Does music get recycled in films?

This may sound a slightly odd question but stay with me for a moment. Have you ever been watching an old film on TV and thought that the theme music sounded familiar? So familiar that you’ve wondered to yourself “Either I have a fantastic memory for music I’ve only heard once or twice before, or this music has been used in more than one film.” But which is it? Did Hollywood producers simply listen to a pile of old records and say “OK – I’ll use this one”?

I’ve found a couple of examples where the music really has definitely been recycled. For example, Street Scene (1931) is a black-and-white film produced by Samuel Goldwyn and directed by King Vidor. The entire film takes place on a New York City street.

The music score was composed by Alfred Newman, who borrowed stylistically from George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, first performed seven years earlier in 1924. You can listen to Newman’s Street Scene Theme on YouTube.

This theme was used in later films, including I Wake Up Screaming (1941), The Dark Corner (1946), Kiss of Death (1947), Cry of the City (1948), Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), and as the overture to How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). It was probably also used as stock footage for other films of the era, especially film noir. So if you find this theme familiar, it’s not surprising.

Other genres also seem to be prone to musical recycling, especially westerns. Here, it’s not so much the melody itself as the overarching generic themes that seem to recur. Take for example the Magnificent Seven. Here the repetitive bass line – Dum – Da Da Da Dum, Dum – Da -Da-Da- Dum – is matched by the equally familiar swirling, lilting orchestral sweep that follows – you can hear Elmer Bernstein’s majestic score on YouTube.

But my question here is who decided that these musical themes were Western in nature? Closely similar themes have accompanied western after western for fifty years or more – from Shane (1953) to Gregory Peck in The Big Country (1958) and John Wayne in True Grit (1969) and beyond .

Is there a music conservatoire somewhere in Boston or Minneapolis or Denver, teaching these musical tropes? The nearest I can get to a common source for all these Hollywood maestros is Copeland’s Appalachian Spring, yet even this must be drawing on some existing material as it was not performed until 1944.

This is definitely one for my Cabinet of Curiosities – unless anyone knows different?



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