Do You Hear It? A History of Soundtracks in The Movies

Storytelling through music has been around for much longer than moving pictures, and music is still a big, sometimes even crucial part of almost every movie

Music and storytelling are perfect bedfellows. Storytelling appeals to our sense of adventure, while music appeals to our emotions.

Way before the movies, music, and storytelling had forged into a marriage of symbiosis – opera, ballet, theatre; they all used music to help drive the narrative. Throughout the history of narrative storytelling, music has been the protagonist, the antagonist and the elephant in the room. Through leitmotif; variations in pulse; and appropriate tonality, tempo, and texture; music manipulates the audience’s emotional response through the spectrum from fear to despair, and from desperation to triumph.

A great soundtrack should be there, and not there. If you notice the music, it’s usually for a good reason.

From humble beginnings

The advent of the moving image brought grand possibilities for a more intimate, visual method of storytelling, monopolizing upon the wider possibilities of location, the speed of the edit and the intimacy of the eyes. But with no dialogue and no recorded sound, the noise of the projector had to be shielded in the movie theatre by a live orchestra, or a live piano player or organist. The music was often chosen by the studios, with sheet music shipped out with the film stock.

If there were a chase, the musician would match it with a rapidly-paced caper theme. Wherever there was a love scene, they would delve into the functional palette of the orchestral Romantic era, to evoke heartbreak, elation or loss. A card on the screen displayed any essential dialogue, but often, if the music was right, the words weren’t necessary.

When the talkies burst onto the screen, it induced headaches, along with the proclamation that “it will never catch on”. Little did they know.

But the pairing of moving image and sound was a significant one because it put the director’s choice of music at the heart of the action.

King Kong (1933) was the first movie produced with a completely original soundtrack; composed by Max Steiner. It wasn’t the first movie to use music, of course, but it marked the birth of the custom-written soundtrack.

From 1934, the Oscars included Best Original Score as a category, and the marriage between producer, director and composer was firmly established.


Music helps to create a sense of impending climax and growing tension. The diminished seventh chord is the musician’s gift to screen tension. The properties of the chord create harmonic tension – a tension which wants to resolve itself to the closest concord (a harmony where all of the notes “agree” with each other). The diminished 7th chord, when combined with a building of dramatic tension, sends the audience to the edge of their seat.

Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock famously subverted this recognized cultural language of tension and, for many of his most tense moments, he dispelled with music altogether; opting for theatrical silence. The silence heightened the suspense because the audience was, all of a sudden, on their own – they weren’t being driven or manipulated. They were finding the shock of the scene for themselves.

The Birds (1963)

One of the most famous uses of silence in a Hitchcock movie, is in The Birds. The “eyes pecked out” scene is almost unbearably tense, when Lydia (Jessica Tandy), who has noticed the unusual behaviour of chickens in a field, knocks on the door of the farmer’s house.

She lets herself in, and it’s eerily silent.

Broken cups hang on hooks in the dresser.

The silence draws Lydia down the hallway, towards a bedroom.

She peers through a crack in the door, to see a mess of broken glass and dead birds.

Shocked by the growing evidence that something is very wrong, we spot the farmer’s bloodied feet.

And the silent tension climaxes with a grim glimpse of the farmer; dead, with coagulating blood dripping from where his eyes once were. Total silence. Chilling. A masterful stroke of juxtaposition.


Pulp Fiction (1994) has to have one of the most iconic soundtracks of all time. But what was clever about the use of music in this particular film was that it, once again, subverted the recognized relationship between music and film.

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Quentin Tarantino began his juxtaposed relationship with music in Reservoir Dogs – most notably in the scene between Mr. Blond (Michael Madsen) and bound-up police officer, Marvin Nash (Kirk Baltz).

Using Gerry Rafferty’s good time tune, “Stuck in the Middle With You”, we were tricked into a sense of false security, that this moment would end out well. Obviously, it doesn’t.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Pulp Fiction has countless examples of juxtaposition between good-time tunes and dramatic climax.  Mia’s (Uma Thurman) horribly graphic overdose; juxtaposed with the charming celebration of the Wild West in “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” by Urge Overkill; was a genuinely shocking moment, made all the more surprising by the ill-fitting music.

Music as a character

John Williams is one of THE most iconic soundtrack composers off all time, and his long-term relationship with Steven Spielberg has given life to some of the most iconic moments in movie history.

Jaws (1975)

Just two notes – F and F# – were enough to get the whole beach running for their lives. The Jaws theme won John Williams his first Oscar, and is a perfect example of leitmotif – signalling the approach of one of the most terrifying lumps of plastic that you’re ever likely to see.

But what made Jaws so terrifying was what you didn’t see.

The mere suggestion of the cello motif sends the audience onto the edge of their seats, and we know that danger is impending.

The genius is in the fact that you never actually see the full shark until the end of the film, and yet the presence of the music is enough for us to have an emotional response. The musical motif alone suggested present danger – a masterstroke in the Spielberg/William’s relationship.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Close Encounters of The Third Kind has just enjoyed its 40th anniversary, and the movie is as enduring a classic as any that you’re likely to see.

The John Williams soundtrack took the language of music much more literally, by making one of the most memorable musical sequences in film movie history, and making it an actual character in the film.

From the chant in the Indian desert which subverted the famous G, A, F, F (octave down) to C motif, the melody makes many appearances throughout the film; suggesting that something beyond our grasp is drawing the sporadic threads of the story together. The climax, of course, is the fantastical final sequence where the aliens finally make contact and the motif pays off.

Grease (1978)

No discussion of movie soundtracks would be complete without giving Grease a mention.

The “musical on film” is a long tradition, at its most popular in the 1930s and 40s, bringing popular stage-musicals to the silver screen.

Grease was never originally a stage-show, but is most memorable for its wonderful collection of songs, including the Oscar-nominated “Hopelessly Devoted To You”. The double album has sold over 28 million copies worldwide and still endures as a firm favourite today.

Going to the movies would be a very different experience without music, and directors have forged relationships with composers to use the emotional drive of sound to create some of the most iconic moments on the silver screen. Music and film are happy bedfellows – and long may their enduring relationship develop.

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