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European film music vs. American film music

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This wouldn’t be the first time an article on European vs. American sensibilities is written, but did you know such a comparison is relevant even in the field of film music?

Hollywood viewers are, of course, familiar with the American sound, even if they’re not conscious of it. Film music is, at the core, meant to be unobtrusive, unnoticed, and most of the time merely atmospheric. The American style of film scoring epitomizes those qualities. Yes, most American film scores do have at least one main theme, but rarely a whole lot more than that. Also, those themes only get to shine on special occasions, like the main titles or certain flashy scenes. The rest of the times, variations on those themes are very well hidden and subtle, if there at all. American scores will flow, change pace often, and sometimes do a fair amount of stop-and-go to match the action.

The music of countless well-known Hollywood composers can be used as example. Just one of many is James Horner. A score like Deep Impact is strikingly powerful in its emotional contents, but will not leave the audience in a position to hum most of its pieces by heart after just one listening, especially if one is unfamiliar with the main themes. Another fine example is Michael Kamen’s What Dreams May Come, with its ever-flowing moods and very subtle themes.

In contrast, European music has a stronger emphasis on melody. A European composer will strive to have a very clear, established, stable, accessible melody for every single piece of his score. Sure, he’ll save his most complex and striking tunes for the main themes, but even minor scenes will have their own clearly defined melodies, with a beginning, middle, and an end, with very few changes in tempo or mood throughout. Almost like every piece is a movement of a symphony. This music is more noticeable in film, although it can be slightly more ascetic as well.

The earlier example of Kamen’s What Dreams May Come was almost portentous, because it now allows us to use Ennio Morricone’s rejected score for the same movie as comparison. John Barry is also a fine example of glorious European scoring.

When styles cross the pond (like when a European composer scores a Hollywood film), unsuspecting audiences are usually delightfully surprised with what they hear. Such film scores can sometimes become everlasting classics, such as Wojciech Kilar’s Dracula. Not only is this score excellent under any circumstance, but it is also very novel to American ears, making it unique and memorable.

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