Top 10 Movie Soundtrack Firsts
10. First Synchronization of Sound and Film
The Photo-Drama of Creation (1914)
The Photo-Drama of Creation was an eight hour long film that documented the Christian creation story. Funded by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, the film depicted Christian history until the supposed end of Christ’s 1,000 year reign. Taking two years to create, the film was a combination of film, music, and colored slides. After its premiere in New York, it traveled the world until it was seen by 9,000,000 people.
9. First Professionally-Produced Feature Film with a Soundtrack
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
Directed by F.W. Murnau, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is one of the most important films in Hollywood history. First, it won the very first Academy Award for Best Picture in 1929. Second, it was the first film to use a soundtrack that included sound effects and music. It used the Fox Movietone sound-on-film system that recorded sound by converting it to a variable-density optical track on the strip of film that contained its corresponding image. The Movietone score was composed by Austrian composer Hugo Risenfeld and performed by the Olympic Chamber Orchestra.
8. First Feature-Length Talkie
The Jazz Singer (1927)
The Jazz Singer signaled the end of the silent era and heralded the beginning of a new one: the sound era. Using the Warner Brothers Vitaphone sound-on-disc system, director Alan Crosland was able to create a film with a soundtrack that included music, singing, and synchronized dialogue. Many films had previously contained snippets of sound or segments where lines of speech were spliced in, but The Jazz Singer was the first time that used predominantly synchronized sound. A large part of the film was still silent but the songs and Al Jolson’s improvised dialogue (around 350 words) were enough to solidify The Jazz Singer as the first official talkie.
7. First Feature Film with a Full Length Thematic Score
King Kong (1933)
Before King Kong, movie music was relegated to the background and was incidental. King Kong opened up a new world for soundtracks by using a thematic score. RKO sound department head Murray Spivak made the revolutionary decision to match the effects with the score so they wouldn’t compete with each other. Instead, the sound effects and the soundtrack complimented each other. Composer Max Steiner, who would go on to write the music for Casablanca and Gone with the Wind, recorded the historic soundtrack with a 46-piece orchestra.
6. First Film to Release a Soundtrack Album
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
The first full-length film created using cel animation in cinema history, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is easily one of the most influential films ever made.
One of its most under-appreciated innovations was the release of a soundtrack album containing the film’s music. With works from such legendary composers and songwriters as Frank Churchill, Paul Smith, and Leigh Harline, the soundtrack contained some of Disney’s most famous songs, such as Heigh-Ho, Some Day My Prince Will Come, and Whistle While You Work. The idea of releasing the music to the public was a stroke of genius that transformed cinematic music into a commodity of its own.
5. First Film to Feature Stereophonic Sound
One of the many innovations of Walt Disney’s Fantasia was the introduction of multi-channel sound. During one of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s recording sessions for the film, Walt Disney dropped by to check up on the progress. He was very disappointed with the recorded playback, so he enlisted the help of sound engineer William E. Garity and John N. A. Hawkins to create a better sound system. The result was entitled Fantasound. Multiple microphones were used to record different parts of the orchestra to separate tracks. The different tracks were then compressed into three double-width optical sound tracks. Fantasound required movie theaters to have a sound system that with 30-80 individual speakers. The process was so innovative that it garnered a special Academy Award for “outstanding contribution to the advancement of the use of sound in motion pictures through the production of Fantasia.”
4. First Score Comprised Entirely by Electric Instruments
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Legendary film score writer Bernard Herrmann’s first work after moving to America, the soundtrack for The Day the Earth Stood Still, was one of the most influential in science fiction history. The first film soundtrack to be comprised on electronic instruments, the soundtrack used electric violins, cellos, basses, two Theremins, vibraphones, and several other electric and amplified instruments. Berman also used overdubbing and tape-reversal techniques to make the soundtrack more unearthly and futuristic. The soundtrack would go on to inspire the music to many more science fiction films, including such masterpieces as Blade Runner.
3. First Hollywood Film with an All-Jazz Score
The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)
The Man with the Golden Arm was a film that was destined to break all of the rules. It dealt with the forbidden topic of drug addiction, spat in the face of Hollywood censors, and used a soundtrack by blacklisted Elmer Bernstein. Bernstein decided that jazz would be the most appropriate music to help replicate the turmoil felt by a recovering heroin junkie, crafting the very first all jazz score in Hollywood history. It would give the film a chaotic, urgent feeling that would set it apart from other Hollywood productions. Afterwards, Bernstein would go on to write jazz scores for the films The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and A Walk on the Wild Side (1962).
2. First Film Score Entirely Written By a Popular Artist
Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973)
Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 Pat Garret and Billy the Kid is considered a forgotten classic of the Western genre – one of the most famous reasons is its soundtrack, written and performed entirely by Bob Dylan. While other films had been written and made around popular music (like The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine), this was the first time that a full-length musical score was written expressly for a film by a popular artist.
Dylan was hired after country music star Kris Kristofferson, who played Billy the Kid, brought him into the film. Even though Peckinpah had (somehow) never heard of him before, he hired him on the spot when he heard Dylan’s proposed title theme. While the soundtrack album received little critical acclaim, it is remembered for spawning the classic Dylan anthem Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.
1. First All-Digital Film Soundtrack
Stop Making Sense (1984)
Nowadays, everything is digital but there was a time when digital technology was a huge innovation in the film world. The first time that a film used complete digital audio technology was the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense. Directed by Jonathan Demme, Stop Making Sense was recorded on a 24-track Sony digital recorder. The film itself would go on to be described by critics such as Leonard Maltin as one of the greatest concert films ever made.