There has been much debate over the years about the originality of
film music. On the one side there are the purists, who cry foul at the piecing together of
classical segments simply because the film composer doesn’t have the time or the
originality. On the other side there are the film score gurus, who insist that the composers
were merely inspired by the earlier music and used the idea to write their own compositions. One
composer in particular that has come under condemnation from the purists is John Williams. He
has been accused of “borrowing” from composers as well-known as Dvorak(New World
Symphony) and as obscure as Erich Wolfgang Korngold (kings row theme). The
underlying debate, however, is not whether or not film composers are borrowing from
other composers scores but what makes a piece of music original or copied.
The answer to this question is not an easy one to find. There are so many
sides, opinions, and conditions to explore and debate that it could take one a lifetime to discover a suitable answer that would satisfy both sides. So, rather than attempt to fit it all into a single essay, I will focus on one facet of the debate; Is John Williams use of other music scores
Inspiration or plagiarism?
To answer this question we need to first understand the common structure of a
film score and the process used to formulate them. Usually, after the film has been coceptualized
(or some footage has been actualized), the composer is shown an unpolished "rough cut" of
the film, and talks to the director about what sort of music (styles, themes, etc.) should be used — this process is called "spotting.". The director might even have a “temp score”(a score of pieced old scores to help convey the mood or character of a piece) to help convey his ideas (Karlin, Fred, and Wright 24). After the spotting has been completed the composer has two to three months to complete a “rough cut” that fits reasonably with the discussed moods of the film. Even with the help of recent midi computer technology, the time line puts an extensive amount of pressure on the composer. Several composers, including Hans Zimmer, have described the pressure as terrifying, “I was just living in fear…We were battling the system”(Bond 21).
Unfortunately, this pressure leads to methods of composition that are normally avoided and rejected by composers. It is not uncommon for the composer to draw from the temp score to form the rough cut or even the final working score. This leads to the common phrase, “haven’t I heard that before?”. The simple answer is, yes! Many of the temp score themes find their way into the actual score with slight alterations that distinguish one from the other. Even when the composer tries to create an original score there will still be lingering traces of the temp score present that a careful ear will pick up.
After learning of the temp score method, I realized there might be more to...