The Film Musicologist’s Bookshelf

About a month ago, friend of the Temp Track and fellow blogger Herr Vogler posted this over at his cyberdomain in which he details what books he feels a film composer should have on his/her shelf.  In this post I intend to do the same but for the aspiring film music scholar.

The term “film musicology” or “film musicologist” has been tossed around for about ten years to describe what it is I and others like me do, and while “film” might seem to limit the scope to just that, it is a useful catch-all term (I prefer the term “media scoring” to describe the object of my study, personally, but to each their own).  I have just recently encountered an article by William H. Rosar in the Journal of Film Music (which has an annoyingly irregular publishing history) entitled “Film Studies in Musicology: Disciplinarity vs. Interdisciplinarity” which traces some of the history and trends of the field.  I have yet to finish the article, but in what I have read he really strives to get to a core problem of the field and how it relats to this term, “film musicology:” many of the people working within the field are not trained “musicologists.”

Now, I feel that this should in no way hinder people working in the field, Herr Vogler is a trained composer and theorist but is a very intelligent and insightful scholar who has helped me greatly as I’ve delved into the field.  What Rosar is talking about is how the field developed and the “interdisciplinary” nature that the field has.  At any given Music and the Moving Image conference you’ll have scholars from musicology, music theory, film studies, literary studies, and any other field that might have a tangential connection to film or music.  What this has done, though, has made it hard to find a consistent way in which scholars approach the subject.  Since the field developed in an era already familiar with post-modern critical theory and interdisciplinary approaches, it was a sort of academic Wild West.  To that end, I would recommend looking at the Rosar’s article (found in JFM Vol. 2, No. 2-4, 2009, p. 99-125) for a sort of overview of how the current field developed in the 1980s up to the present, and hopefully some ideas for new directions (I’ll let you know how it all turns out once I finish reading the article).

But for the new scholar trying to get a feel for the field, or good reference materials to have handy, I would recommend some of the following titles.

“The Core” – Books that I would recommend for everybody:

Mervyn Cooke – A History of Film Music and James Wierzbicki – Film Music: A History: These two books were released around the same time and I really do view them as complementary titles that one should at least flip through and know the basics of.  The Cooke is a “great composers, great scores” chronological approach that is a very traditional way of doing history while Weirzbicki takes a cultural/technological viewpoint to telling the history.  Both volumes are easily available in paperback from Amazon and are a great starting point for the bookshelf.

Rick Altman – Silent Film Sound: Silent film music was always a problem in earlier studies (see Predergast – Film Music: A Neglected Art and other earlier works), but what Altman achieved in his study is a more complete understanding of how music interacted with early films and developed into the form that would give way to sound films.  It is an exhaustive study that I still haven’t read every word of, but while Cooke and Wierzbicki treat the subject at some length, Altman focuses exclusively on it.  To really understand the complete history of film music and sound, Altman has to be included in the discussion.

Michel Chion – Audio Vision: Translated from the French by Claudia Gorbman, Chion lays out a model for talking about sound in relation to film and really helps to add to the overall terminology  and approach to audio-visual studies.  As a bonus, it is relatively short, though it can be a be a bit obtuse at time.  That could be a by-product of translation, though.

A Book on Semiotics and Music – I can’t really recommend one book here because there are many different approaches to musical semiotics.  You might want to begin by obtaining a basic book that covers many different approaches to semiotics in general and from there find the method that makes the most sense to you.  I personally go by Nattiez’s Music and Discourse but I know that it does not work for everyone.  But is a basic understanding of semiotics strictly necessary?  Maybe not, but it does help to have a basic model under which to analyze the relationship between music and image.

Other Books that provide models and ideas:

Royal S. Brown – Overtones and Undertones: Brown covers a lot of film theoretical ground here, but his prose can be a bit dense.  What is really great about this book are the interviews with composers at the end.

Claudia Gorbman – Unheard Melodies: Most scholars point to Gorbman as the starting point of the field in the 1980s, and reading Rosar it is easy to understand why.  The book is out of print and expensive to get a hold of, but it is worth tracking down through your local library via Interlibrary Loan.  She lays out a good theoretical model for talking about narrative film music that still largely holds today, though some have challenged it.

Scholars whose work you should search out:

Not everybody has published a book or even a book that is easy to get a hold of, but if you have access to a good library with ILL services and subscriptions to databases such as JSTOR or RILM, then you can find a wealth of articles to read.  Names to look for, besides those already mentioned, include: Kevin J. Donnelly (or K.J.), Robynn Stilwell, Caryl Flinn, David Neumeyer, James Buhler, Kathryn Kalinak, Gillian B. Anderson…and that’s just what some call the “first generation” of film music scholars.  Another good resource is the on-line journal Music and the Moving Image which is edited by the same people who run the yearly conference of the same name at New York University (Anderson and Ron Sadoff) along with the above mentioned Journal of Film Music.

There are some other books that are about specific composers and scores (such as those listed on Herr Vogler’s list), and I would at least checkout the Scarecrow Film Score Guides series.  I’ve only looked through the ones for Batman and Forbidden Planet, but they both seemed like good ways to approach film music from a musicological perspective.  One that is as concerned with the music itself as it is the history of the composer, film, and the  circumstances surrounding the project.

As with any academic discipline, there is a balance to be struck between global knowledge about a field and more specific knowledge related to your defined niche.  That is why I have the “core” books which provide a global view (and do it very well), and have left out more specific books related to composers, periods, etc.  And since “film musicology” is still a new field that is interdisciplinary by its very nature one will also need books on film theory, music theory, and many other possible fields depending on the film subject.

I hope this has been of help to you, my readers.  Your humble blogger has yet to publish anything outside of this web space, but stay tuned as my dissertation begins to take shape – over the coming years…

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