• Ben Erickson

Defining Film Music Criticism

Film music criticism had its start back in the '40s, led by the Austrian-born British musician Hans Keller and his American counterpart Lawrence Morton. The two contributed indelibly to the field as outspoken critics and advocating musicians, and in 1947 Keller demanded greater discipline from his fellow critics in a pamphlet titled The Need for Competent Film Music Criticism. Shockingly little has been written since to define the vocation, giving one the impression film music criticism is a young field when it is merely behind the times. It continues today in the form of amateur journalism and broadcast websites that have enthusiastically gone about spreading the gospel of film music for several decades. Given film alone has long had its difficulties being viewed as a legitimate art form we might infer that asking members of the public to approach such a niche industry as film music with respect and consideration is futile. To exacerbate this dilemma neither the enormous divide between academic research and amateur journalism nor the want of association with mainstream film and music criticism assists in its growth. Indeed, the International Film Music Critics Association (IFMCA) is the largest organization of distinction in the field, formed in the '90s by freelance writers due to the lack of recognition from established organizations which persists today. Altogether it begs the question of whether or not film music criticism merits guidance from its mainstream film and music critic analogues or if it is destined to continue on its own path. Note: The term "film music criticism" is itself a misnomer. Though the nomenclature began with the best of intentions it no longer satisfies the definition of a film music critic as the occupation regularly overlaps television and video game scoring. More correctly we might refer to it as "multimedia music criticism", evaluating original music specially composed for film, television, and video games. Something film music criticism certainly merits -- nay, demands -- is independent study separate from its mainstream counterparts, for the fact that it is an interdisciplinary art form. Just as a composer writing music for a multimedia production must consider the needs of the production in question a critic must evaluate the worth of the music based on its interaction with the screen. More difficult to distinguish are the parameters that define a film music critic. Should a film music critic have knowledge of music theory, film theory, history, and experience in journalism? In an ideal world, all of the above. Not because film music has never had its day in the sun, but because to accept anything less only diminishes its worth. Whenever the question of music theory is brought up around musically illiterate film music critics the first response is usually to jump on the emotion bandwagon, reminding those with formal music training -- as if they have forgotten -- that music exists as a separate language of emotion, communicating to us viscerally outside the realm of objectivity. Anyone can say the music made an emotional impact, but no one can convey the means by which such an impact was made. What was the music doing structurally to deliver such an impression? What was happening narratively to compound this effect? To do this we need at least a basic understanding in the rudiments of music theory. Some level of accountability should also be had on part of the critic to train their ear, learn to identify instruments and sonorities, and gain a familiarity with the vocabulary; ie. demos, temp tracks, spotting, diegetic and non-diegetic music, tempo markings, bowing techniques, etc. Otherwise we end up with phrases like "evocative of Herrmann-esque strings", wherein a critic incapable of describing a composer's individual style resorts to comparing them to another composer, as if they have given a clear point of reference. The benefit a little time and research can do here is invaluable. Film theory is just as important because -- and let us hope this does not surprise anyone -- musical form is determined by the form of the film. Composers do not get the opportunity to write a sonata or a tone poem for film (at least not often). They write according to what the film asks of them. Being able to interpret the music's attitude to the narrative or even breaking down a single musical cue in the context of a scene again requires at least an entry level knowledge of film craft, without which a critic cannot hope to satisfactorily illustrate their point. Film theory and music theory provide a basis on which to support one's opinion with evidence; to provide analytical reasoning rather than a wholly subjective evaluation of what has been experienced. Any attempted feedback without them has little value in the way of critical thinking and, dare I say it, progress. History and experience in journalism are likewise essential for any critic because they determine the context and clarity of communication with which one writes. Acquiring access to publications on the history of film music is not difficult. Most film music critics are self-taught to begin with. Rarer are those who put film music within the context of western art music or hold discussion on film history. For instance, why is it we have yet to compare Bach's acumen for organ with Vangelis' virtuosic synthesizer prowess, or discuss the logic behind the film composers' apparently exclusive claims on scores composed within pressing time constraints when many of the world's greatest classical compositions arose of similar constraints? Another consideration regarding methods of approach might be the psychology of music in multimedia, on which a sizable amount of work has been published and can be utilized by composers and critics alike. In any case, while it is likely that not everyone would agree with the above treatise on film music criticism, it is no less prudent to consider and discuss these views in an attempt to improve the profession at every level. Related Articles: