Invisible and Inaudible? A Comparison of Post–Classical and Classical Hollywood Scoring (Academic Essay)

The classical Hollywood score arose from an “intersection of changing technology, aesthetics and economics” (Kalinak 1992, p.66) and, as Cooke (2008, p.67) argues, resulted in a “formulaic product designed to appeal to a mass spectatorship”. Cooke (2008, p.183) goes on to suggest that “the diversification of musical styles and techniques in narrative cinema from the 1950s onwards was partly caused by momentous changes in the film industry” which included the the rise of the commercial theme song as an important revenue stream for film studios as well as the emergence of rock and roll and wider youth culture. This lead to both the consolidation and expansion of existing practices of orchestral scoring as well as the diversification of types of music being in film scores. In classical film music, Gorbman (1987, p.73) argues that seven principles for composition, mixing and editing can be seen at work: invisibility; inaudibility; signifier of emotion; narrative cueing that can be referential or connotative; continuity; unity and, finally, that any of the previous principles can be violated in the service of the other principles. The purpose of this study is to compare examples of post-classical scoring to the first two of these principles, invisibility and inaudibility, to better understand both the consolidation and expansion of these practices put forward by Cooke. 

Classical Hollywood film music has an “inherent necessity not to draw attention to itself” (Sabaneev cited in Cooke 2008, p.74) and is “a stimulus that we hear but, by and large, fail to listen to” (Kalinak 1992, p.3) which “works toward the goal of a transparent or invisible discourse” (Gorbman 1987, p.72). Machin (2010, p.155) argues that “It should not be something of which the audience is conscious” but rather “it should unobtrusively contribute to the film experience”. In his study of Post-Classical film scoring, Donnelly (1998, p.143) argues that whist “many contemporary scores bare some resemblance to studio era film music, industrial imperatives and aesthetic concerns have not remained static” and so we cannot consider contemporary film music to be a direct continuation of classical cinema scoring. So whilst Donnelly (1998, p.143) has observed that post-classical film scores, such as those by John Williams for Lucas’s Star Wars trilogy (Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and The Return of the Jedi (1983)) and those by Danny Elfman for Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) share classical Hollywood’s usage of the long orchestral score, they are not simply a continuation of a tradition of “underscoring” [1]. For example, in the ‘Party Man’ sequence, Donnelly (1998, p.148) observes how the music dominates the visual rhythm of the scene, with the actions of the Joker and his gang directly reflecting the rhythms within the music of the score. This sequence is evidence of a breaking from the traditions of the classical Hollywood style, where the “music regularly takes a back seat to other elements of the film” and is “rarely foregrounded in this manner”.

Vernallis (2013, p.42) argues that one way in which post-classical cinema deviates from the classical style is through its foregrounding of “striking audiovisual effects” and through her analysis of Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007) argues that “much of Transformers’ meaning and power stems from the soundtrack” (Vernallis 2013, p.50). She argues that the Transformers are “sound-dependant” with much of their power, strength and meaning being derived from the use of sound. There is a blurring of the distinction between sound-design and soundtrack which can be clearly observed in the New York City sequence where “sound collages” of “metal”, “para-animal cries” and other “mechanical” sounds are used as if they “were parts of the melodic line played on timpani and marimba” (Vernallis 2013, p.51). These “sound collages” are far from the invisible underscoring of the classic Hollywood style, rather, they become foregrounded and serve as being of equal importance to the visuals they appear alongside. It could even be suggested, as Donnelly does of Elfman’s scoring in the Batman films, that this type of scoring draws on an increased musical literacy among the audience [2] (Donnelly 1998, p.148) and allows for the use of “culturally coded” instruments and timbres to create musical clichés which become a foregrounded effect where “design and music coalesce in to a world of dazzling visuals and explosive musical sound” (Donnelly 1998, pp.151–2). 

Interestingly, the foregrounding of the film soundtrack serves a commercial purpose as well as an artistic one. In addition to it’s use in creating and enhancing meaning on screen, a foregrounded score is advantageous to film studios as it allows for the commercial exploitation of the score in it’s own right. Cooke (2008, p.415) has observed that from as early as the 1920s film studios were taking advantage of “synergistic marketing” techniques to “sell films on the back of hit songs and vice verse”. Donnelly’s (1998, pp.148–9) study of Batman “demonstrates a situation where commercial logic has foregrounded aspect’s of the films music”, most notably in the use of Prince’s music in association with the on screen appearance of Joker. The film was accompanied by two soundtrack LPs (Donnelly 1998, pp.144–5), one of Elfman’s classical score and another of Prince’s music. This release represented the synergy of Warner’s recording and cinematic arms working together to cross-promote their products along side each other. Donnelly (1998, pp.148–9) argues that this association of the Joker with the music of Prince creates a situation where Joker represents the “triumph of musical logic over cinematic logic” in contrast to Batman’s invoking of his musical theme which represents the “subordination of musical logic to cinematic logic”. Whilst this may serve an artistic purpose, subconsciously representing to an audience the difference between Batman’s representation of the traditional value of justice through traditional scoring techniques and Joker’s representation of chaos through the interruption of these scoring techniques, there is also a commercial imperative being served through the score.

In describing the role of the music in Inception (2010), Director Christopher Nolan (Making of the Inception Soundtrack 2011) explains how “the momentum of the film is entirely defined by the structure of the music”. Composer Hans Zimmer scores the film, not from the edited movie, but rather from the script: “I wrote the whole score without seeing the movie” describes Zimmer (Sawdey 2010). It is only in the editing process where, as Nolan describes, the music and visuals are brought together to find “interesting points of synchronisation” (Making of the Inception Soundtrack 2011). This brings us back to Donnelly’s assertion that changes in film scoring have come about through changes in industrial imperative. If “most film music in the Golden Age was scored for a full orchestra and employed a tonal and harmonic language” (Cooke pp.83–4) where film music was produced by a “production line” of full-time “composers, arrangers and musicians” (Donnelly 1998, p.144) then we can see in the practices of Zimmer, that post-classical scoring is completely different. Working with a wide rage of sound sources, of which the orchestra is just one, Zimmer creates his music within the Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) where it can be layered and manipulated, and later, edited to allow for the music and visuals to come together. His practice is enabled by the progression of digital technology and the changes in industrial practices outlined by Donnelly. As a result, Nolan describes Zimmer as being “a minimalist composer with a maximalist production sense” creating “simple and specific pieces” but recording them on “a colossal scale” to create a score with such “movement and drive” that Nolan “let the music take over everything”. Contrasting this approach with that of the the classical Hollywood composers, who “composed and recorded after shooting of the image track was completed… working to a rough cut of the film” (Cooke 2008, p.73) to create soundtracks where “volume, mood, and rhythm must be subordinated to the dramatic and emotional dictates of the film narrative” (Gorbman 1987, p.76) we see a huge divergence in approach and the resulting musical material. In his use of electronics and technology we see antecedents in the work of Bebe and Louis Baron and their pioneering score for Forbidden Planet (1956) which was the first entirely electronic hollywood score: a score which pioneered not only it’s use of electronic sound sources, but also of recording technologies (Holmes 2008, p.86), a thread we see continued in Zimmer’s work today. 

In Nolan and Zimmer’s latest collaboration, Interstellar (2014), this divergence of approach has come to the fore, as discussions around the music’s subservience to the narrative action have been held after audiences have complained the the volume of the music drowns out the dialogue (Kilkenny 2014). Kilkenny argues that the loudness of the music serves its own narrative and artistic purpose: in a movie where “emotion is the overriding principle” Zimmer’s soundtrack “supersedes the nonsensical aspects, conveying a sonic experience so powerful it overwhelms the tiny, logic-based details.” Ann Hornaday for the Washington Post (2014) has argued that by foregrounding the musical score of the film to a place where it demands to be attended to by the audience, directors are creating a “sonic soup”. Whilst the dense layering of sound can create “a certain realistic density” (Fincher cited in Hornaday 2014) that reflects an “aural realism” it can also be used by directors for “strong-arming [the] audience to the brink — and sometimes beyond — of, not just comfort, but coherence.” Whether this approach is an act of “indifference, ambivalence or outright antagonism” on the part of directors, as suggested by by Hornaday, or rather serves a greater artistic and narrative purpose, as suggested by by Kilkenny, it is clear these post-classical scores have diverged away from the passive, subservient role of the classical Hollywood style.

Howard Shaw’s scores for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002) and The Return of the King (2003)) have earned him three oscars as well being recognised through performances of the scores across the globe by some of the most well renowned orchestras in the world (Shore 2014). This partnership has since been renewed for The Hobbit trilogy (An Unexpected Journey (2012), The Desolation of Smaug (2013) and The Battle of Five Armies (unreleased)). Already in the popularity of Shore’s works, their repeated performances separate from the visual elements of the film and their critical recognition in their own right, we see a separation away from the frequently backgrounded and unnoticed classical Hollywood score. Adams (cited in Handy 2014) observes an extensive use of themes and leitmotifs in Shore’s work and discovered over 80 unique themes and leitmotifs in the scores for the Lord of the Rings trilogy alone. Whilst the leitmotif is a feature of the classical hollywood score, we observe in Shore’s work, not a direct continuation of this tradition, but a development and evolution of its use. An example of this can be found in An Unexpected Journey (2012) where, in the ‘Misty Mountains’ scene, the dwarves are gathered in Bilbo Baggins’ living room. The song they sing together, ‘Misty Mountains’, establishes a melodic theme that will later become the dwarves’ leitmotif, representing their unity and uprooted sense of belonging throughout the rest of the film and proceeding trilogy. By foregrounding the score through it’s diegetic appearance, where the dwarves sing together in a style reminiscent of musical theatre, the audience are led to have a greater awareness of the musical theme when it appears later in the film. This creates a deeper understanding of its meaning and closer emotional bond with what it represents. A re-working of the song, ‘Song of the Lonely Mountain’ was also recorded by Neil Finn for the official soundtrack and played over the ending credits to the film, providing a further opportunity for commercial synergy.

In conclusion, we can see that where the classical Hollywood score arose from and was shaped by the requirements of it’s own particular set of changing technologies, aesthetics and economics, so too has the post-classical score. Through “striking audio visual effects” composers are able to draw on culturally coded sounds and timbres and create soundtracks and visuals that work together to create meanings which would not be possible were the music simply subservient to the visuals. In the work of Zimmer we see how technology has enabled a new way of working, allowing Zimmer to create soundtracks that combine diverse musical sources that dominate the visual momentum and narrative of the film. We have also seen that the commercial opportunity for music and film to be sold in synergy can influence creative choices of film making and scoring: bringing music out from an invisible and inaudible role to serve a commercial, as well as artistic, purpose.


 [1] “music written specifically to accompany speech” (Cooke 2008, p.76)

[2] Another example of post-classical scoring playing upon the audience’s culturally coded expectations are found where Mera (cited in Wall 2010, p.156) has observed that in High Anxiety (1978) the common place assumptions of the invisibility of non-diegetic music are parodied by Mel Brooks, who looks around for the source of the loud music which plays when he is told bad news: the audience’s familiarity and acceptance of the surreality of non-diegetic music is being drawn upon as a source of humour when it breaks from it’s unconscious role in the background, subservient to the other elements of the film, and unexpectedly enters the film world dietetically and interrupts the film’s narrative flow.


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DONNELLY, K. J.,1998. The classical film score forever?: Batman, Batman Returns and post-classical film music. In: NEALE, S., and M. SMITH, eds. Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. London: Routledge, pp.142–55

GORBMAN, C., 1987. Unheard melodies: narrative film music. London: BFI

HANDY, B., 2014. 'Lord of the rings' composer Howard Shore talks hobbits, his start on 'SNL' and working With Martin Scorsese [online][viewed 1 December 2014]. Available from:

HOLMES, T., 2008. Electronic and experimental music. 3rd edition. London: Routledge

HORNADAY, A., 2014. Critic’s notebook: ‘Interstellar’s’ sonic soup or: how auteurs diss their audiences [online][viewed 29 November 2014]. Available from:

KALINAK, K., 1992. Settling the score: music and the classical hollywood film. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press

KILKENNY, K., 2014. Why interstellar’s organ needs to be so loud [online][viewed 29 November 2014]. Available from: 382619/?single_page=true

MACHIN, D., 2010. Analysing popular music: image, sound, text. London: Sage

SAWDEY, E., 2010. We built our own world: Hans Zimmer and Inception [online][viewed 29 November 2014]. Available from:

SHORE, H., 2014. Howard Shore biography [online][viewed 1 December 2014]. Available from:

VERNALLIS, C., 2013. Unruly media: youtube, music video and the new digital cinema. Oxford: Oxford University Press



An unexpected journey, 2012. [film]. Directed by Peter Jackson. USA: New Line Cinema 

Batman, 1989 [film]. Directed by Tim Burton. USA: Warner Brothers

Batman returns, 1992 [film]. Directed by Tim Burton. USA: Warner Brothers

Fellowship of the ring, 2002 [film]. Directed by Peter Jackson. USA: New Line Cinema

Forbidden Planet, 1956 [film]. Directed by Fred Wilcox. USA: MGM

High anxiety, 1977 [film]. Directed by Mel Brooks. USA: Crossbow Productions

Inception, 2010 [film]. Directed by Christopher Nolan. USA: Warner Brothers

Interstellar, 2014 [film]. Directed by Christopher Nolan. USA: Warner Brothers

Making of the inception soundtrack, 2011 [online video]. [viewed 29 November 2014]. Available from:

Shaun of the dead, 2004 [film]. Directed by Edgar Write. UK: Universal Pictures

Star wars, 1977 [film]. Directed by George Lucas. USA: Lucasfilm

The desolation of smaug, 2013. [film]. Directed by Peter Jackson. USA: New Line Cinema

The empire strikes back, 1980 [film]. Directed by George Lucas. USA: Lucasfilm

The return of the jedi, 1983 [film]. Directed by George Lucas. USA: Lucasfilm

The return of the king, 2003 [film]. Directed by Peter Jackson. USA: New Line Cinema

The two towers, 2002 [film]. Directed by Peter Jackson. USA: New Line Cinema

Transformers, 2007 [film]. Directed by Michael Bay. USA: Paramount Pictures



FINN, N., 2012. Song of the lonely mountain [MP3]. UK: Watertower Music