Understanding contextual agents and their impact on recent Hollywood film music practice

Hexel, V. (2014) Understanding contextual agents and their impact on recent Hollywood film music practice. Doctoral thesis, Royal College of Music.


Hollywood film composers work within a complex process of film production, with limited control over the final outcome. Certain contextual agents have shaped the developing craft and caused recent Hollywood film music (since 1980) to depart from the symphonic neo-Romantic style that has traditionally and commonly been associated with Hollywood film scores. Developments in storytelling, changing demographics among filmmakers and composers, evolving business models, and the influence of television have altered the content and style of Hollywood films and film music. Furthermore, technological advances in film, soundtrack, and music production have contributed to changes in prevalent composer practice. Film music is always mediated by the films it accompanies and contemporary Hollywood films that speak a progressive language tend not to use conventional music of the classical Hollywood tradition. Film music must bow to commercial pressures that are often at odds with originality. An analysis of the workload distribution among composers in the 50 top-grossing Hollywood films each year between 1980-2009 reveals an uneven distribution skewed towards a select few individuals. These composers exert considerable influence on their field. Further findings summarized in this thesis also show a statistically significant increase in non-melodic minimalist writing as well as strong correlations between non-orchestral instrumentation and non-traditional musical styles over the past three decades. This thesis assesses recent Hollywood film music practice and the opportunities and challenges screen composers face. Acknowledging the role and influence of so-called contextual agents in film music composition means to consider film scores in the spheres of conceptualisation and compositional practice. The key research question addressed in this thesis is: ‘What is the context in which Hollywood film composers actually work and how does this affect their creative practice and the musical outcome?’

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