this post I will express my views on what a music genre is and hopefully that will explain why I chose this one to go on The Music Tree.

What are they for?

Music genres provide a way of grouping songs, albums or artists together. When they are grouped in this way it’s make it easier to describe music to other people. In our case it provides a useful tool to analyse the way music has evolved over time. The terms I’ve used tend to be the same as those used worldwide, such as folk and rock.

What are they made up of?

The way a song sounds is clearly the greatest factor in defining its genre. This tends to go hand in hand with the instruments being used. For example, folk music usually consists of an acoustic guitar; jazz involves brass instruments; electronic music uses electronic instruments. The atmosphere of a song is also important – just compare the gloomy tones of post punk to the jump-around tunes of 90’s pop. The tempo, structure of the song, the way it is sung, and many other things contribute to how a song sounds. It is spotting the similarities between these things in songs that create different styles of music. You can even have the same song in different styles.

Songwriters are naturally influenced by what came before it, therefore genres tend to be developments of existing sounds (this is what the Music Tree tries to show). But they are also influenced by what is happening around them. This leads to explosions of music scenes, and this is one way of grouping music. For example in the late 1980’s in and around Manchester emerged many new bands that incorporated indie rock, psychedelia and dance. Primal Scream’s album Screamadelica shares a similar sound and is from the same period, but cannot be classed as ‘Madchester’ because the band is from Glasgow. Fashion can define a music genre – just consider the flamboyant outfits of Glam Rock, the eyeliner and dyed black hair of Emo, the dirty, baggy clothes of Grunge, or the fluorescency of New Rave. Where the music is played and who listens to it can even contribute to defining a music genre.

A music genre is not just about the sound of the music; there are several characteristics which define it.

So what about Film Soundtracks?

If you take a look at the album charts of the 1950’s, it will look very different to today. It will be dominated by film soundtracks. From the first chart in 1956, it would be five years for the biggest selling record of the year to not be a soundtrack. The soundtrack to South Pacific was number one for 115 weeks, including the whole of 1959. So for sheer market dominance, film soundtracks deserve recognition.

But is it a genre?

Film soundtracks are different to most other music, as they are written to accompany a video. They can be broken down into three main subgenres: film scores; musicals; and pop songs heard in the background.

Film scores are what I think of when I hear the term ‘soundtrack’. This is the music you hear in the film. It is a background to the video and is therefore written to accompany the visuals. As a result, it has its own unique sound. It is usually instrumental and often uses orchestral instruments to create an emotive atmosphere. The music can also be used as a sound effect to emphasize or simulate the sounds of what is happening on screen. Convergence by Jonny Greenwood is a great example of this.

Musicals offer a different type of music – music sung by the actors. As Fran says, this has evolved from musical theatre and opera. These songs have their own style and are different to other forms of music. There is a heavy focus on the lyrics, which usually help tell the story or present the thoughts and feelings of the characters at that moment in the film. Classic Disney films also come under this category.

This weeks album The King and I is a mixture of film score and musical tunes. It therefore offers a good representation of the film soundtrack genre, especially of those records that were so popular in the 1950’s, before the advent of pop music.

Soundtracks may also contain pop songs which can be heard either in part or in whole in the film. This is where Fran’s example of The Royal Tenenbaums comes in. They are often used as the theme song for the film. They may be pre-existing or written specifically for the film, it doesn’t really matter. These songs will fall under another musical genre, whether it gangsta rap or trip hop. But when collected together on an album for the film, the record can be classed under soundtrack.

Fran may think that film soundtracks are too varied in sound to group together. But this is true of many genres. We will take alternative rock as an example. This can be vary from delicate, heart-breaking ballads to crunching guitar thrashing, sometimes within the same album. Fran compares a record from 1956 to one in 2009. When you compare music from over fifty years apart, the genre is bound to have developed in this time, and the genre of film soundtrack has developed more than most.

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5 Responses to Re: Is Film Soundtrack a genre?

  1. Claire says:

    This is a good question.

    I think that film scores are an interesting genre in their own light, and you could chart their chronological development in terms of style (parallel sometimes to cinema) and technological advances in the same way that other genres evolve.

    What sub category would you put classical music not written for the film, but used as non-diagetic sound, into?

    J’aime cette idée

  2. Dave says:

    Hi Claire!

    I kind of agree with you, Claire. Film scores could be classed as a genre in their own right, as could musicals. I’ve grouped them together in the tree for a few reasons, the main one being that I didn’t want to get the tree to cluttered. Although they are very different musically, there are many links between the two genres. They are often written by the same person; they can be used together in the same film (as in The King And I); they are viewed by the same audience in the same setting. They also are both written with a similar purpose – for a film to enhance the story-telling. And this purpose is what makes the genre of film soundtracks different to most other music. I expect, as we explore the tree further, we will find more arguments for subgenres to be given their own label.

    You make a good point about the difference between diagetic and non-diegetic sound. For those, like me two minutes ago, who don’t know what this word means, diegetic sound is sound whose source is visible in the film. For example, voices of characters and the music of instruments being played by people in the film would be diegetic. Non-diegetic sounds are those whose source is not clear from the film, for example mood music or sound added for dramatic effect.

    To answer your question, I would put it in both ‘pop songs heard in the background’ and classical. It has been written as a piece of classical music, but has been used for mood music in a film. Perhaps ‘pop songs heard in the background’ is a bad name. Maybe ‘music not written for the film but used in the film’ would be better.

    Thanks for commenting, Claire. I look forward to hearing more from you and hope you enjoy following Fran and I on our musical adventure!

  3. Magalli says:

    Hi Dave and Fran:
    I was looking at album covers around the net and found your nice blog.
    I´m a buff movie.
    And I would comment that there are at least two ways to classify music in film: the so-called incidental music, one that is written for a film (orchestral, vocal) and music or sounds that are grouped to play a film, itself the soundtrack.
    For example, the incidental music written by Krzysztof Komeda for “the Rose Mary´s baby”(Polanski); and the sound collection of music, written before in various genres and authors: to the movie “kill Bill” (Tarantino).

    The question is. “The soundtrack is a genre?
    I think not.
    In any case it is an application that gives the music a way to accompany the films, to enrich the reading of images.

    Saludos desde México

  4. Pingback: Week10 DMT – Elkie Digital Journal

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