5 film soundtracks that influenced the history of cinema

Cinema and music: a love story that has lasted over a century, and has produced countless masterpieces. Though it would be impossibe to cite all the soundtracks and composers that have influenced the history of cinema, here are 5 that must never be forgotten.

5 film soundtracks that influenced the history of cinema
5 film soundtracks that influenced the history of cinema, © Getty / Jim Gray

Film music has become today a fully-fledged and autonomous industry. And yet, in the beginning the music added to a motion picture was purely an after-though: in the early days of visual animation, during the first film screenings by the Lumière brothers, musicians were only employed in order to perform outside and attract the public's attention, or to conceal the loud mechanical sounds during the screening. Music only had one purpose: to make noise.

Almost a century later, film music composers have garnered their own legitimacy in the world of cinematography. To discover and better understand this evolution, here are 5 soundtracks and composers that have influenced the history of film, and cinema overall.

1 L’assassinat du duc de Guise (1908) - Saint Saëns

In 1908, cinema is far from being considered the art-form that it has become today, on the contrary: it is a simple phenomenon conceived to impress and entertain the masses. One French composer, however, took a particular interest in this new phenomenon, and not just any composer: Camille Saint-Saëns. He decided to compose the music for the fil L’assassinat du Duc de Guise, first shown on 17 November 1908, thus becoming the very first music composed precisely for the art of motion picture. 

At 78 years of age, Saint-Saëns was already an experienced musician having composed a variety of symphonic poems, works for orchestra inspired by extra-musical subjects: the world of moving pictures and story-telling was thus not new territory for the composer. For L'Assassinat du Duc de Guise, he imagined a suite of 5 tableaux for small orchestra (opus 128) with a small string ensemble, five wind instruments, a piano, and a harmonium.

2 Ascenseur pour l’échafaud [Lift to the Gallows] (1958) – Miles Davis

As Paris fell under the influence of jazz music and other American sounds during the 1950s, the young French film director Louis Malle had just finished his first full-length feature film, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud [Lift to the Gallows]. Having recently met the great American trumpeter Miles Davis, on tour in France in 1957, Malle asked the famous jazzman if he would compose and record the music for his latest film. After a private screening, Miles Davis immediately began to sketch several themes and chord progressions.

Recorded entirely during the night of 4 December 1957, the finished work is a freely improvised creation inspired by various short scenes from the film. Not only was the music freed from any form of score or notation, Louis Malle only indicated to the musicians that "the music should be a stark counterpoint to the image and [...] to never seek, through the music, to directly translate or reflect the events on the screen." 

With Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, the use of jazz in film music was officially launched. Countless film directors called upon great contemporary jazz performers such as Gerry Mulligan, Art Farmer, Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers, and even Duke Ellington. By inviting the music of Miles Davis into his film, Louis Malle ignited a strong and precious relationship between the worlds of jazz and cinema.

3 Sergio Leone & Ennio Morricone

This is not just one single soundtrack but rather a legendary collaboration in the history of cinema. Who has never heard the famous and savage cry from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly? The eerie and dissonant harmonica from Once Upon a Time in the West? With its iconic sounds and unique instrumentation (harmonica, jaw harp, whip, whistle…), the music of Ennio Morricone has almost become a genre in and of itself, despite the fact that his music for "Westerns" counts for only one tenth of his overall output (35 westerns amongst 300 film soundtracks).

According to Ennio Morricone, certain directors and producers often worry that the music will distract the audience's attention from the film, or that the film's success will be attributed simply to its soundtrack. Sergio Leone, however, has always trusted his composer unconditionally, even asking Ennio Morricone on several occasions to compose the soundtrack before even shooting the film, so that he may use the music as a source of inspiration for his actors.

4 Blade Runner (1982) – Vangelis

For fans of science-fiction, Blade Runner is, put simply, a hugely influential cult film, in no small part thanks to the music of Vangelis... Set in a distant and dystopic future, the warm sound of a symphonic orchestra would have sounded at odds with the dark cold environment full of machines. The director Ridley Scott thus decided to call upon the famous electronic composer Vangelis. Already a widely-known composer and a pioneer of the electronic genre, Vangelis created for Blade Runner not a soundtrack but rather a sonorous background, a retro-futurist music with a strong blues influence blending melodies, atmospheric music, sounds, and even voices.

The choice by Vangelis of presenting a music created using electronic assistance is a direct reflection of the core essence of Blade Runner. In a world of humans and replicants, Ridley Scott's masterpiece questions the links that exist between humans and machines: what separates man from machine? Could a machine eventually become human?

5 Inception (2010) - Hans Zimmer

It is impossible to ignore the name Hans Zimmer when discussing the history of film music, particularly at the turn of the century. A natural successor to the legendary composer John Williams, whose unforgettable themes have dominated cinemas since the 1970s, Zimmer has distinguished himself with his rich and clever orchestral scores by often drawing inspiration from the film itself, bringing a deeper meaning his to music.

In the music for Inception (2010), for example, Zimmer drew upon the two main elements of the film: dreams, and the slowing down of time. He therefore decided to slow down and orchestrate the opening to de Non, je ne regrette rien by Edith Piaf, an important song throughout the film, adding short but powerful orchestral explosions.