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Experiencing Film Music

A Listener's Companion

Kenneth LaFave

Of all the elements that combine to make movies, music sometimes seems the forgotten stepchild. Yet it is an integral part of the cinematic experience. Minimized as mere “background music,” film scores enrich visuals with emotional mood and intensity, underscoring directors’ intentions, enhancing audiences’ reactions, driving the narrative forward, and sometimes even subverting all three. Trying to imagine The Godfather or Lawrence of Arabia with a different score is as difficult as imagining them featuring a different cast.

Experiencing Film Music: A Listener’s Companion, Kenneth LaFave guides the reader through the history, ideas, personalities, and visions that have shaped the music we hear on the big screen. Looking back to the music improvised for early silent movies, LaFave traces the development of the film score from such early epic masterpieces as Max Steiner’s work for Gone With the Wind, Bernard Herrmann’s musical creations for Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers, Jerry Goldsmith’s sonic presentation of Chinatown, and Ennio Morricone’s distinctive rewrite of the Western genre, to John Williams’ epoch-making Jaws and Star Wars. LaFave also brings readers into the present with looks at the work over the last decade and a half of Hans Zimmer, Alan Silvestre, Carter Brey, and Danny Elfman.

Experiencing Film Music: A Listener’s Companion opens the ears of film-goers to the nuance behind movie music, laying out in simple, non-technical language how composers and directors map what we hear to what we see—and, not uncommonly, back again.
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Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Pages: 214Size: 6 1/4 x 9 1/2
978-1-4422-5841-9 • Hardback • April 2017 • $40.00 • (£24.95)
978-1-4422-5842-6 • eBook • April 2017 • $38.00 • (£24.95)
Kenneth LaFave, former music critic for the Arizona Republic and the Kansas City Star, composes, teaches, and writes about music. The Phoenix Symphony, the Chicago String Quartet, and the Kansas City Chorale have commissioned scores from him, and his essays and reviews have appeared in NewMusicBox.org, Opera News, and Dance magazine. LaFave was a pit musician for the workshop production of Leonard Bernstein’s last (unfinished) musical, The Race to Urga. He is the author of Experiencing Leonard Bernstein: A Listener’s Companion.
Chapter 1: The Not-So Silent Era
Chapter 2: Max Steiner and the First Generation
Chapter 3: Mysteries, Thrillers and Film noir
Chapter Four: The Epic, the Exotic, and War
Chapter Five: Cowboys and Superheroes
Chapter Six: Drama
Chapter Seven: Theme Songs, Comedies, and Romantic Comedies
Chapter Eight: Science Fiction and Fantasy.
Chapter Nine: Ambient Music, No Music, and Ready-mades
Chapter Ten: Trends and Innovations
Selected Listening
Suggested Reading
Composer LaFave tackles the history of film music in this noteworthy book. For many years, the musical accompaniment to silent movies was determined in theaters by local musicians, but in the early 1900s, the studios began requiring that specific music be played with their movies. This was a major shift, but it was nothing compared to what happened with the advent of motion-picture sound. Not only did the talkies put hundreds of musicians out of work, they also signaled the creation of a whole new genre: movie music. Its first major practitioner, Max Steiner (Gone with the Wind), set the standard for how film music should complement and enrich the film experience; he was followed by greats like Bernard Herrmann (who wrote scores for movies by Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock), Nino Rota (The Godfather), and many others. LaFave approaches his very big subject thematically, exploring the music for such film genres as mystery and noir (home of jazz and somber saxophones); SF and westerns (in which grand orchestral themes connote other worlds); and horror (discordant notes, jarring juxtapositions). For both musicians and casual readers.

Kenneth LaFave’s Experiencing Film Music: A Listener’s Companion [is] a nuts-and-bolts introduction to the topic aimed at people who know nothing about music other than that they like the way it sounds. Mr. LaFave, a critic who also composes, has gone to great trouble to write simply, and he takes nothing for granted, explaining how composers synchronize their music to on-screen action, who decides where to put musical cues (it’s almost always the director—the process is called 'spotting') and other things that film buffs know but of which laymen are unaware.... [Herein] lies the value of Experiencing Film Music: Once you’ve read it, you’ll never again be able to ignore the presence (or absence) of music on the soundtrack of a movie. Be it a top-40 song or a colorful explosion of symphonic sound, background music is the seasoning that heightens the flavor of a great film and covers up the flat taste of an indifferent one.
Wall Street Journal

Kenneth LaFave has written an in depth and very perceptive book filled with insights about composers and the music they wrote for films from the very beginning of cinema to the present. You don’t have to be a composer or even a film buff but if you were ever moved by a motion picture song or score, you will surely enjoy this book.
Charles Fox, composer, former Governor of the Motion Picture Academy and former chair of the Music Branch of the Academy