Scott Routenberg


Prof. Lee


Overview:Aesthetics of Electronic Music

With the advent of electronic music technology, composers gained access to a virtually unlimited world of musical possibilities.Digital manipulation now allows the composer to create unique sonic combinations and timbral colors unimaginable just a few decades earlier.The impact of digital music technology on the film industry has prompted many economic and aesthetic changes in the film scoring business. Contemporary film composers (the 1980s to the present) have at their fingertips an ever-expanding regiment of musical and extra-musical possibilities.At the threshold of this new aesthetic, digitally-mediated music has prompted the development of a specialized vocabulary that reinterprets both the acoustic space and the traditional role of sound in musical composition.

One of the most fundamental concepts of electronic music composition is the idea of the soundscape, or the perceived spacial environment of a sound recording.Compositional techniques in electronic music often involve transformations of the aural landscape/soundscape.The idea of sonic transformation is similar to the concept of morphing, which involves the gradual synthesis of two or more sounds in a recording in such a way that the listener perceives a linear, continuous flow of sound.Individual sound characteristics like timbre and amplitude may vacillate during this process, taking on characteristics of the original sounds.Composers systematically morph instrumental sounds to create qualities impossible to achieve on a specific instrument (for instance, the unbelievably high register of the soprano in The Fifth Element was created using synthesizer technology and male/female voice morphing, to be discussed later).Aural transformations tend to have a dreamlike quality because they are removed from the concrete; they are also ambiguous in nature because of their lack of contextual cues. 

Many of the electronic sounds used in film music are acousmatic as well; that is, the sounds cannot be identified in relation to their sources. Instead of being associated with their original sources, like the familiar sound of traditional musical instruments, these “sound-objects” can be analyzed based on their intrinsic musical properties.Film music composers add acousmatic sounds to electro-acoustic and purely electronic soundtracks to evoke a sense of disorientation in the listener.Acousmatic sounds are often interpreted as symptomatic of industrial society and a general lack of emotion; thus, their popular use in technologically-oriented films (sci-fi, etc.).Another aspect of electronic music composition is musique concrète, or music made from pre-recorded sounds.The assimilation of extra-musical sounds into a musical context takes place regularly with technology like sequencing, sampling, and quantizing (to be discussed later).


Electronic Film Scoring:Aesthetic and Technical Considerations

There are three ways to conceive of electronic music:as an imitation or re-creation of acoustic instruments, as a means of creating unique non-acoustic sounds, and as a blend of electronic and pseudo-acoustic sounds.Acoustic re-creations in film music are very common--traditional orchestration applies to the scoring of acoustic re-creations, but the resulting sound takes on new aural colors.Composer William Goldstein observes, “I think that whatever success I’ve been having with electronics is absolutely due to my orchestral background, because everything I do here I think of in the same terms I would use if I were writing for an orchestra.It’s just that the colors are different colors” (Karlin and Wright 394).On the other hand, synthesizers have the ability to do what no other instruments can do, and many composers exploit this fact.Synthesizers free the inherent limitations of acoustic instruments, creating an endless source of expression for the composer.With the aid of sequencers and related technology, the humanly impossible becomes possible.Unique combinations of known sounds and altogether new and unexpected sounds add a satisfying feeling to any dramatic situation (reminiscent of Chion’s added value theory).Some of the most innovative work in recent film music incorporates hybrids of electronic and orchestral sounds.Electronic and traditional orchestral writing both add dramatic nuances to the film; oftentimes, the synthesis of the two create a unique sonic landscape that complements the film’s visual moods.Noted film composer Jerry Goldsmith suggests:“I’ve been using electronics for twenty-five years now.But I’ve never seen it as a substitute for an orchestra.I believe it will someday be an accepted section in a symphony orchestra” (Karlin and Wright 395).The idea of an electro-acoustic orchestra seems distant at best, but Goldsmith’s vision is not out of the realm of possibility.Recent use of electronic and orchestral hybrids (see examples in part III) has escalated, and now well over 50% of film scores incorporate electronic elements (Karlin and Wright 420).

The draw of electro-acoustic hybrids in film scores (and purely electronic scores) originates in part from the emergence of the low-budget, independent film.Hollywood’s exclusive studio system opened up to accept fledgling filmmakers on account of their “uncorrupted” and creative artistic visions.This change in the studio system, which essentially veered away from the “summer blockbuster” and other worn out formulas, made a considerable impact on the film music business.Composers were now being hired to score independent films, but the producers’ low budgets could not support the high costs of recording a studio orchestra.Faced with this impediment, composers sought financial refuge in electronic music.Many composers began constructing their own home studios in which they could experiment with sounds and even record with professional quality.Electronic music adapted even more readily to the production of TV soundtracks, since TV production schedules rely on a hectic weekly turnover.

Though the ideal use of electronic scores would be to satisfy a composer’s artistic vision, economic forces often relegate composers to a strictly electronic palette.Electronic music composition provides a more expedient and cost-efficient means of producing film (and television) scores on demand.William Goldstein comments on the relationship between economically and aesthetically motivated scores:“Certainly, economically, in the real world, there are going to be a lot of scores done this way because people don’t have the money for an orchestra” (Karlin and Wright 420).According to Goldstein, these scores will certainly be delivered if a composer is “eager for such an opportunity” (Karlin and Wright 420).This ideological split between artistic and economic motivation may have contributed to the general sentiment that electronic scores have less value than orchestral scores (similar to the difference between high culture and pop culture).Now that successful composers like John Williams have incorporated electronic elements into their prodigal orchestral scores, the legitimacy of electronic music as a method of film composition has received proper recognition.

Scoring films with electronic music (and electro-acoustic hybrids) is a science just like any other, incorporating technology and individual expertise to create the desired product.There are many steps involved in the production of electronic film scores, many of which will be outlined here.One of the first priorities for a composer working with electronic music is the task of finding and editing sounds.These sounds are often archived in expansive libraries or factory patches on synthesizers.The composer should determine what sounds he/she is looking for before entering the recording studio or meeting with musicians; doing so saves valuable time and money at later stages of production.Electronic parts are usually recorded, mixed and sweetened separately from the studio orchestra; doing so saves the composer time (which is already limited) and gives more freedom to live electronic ensembles.

Special sounds (also referred to as colors) can really enhance a score--often a composer will have a certain sound in mind after he/she reads the film’s cues.All of these unique electronic sounds must be described on the score so that the designated performers can interpret the sound as it was originally conceived.Unconventional metaphors are often used to describe these sounds, like the following examples:“Sparkly chord, beautiful, rich, Vangelis-like” or “the sound of an oboe playing underwater” (Karlin and Wright 396).The first description may be interpreted by a synthesist as “Phase shift a CS-80 string sound with something that pings, and add a delay device to the sound” (Karlin and Wright 396).Generally, the composer must give a detailed and exaggerated description of the sound if the sound does not already exist in a familiar sense (as either a common musical instrument or a synthesized patch). 

In any case, electronic sounds must still match the desired mood of the filmic image, whether the given sound displays empathetic, anempathetic, or anti-empathetic characteristics.As defined by Chion (and Lee), empathetic music is congruent with the mood or space of the image, anempathetic music is indifferent to the mood or space of the image, and anti-empathetic music is oppositional to the mood or space of the image.(the third section of this essay will explore the relationship between electronic music scoring and the mood of the filmic image more thoroughly). 

If the composer does not create the electronic sounds individually, he/she must hire synthesists to produce the desired sounds.Other than the actual production of sounds by the synthesists, an electronic music composer effectively creates the “instruments” for which he/she is composing.These electronic colors begin to stimulate new compositional solutions, as noted by Maurice Jarre:“In electronic music, because there are limitless possibilities, you can’t always exactly indicate what you want like you can with an orchestra, especially since you don’t even know all the possibilities.But you can imagine when you compose what kind of sound you would like to write” (Karlin and Wright 397).

Unlike the lush textures associated with orchestral film scores, electronic scores are more suited for simplicity.Because of electronic music’s unique potential for doublings and creating attention-grabbing sounds, simplicity goes a long way.Electronic music is also more likely to be atmospheric and textural than orchestral music-- these characteristics explain its popularity with directors.In fact, directors often request electronic scores because they believe that electronic sounds will complement the action on the screen without being too distracting.There is definitely a link between electronic music, atmospheric effects, and simplicity--a relationship that accounts for the rising popularity of electronic scores in contemporary film and television music.

Many of the technological innovations discussed in terms of aesthetics up to this point are produced using one or more of the following:sequencers, quantizing, samplers, and drum machines.Sequencers record information played directly onto a keyboard in real time, but they can also slow down the tempo and be programmed step by step (which is equivalent to note by note programming).Using a sequencer, composers can layer many different electronically produced sounds on top of one another in an orchestral manner.The majority of electronic compositions contain several tracks of sequenced information which can, when layered in relation to time, create the overall effect of an “electronic orchestra.”Quantizing is a useful technique that synchronizes repetitive notes and figurations with a given tempo/beat.Techno music is notorious for using quantizing in highly repetitive rhythmic loops and precisely executed electronic backgrounds.Samplers, which are often used in drum machines, convert an acoustic sound into digital (electronic) sound, allowing the user to manipulate the sampled sound to his/her preference.Samples are either recognizable in relation to their source or unrecognizable in relation to their source (crossing over to the realm of audio art and acousmatics, as mentioned earlier).Modern advances in sampling technology allow programmable dynamics, making high-end samplers less machine-like and flexible.Drum machines basically take sampled rhythm and percussion sounds and layer them temporally (using a given tempo/beat).The use of drum machines (and a rhythm section in general) gives film scores a contemporary feel.Most film action sequences utilize drum machines to sustain the frenetic pace of the moving image; however, their most notorious contribution can be heard in the trance-like pulse of techno and industrial music (the use of techno and industrial music in contemporary film scoring will be discussed further in section III).


Examples of Electronic Scoring in Film

There are countless examples of electronic film music from the early 1980s to the present--this analysis will focus on four examples in chronological order:The Abyss (1989), The Fifth Element (1997), Run Lola Run (1999), and Being John Malkovich (1999).One might notice that all of these films are related to science fiction or modernist portrayals of society; it is not a coincidence that electronic music saturatesmovies of this genre, for their subject matter incorporates the industrialized, dehumanized sounds of the electronic revolution.

Alan Silvestri’s underscore for The Abyss provides the perfect complement to this ominous underwater thriller.Silvestri’s score incorporates both acoustic and electronic elements seamlessly to evoke both a sense of awe and frightful anticipation.The reviewer cited here thought that the first half of the soundtrack, which contains mostly electronic music and electro-acoustic hybrids, was the most “monotonous.”The last three tracks of the CD are mainly orchestral in nature--the reviewer praises these tracks as “the best pieces of music he [Silvestri] has composed in his entire career.”These statements reveal an interesting attribute of electronic film music:it does not command as much of the listener’s attention as orchestral music, probably because it is unconsciously associated with “new age” musical trends, which often function as background filler or once-removed atmospheric effects.One must not forget that Silvestri’s score was, first and foremost, meant to complement the visual film and the many moods associated with these images.

Eric Serra’s underscore for The Fifth Element (1997) demonstrates another mature hybrid of electronic and orchestral sounds, though Serra leans toward modern musical trends like techno and industrial music in his eclectic compositions.Three tracks in particular point to Serra’s musical influences in techno, industrial, and the sampling/morphing of pre-existing sounds.Track #4, named after the movie’s protagonist, Korben Dallas, utilizes drum machine and sampling technology to create a musical representation “with attitude.”Musical and non-musical elements are paired to create a propulsive beat-oriented groove; Serra’s use of the low-register bass line is also indicative of industrial music.Track #8 is similar to #4 in that musical and extra-musical elements are used simultaneously; however,this track includes the melodic lyricism of orchestral strings.Track #10 combines just about every element of musical and non-musical (similar to audio art) practice into one take, creating a DJ-like presentation that jumps abruptly from mood to mood--and believe it or not, there is actually a visual sequence in the film complementing this strange amalgamation of sounds!Track #15 combines drum and bass-oriented music with sampling and an advanced form of vocal morphing.Here Serra has taken a soprano and sampled her voice, spreading it out over the notes of a synthesizer so that she can reach an impossibly (or in this case, inhumanly) high vocal register.During a brief but ear-opening segment of this track, Lucia di Lammermoor’s voice (the alien soprano in the movie) is also morphed seamlessly from the low register of a man’s voice into the middle register of the soprano’s actual voice--a very innovative effect, indeed.

         Run Lola Run did not receive much publicity when it was released in 1999, partly because it was a foreign film (German).Composed by Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil, the soundtrack for this movie is composed entirely of techno music.Needless to say, drum machines, samplers, and quantizing all play a large role in this type of music.The relentless, kinetic rhythm of the score matches the frenetic pace of the movie, which depicts a race against time.Through the endless beat of the soundtrack, the viewer/listener is more easily drawn into Lola’s subjective world.Therefore in this case, electronic music takes on a function directly related to the pace and rhythm of the film itself.

I have included the last movie, Being John Malkovich (1999), because the soundtrack includes one of the most innovative international electronic-oriented artists, Björk.Her contribution to the film is called “Amphibian,” and it (appropriately) takes on two different forms at the beginning and the end of the film.“Amphibian” displays many of the same musical idiosyncrasies that Björk has built a reputation out of, like combinations of orchestral and electronic sounds, techno/industrial beats, and both recognizable and acousmatic sound sources.

The progression of films analyzed in this essay seem to indicate a growing relationship between contemporary electronic music trends and film music composition.Moreover, some of the most compelling examples of the synthesis of electronic and orchestral music exist on the rich emotional landscapes of film.The future of film music composition will undoubtedly incorporate very diverse musical and extra-musical elements in its search for a more expressive form of aural communication.

Works Cited

Karlin, Fred, and Rayburn, Wright.On the Track:A Guide to Contemporary Film Scoring.New York:Schirmer Books, 1990.

Emmerson, Simon, ed.The Language of Electroacoustic Music.London:Macmillan Press, 1986.

Clemmenson, Christian (1989).Review of Alan Silvestri’s The Abyss.Filmtracks[Online].Available: (Accessed 4/9/00).