Hollywood has dominated filmmaking as an institutional practice, and its model for the use of music in film has had a determining influence on the history of film music. This influence can be traced to the classical studio era, roughly from the early 1930s to the 1960s. A wave of academic interest in film music that began in the 1980s has focused on the classical Hollywood film score with several important books devoted to the subject. In the 1930s several key composers—most importantly Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897–1957), and Alfred Newman (1901–1970), but also Dmitri Tiomkin (1894–1979), MiklósRózsa (1907–1995), Bronislau Kaper (1902–1983), and Franz Waxman (1906–1967)—rose to prominence for their work in films. All but Newman had emigrated from Europe, many fleeing Hitler and the rise of fascism. (Korngold was Jewish, and his family had a narrow escape from Austria.)

The classical Hollywood film score follows a set of conventions so as to help tell the film's story and to engage the audience in the world that the story creates. To this end, music was subordinated to narrative and rendered unobtrusive through techniques developed both to mask its entrances and exits and to subordinate it to dialogue. Music served several important functions nonetheless: sustaining narrative unity by covering over potential gaps in the narrative chain (such as transitions between sequences and montages); controlling connotation; fleshing out mood, atmosphere, historical time, geographic space, and characters' subjectivity; connecting the audience emotionally to the film; and heightening screen action, often through mickey-mousing, or directly synchronizing screen action and music. (The term comes from the making of Disney animated films, where characters move in exact time to the music—think of Mickey conducting the brigade of brooms in The Sorcerer's Apprentice sequence in Fantasia [1941]). The medium of the classical film score was symphonic; its musical idiom derived from late romanticism, with its structure dependent on the leitmotif. Outstanding examples of the form are too numerous to list, but highlights include Korngold's The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Newman's Wuthering Heights (1939), and Steiner's Gone with the Wind (1939), the last with over three hours of music.

Studio filmmaking in the classical Hollywood era emphasized efficiency, following an assembly-line mode of production with a highly specialized division of labor. Work on the score began when the film was in rough cut and was usually completed within three to six weeks. (There were exceptions: Korngold, for one, got more time.) The process began with a spotting session to determine in which "spots" to place the music. Composers produced sketches of the music, but orchestrators (and sometimes arrangers for songs and choral material) produced the finished version of the score. (Again there were exceptions: Herrmann orchestrated all his own film scores.) The top Hollywood composers established long-term relationships with orchestrators or arrangers they trusted: Korngold with Hugo Friedhofer (1901–1981) (who would go on to become an important composer himself), Tiomkin with choral arranger Jester Hairston (1901–2000). Some composers had the privilege of conducting their own work, but usually it was the studio's musical director who conducted. Often, especially on "B" pictures, teams of composers, arrangers, and orchestrators worked together, so screen credit can be misleading. On Stagecoach , five composers shared screen credit, seven worked on the score, and four received the Academy Award ® that year for Music (Scoring). Ultimately, the producer had the final approval over the score and the studio owned any music written for its films.

Hollywood's mode of production did not accommodate individuality, perfectionism, or complaint. And yet some composers managed all three. Caryl Flinn argues that it was just these conditions and the sense of artistic frustration that they fostered that drove Hollywood composers to romanticism, with its idealized focus on the individual, the transformative nature of creativity, and art's transcendence over social and historical reality.

The symphonic film score remains an option for composers, especially in studio big-budget, action-adventure films and historical epics. The phenomenal success of John Williams's scores, such as Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and especially the first Star Wars trilogy (1977–1983), has been instrumental in revitalizing both the symphonic medium and a neoromantic idiom. Composers who work in the form include Jerry Goldsmith (1929–2004), Danny Elfman (b. 1953), James Horner (b. 1953), and Howard Shore (b. 1946), as well as composers who established their careers abroad, such as John Barry, Nino Rota (1911–1979), Ennio Morricone (b. 1928), Maurice Jarre (b. 1924), Georges Delerue (1925–1992), and Patrick Doyle (b. 1953), to name but a few. Even in films with more contemporary musical styles and instrumentation, it is interesting to note the extent to which classical scoring principles remain. Amid the rock scoring of The Matrix trilogy (1999–2003), for instance, the leitmotif for Neo, the protagonist, can be heard in a classically inflected, symphonic arrangement.

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