Film Music vs. Concert Music: Guilty as Charged, Part II

…in which we continue our discussion from Part I about those criticisms of film music that are, in some cases, all too valid.


I only recently discovered that it was none other than Aaron Copland who coined the phrase “Mickey-Mousing” in reference to music that animatedly pantomimes the onscreen action it accompanies. Many critics, Copland included, look down on film music when it functions purely as a disjointed mimic of the film.

“An actor can’t lift an eyebrow without the music helping him to do it,” Copland once complained. “What is amusing when applied to a Disney fantasy becomes disastrous in its effect upon a straight or serious drama.”

This style of scoring is often found, appropriately enough, in animated features, though there are many composers who seemingly can’t write for comedy or action scenes without resorting to it. Disappointingly, even the great John Williams has fallen prey to this vicious mouse, most recently in the new Star Wars and Indiana Jones installments (which is especially sad, considering what wonders he wrought for the earlier entries).

Even in animated films where it might be considered most “acceptable,” Mickey-Mousing has time and again been exposed as an easy way out by the several mature, linear scores for animated films (from Goldsmith’s The Secret of Nimh to Powell’s recent How to Train Your Dragon). Critics have every reason to relegate offending scores to the childish company of Silly Symphonies and Looney Tunes.

In a broader sense, this critique aims at the fact that much film music is unlistenable on its own. (Says the critic) How can you compare a cohesive symphony to the random stops and starts inevitable in film scoring? A sudden swell of romance here, a halting screech of atonal horror there; fragmentary, overt, and emotionally patronizing.

Many scores fit that bill, or at least some part of it. A large percentage of scores truly are unlistenable on their own (many for good reason, as their service to the film demands). A lot of scores provide their films an unobtrusive ambience that is nothing but noise on its own. Many are just too frantic and scattershot to hold up as great works of music when you dismantle them from their cinematic counterpart.

Concluded in Part III.