Is Film Music Great? by John Graham

This article by composer John Graham explores some questions that arise when considering film music's place in the arts today, and perhaps going forward. Where Does Great Music Come From?

I bet on music written for an audience, paid for by someone else.

John Graham photo Arm's length transactions, I believe, have generated the best results historically. Art-for-money has brought us Shakespeare, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Bach, Fielding, Raphael, Rembrandt, Dickens. All worked for money, whether for single patrons or a broader, paying audience. All suffered through the petty vexations of commerce: whims of patrons; popular enthusiasms; losing a coveted job to charming or "connected," but less-able rivals; and the scramble for good players and nice venues at a reasonable cost.

A few great creators were rich, or at least were born into enough money that their financial worries were eased for some part of their lives – Richard Strauss, Alban Berg, Tolstoy. But not too many. So, while allowing for important exceptions, for the most part, the artists of the past whose work has lasted beyond their lifetimes worked for money.

This definition of money-for-music captures Beethoven, Mozart & co., but also includes Gershwin, John Williams, Waxman, Zimmer et alia, Rogers and Hart, The Beatles, Eminem, Lady Gaga, Snoop – whatever. I think there's a reason why each of them has been called "a genius" by various composers at various times. Sure, there's plenty of popular rubbish out there that will not Stand The Test Of Time, but I will be very surprised if the art that does meet that test fails an essential measure:

That many people simply want to hear it (or to view it, or to read it) without being motivated by something beyond seeking diversion, curiosity about the thing itself, or "just liking" it. In other words, people take an interest not primarily because they have to write a paper on it or need a dissertation topic, and certainly not because its greatness only becomes apparent in the pages of an analytical explication, but because it gives pleasure.

The details of how great art is actually generated – how the artist zeroes in on the set of ideas, craft elements, and feelings that actually produce something personal and unique and fresh and "forward" – I think that varies but, however it comes about, I think nothing lasts in the long run without the ability to provoke the reaction, "I like it" in an intelligent but unindoctrinated audience.

Do Motivations Matter?

Despite the fact that some might consider the motivations and goals of the artists as an important measure of whether a work of art could be considered great, I am sceptical about including the artist's motivation as an important measure. It doesn't matter to me (except out of idle curiosity) what the purpose of the writing is, whether it's a lofty goal or, by contrast, a desire to impress a girlfriend / boyfriend, trying to make money, escaping a soul-destroying job alternative, rivalry with other composers / band-mates, seeking everlasting greatness, or sheer vanity.

And that's because it's hard to discern motivation, even if one sifts through letters and other documents from an artist's life produced contemporaneously with the work. Motivations slip easily away from view, even from the artist himself. Although seeking money almost certainly stimulated a large part of the past's artistic output, most of the time, for most composers, the impulse to sit down and write something is hard to capture in words. On the other side of the transaction, I don't think it matters what the motivations are of those paying (up to a point). Teenagers wanting to dance, trying to seduce or impress someone, an impresario / producer trying to make money, or just fun. Each of these has produced great art, and each has produced a good bit of forgettable work.

So I argue that, whatever the specific notion in the artist's or consumer's mind at the time – the motives of the buyer and seller are so hard to pinpoint and may be so various and contradictory, that I believe focus on them obscures rather than illuminates the work itself. While it's certainly interesting to the curious, we don't really need to know the motivation in order to love the work, because we have the work itself, which, when it's as dazzlingly attractive as Beethoven or Shakespeare, speaks for itself.

Where Doesn't Great Art Come From?

These days, many papers and books are being written in academe about popular music. And from time to time in the past, music departments have included composers in residence – Schoenberg being a conspicuous example.

But even allowing for exceptions, and perhaps a growing change in mood that may eventually alter the situation, over time, in effect if not by intention, the academic world has been content to navigate almost completely unmoored from engaging the majority of paid, living composers and their work.

Some of the reasons for that are of course understandable. A large proportion of media music is artistically unambitious, for a start. In addition, the academic hot-house has always given shelter to those whose creations are interesting, if not widely understood or popular. That's fine and that's part of the role, as I see it, of universities.

On the other hand, if all of that work, or nearly all, requires shelter from the storm, is it because it's all great but misunderstood? Or is it the Emperor's new clothes, with some of those composers seeking academic harbors because they shun any risk of having their music validated or rejected by the outside world, by shepherding into channels that will expose their work only to those who are going to accept it?

Part of the relentless history of condescension (or at least neglect) of music-for-hire by the insular elite stems, I believe, from a conflation of, on the one hand, money and popularity with, on the other hand, the low-brow and bourgeois. Put differently, this line adopts the supposition that anything written for money and served to a mass audience automatically is disqualified from a "serious" musician's consideration.

And it's of course fair to ask whether anything that's popular among the masses could be considered "great."

What Do We Get from the Experts?

Whether or not, however, mass art can produce or is producing art worthy of the name, as I look around, I don't see the world festooned with Great Art jetting forth from the academic world, or from the cartloads of art paid for by well-meaning organizations that are supporting arts that can't support themselves (in other words, government-grant art / music / literature).

Not that there couldn't be some great, or potentially great composers in academe; undoubtedly there are. But what audience are they getting? How many players do they get? A handful of soloists and recorded or electronic sound sources can produce some intriguing music, but it's born amid departmental academic expectations and, often, constrained further by budget to minimal resources. In those straits, I am not sure how the natural impulse to compose can escape being mangled, or how, even if it fights through, we will ever hear of the work.

While there is certainly a lot of energy in the academic world directed at topics that formerly would have been off-limits, study of, criticism of, and research into music remains burdened by the legacy of a clutch of false premises still echoed in know-it-all circles generally:

  1. That only professors or "those qualified" are able authoritatively to identify, dissect, and specify genius;
  2. The popularity of a work renders it automatically suspect and reveals it to be dangerously lacking in requisite musical rigour;
  3. Academics and the otherwise-degree'd are not susceptible to vogues, fads, and trendiness;
  4. That great composers in the olden days – Bach etc. – were higher-minded, devoted purely to the Pursuit of Art, possessed only well-justified (if sometimes large) egos, were exempt from petty rivalries and fame-seeking, and generated Great Works unsullied by pursuit of girls, free drinks, a cushy place to work, and so on;
  5. That the analyse-able elements of music – form and symmetry, or scale systems or other mathematical elements, or sociological significance – offer insight into why the pieces are enjoyable or interesting to us or, at least, make the piece "valid;" and
  6. That merely emotional music / art / literature, however powerfully loved (Dickens, Tchaikovsky being two examples), while it must be tolerated, is in actual fact beneath the notice of serious academics.

And I base my case against the legacy of critics, academe and their impact on the arts not just on these arguments, but on their results, which in my opinion have been totally disastrous.

Where Has the Insular Elite Left the Arts?

So what is the result of the "insular elite" seizing the helm and steering the arts? For answer, I look to the marketplace.

How busy are concert halls? How many poetry magazines are there today? How many people, even the educated, feel free to like or dislike a work of art or a piece of music without reference to whether it's on some "approved" list? Are scalpers charging $400 a ticket to any symphonic concerts? Does one feel susceptible to being made a fool of if one expresses dislike of, or bewilderment with, a piece of art only to learn that, say, the V&A paid millions for it because it had been approved by critics as "groundbreaking?" Does the announcement of new works of the sort championed by academics excite anticipation or, instead, a desire to flee?

I think we know the answers to all these questions. Few people, even among the educated, anticipate with pleasure new music, poetry or art, and I place the blame squarely on the Academy's failure in leadership.

The history of this debacle goes back at least 50 years. Championing a combination of what, by around 1945 or 1950, had become a rigid and almost unassailable "canon" of Approved Old Guys, plus a more recent crop of dissertation-ready music, with its systems to analyze, structural rigour, and harmonic ideas rooted not in enjoyment but physics or some other realm of intellectual novelty, The Academy ground the fun and natural enjoyment out of new music so that by now we see the legacy in too many empty concert halls and a feverish urge, even among regular concert-goers, to hasten away from any music labeled "modern."

How is that good for music? Hasn't the same contempt toward popular work produced the same scorched earth seen in many of the arts? Serious poetry, to take one example, has been relegated to oblivion nearly everywhere in the West. Young people look for thoughtful art that can help them make sense of their crazy lives, and find it only at iTunes.

Meanwhile, academically-sponsored art itself seems engaged in extended seppuku, crabbed and tangled with explicit and implicit rules for art that surely throttle the natural creative impulse.

How likely is Great Art to appear from the hand of the average professor-composer suffering a full teaching load, with time to write at most a 20-40 minute piece in an entire academic year that he or she knows will be subjected to some kind of analytic scrutiny instead of just heard and liked, or not-liked? How likely is Great Art to appear from a composer-in-residence whose main obligation is to generate music that the faculty and / or the committee approving his re-appointment will prize?

My guess is not too likely.

I am not sure whether a film composer has or will overcome the shortcomings and pressure of the medium, and produce something so good that "they would not willingly let it die." It's very early to be sure what, in 50 or 200 years, will still be admired. But I'd bet that commerce, over time, will beat the products funded by the "difficult and dense" school of composing or The Committee To Destroy All Arts Via Committee.

Ironically, the result of decades of strenuous efforts of critics seeking to guard us from low-brow music is that the overwhelming majority of new orchestral music is produced for media, rather than the concert hall. Of all orchestral music written in the last 20 years, what proportion was written for film and TV? 90 percent? 99?

I am willing to place my bets there, in music-for-hire, rather than any Milton Babbitt or Luciano Berio or other composer whose work is so dense and difficult that it requires an instruction manual, or "historical perspective," or decades of study to appreciate.

Who has the time? I listened at age 12 or 14 for the first time to Beethoven's third symphony, and that was it – instant admiration, astonishment; powerful feelings of all sorts, with no study, no manual.

And while that instant recognition of something you want to hear again is naturally not the only criterion for greatness, the academics' near-automatic rejection of such instant delight, to me, is a sure sign of a institution that has missed the forest for the trees.

Popularity is Not Enough

Lest a misunderstanding emerge, I think it important to emphasize that I don't equate popularity with artistic merit. The one does not automatically grant the other. But, I am saying that it remains widely fashionable to assume that there can be no connection between the two, to dismiss in horror even the consideration of the artistic merits of anything that actually is popular.

Even worse, a healthy proportion of scholar-composers actively seek to offend or displease an audience, even trying to out-do each other in driving audiences up a wall. I have seen reviews chortling about how some piece made members of the audience leave, and what a success that was. A New York Times piece by an active composer repeated the now taken-for-granted saw that, without offending someone, a piece couldn't possibly have any artistic value or be considered daring and new.

To me it is nonsense to link the two; and not merely harmless nonsense. Indeed, it has had the pernicious effect of driving ever more people away from new music.

Of course one has to acknowledge that it's possible to write something that upsets some people but that, nevertheless, has real artistic merit. But it's equally possible that such pieces are merely sophomoric, irritating bilge.

It may be that a great new work will offend, but offense doesn't guarantee greatness. Just because audience members storm out does not mean one has written "Le Sacre du Printemps."

Has the Academic Tide Turned?

Clearly, film departments at universities have grown in number and accreted a degree of respect. And even a cursory glance at the titles of books and papers reveals that academics are directing meaningful energy at popular music. Serious work appears about Wagner and Copland, to be sure, but also about James Brown and Eminem. Even heavy metal music gets attention, along with practically every area of jazz, barbershop quartet, Stephen Sondheim's musicals – unquestionably there is meaningful energy spent on popular works nowadays. Even so, these papers and compositions seem written for and largely consumed by peers only. In some cases, it is clear that they are stuck applying traditional yardsticks to validate the music they are examining, and that the pieces' or composers' quality is in those circumstances measured by the degree to which their music uses analyzable structures or techniques.

In other cases, the titles of these efforts appear to tangle the music with social or other non-musical issues. Phrases in a few titles such as, "the Musicological Skin Trade," or "Charles Ives and Gender Ideology," can't help but make one wonder whether academic legitimacy, when writing about popular music, derives in those cases more from the music itself, or the reliably meaty arena of sociology.

Bolstering for academic legitimacy a popular or folk music topic with sociological issues, by implication, undercuts the legitimacy of the music itself, in my view. Moreover, it reinforces the wrong-headed predilection in academic circles for social relevance in the arts. The arts have been sold as "good for you" repeatedly. This may help when seeking more money for one's department or funding from the government, but the arts wouldn't be valued as they are by millions of people if their therapeutic value constituted their main purpose. Conflating art and social or other non-artistic issues gives rise to, in my view, another destructive muddle.

As a result, it is not clear whether such music is taken seriously, or is serving mainly as an as-yet-unexhausted topic for a paper or book to be read by other academics.

I have been told that Jane Austen initially wrote primarily for her family and friends, in order to entertain and divert them. Whether apocryphal or not, that desire – to entertain and divert – needs to be rehabilitated from decades of condescension and contempt if we are going to reinvigorate the concert repertoire, attract an excited new audience to concert music, and restore a positive link between music as it is actually practiced and the halls of academe.

Who knows whether any particular composer in the popular sphere is producing works that anyone will value in 100 years? What we can say, I think, is that most music which today we consider great, including that of Beethoven or Bach, was created for some fairly prosaic purpose – a church service, a feast day, an opera with a plot hastily hashed together, a concert on such and such a date. Of course, some commissions were spurred by coronations and other Great Occasions as well, but anyway, when the message came in, "we need some music" I assume it wasn't "we need music that will Stand The Test Of Time," but "we need music that The Guy Paying For It Will Like."

It saddens me, both for composers and audiences, to picture the tortured, narrow channel into which composers seeking concert performances have been forced by critics and other cerebrals. Over many years, this has generated a catastrophic rupture between new music and audiences. We need to reset our criteria for selecting Important New Music so that it no longer seems explicitly to ignore anything likely to excite / interest / move / entertain or otherwise please an audience.

The scribbling tribe has for decades behaved as though determined to crush any compositional impulse that might be recognizable as something that might originally have motivated the production of composers like Bach or Beethoven. That should end.

I hope that the symptoms in academia reflect a tide that has turned decisively, and that we will therefore eventually see an embrace by concert halls of music (and poetry and art) that audiences would enthusiastically pay to experience. Imagine what, say, James Newton Howard might produce for the concert hall if he were to receive the sponsorship of someone influential in that arena?

In the mean time, I believe film and game music, for good or ill, has replaced symphonies, opera and church music – the mainstays of former times. And, if one accepts that idea, I believe that if we are to see great music written in our own time, it will be in media where we find the bulk of it.

About this Article

This article was written by the composer John Graham. For more information about John Graham, visit

The article first appeared as a Guest Editorial in Film Music Magazine and is re-published here with the kind permission of John Graham and Film Music Magazine.