ABSTRACT:   This is an abridged version of a paper addressing what the author considers as a crisis in current global film music. The full paper set out objectives of a collaboration for fourth year post graduate film students (Directors and Composers), developed with the collaboration of Miguel Almaguer (Mexico), AFDA Industry Chair for Media Music, for AFDA (the South African School of Motion Picture Science & Drama) and South African Universities.

As a professional orchestra conductor observing the film industry from the side-lines over many years, it seems to me there are particular challenges increasingly evident globally for film music and in film music education.

My focus for this paper is on the particular challenge we have as professional musicians and educators in providing an inspirational but skill-intensive music education to aspirant composers – whether they are wishing to become film composers or otherwise.

It seems to me that there are several observable trends in film music.

Firstly, as is increasingly evident in both independent and major studio productions, there appears to be a growing problem with the quality and nature of film music. For complex cultural, educational, technical and economic reasons, I believe we are in danger of a self-reinforcing creative crisis. This is a challenge that should concern both Composers and Directors, as the very nature of the apparent creative crisis is adaptive, insidious and non prescient.

Secondly, whilst I preface these comments with an acknowledgment that there are clear and shining exceptions to any broad generalistion, there is a concurrent and increasingly urgent and difficult issue for film-music training institutions, music schools and universities.   Bound up with an evidential decrease in the formal provision of art and music training in primary and secondary level in most Western national education systems, the high aspirations and actual achievements of music students are increasingly undermined by an inadequate grasp of basic skills, combined with a reduced exposure to and understanding of a broad range of musical genres. It seems to me this is particularly true of educational systems that are entrance-inclusive rather than highly selective but it is a problem even, for example, for my own University of Oxford in the UK.    

Although the generality of my critique may provoke cries of disapproval, we cannot ignore the fact that we now have a generation of students who, in general, have experienced a very problematic delivery of music education.  Whether as a result of a particular educational curriculum or from changes in societal apetites, students now very often display a narrow, genre specific listening experience.  That is not to say they are not inquisitive of cultural diversity - they are perhaps more culturally aware and 'internationally exposed' than any generation preceding them - but, in basic musical and educational terms, the result too often is a lack of fundamental skills combined with a narrow musical exposure and understanding. Coupled with a serious and broad deficiency (if not total absence) of music technical skill aquisition at secondary level, this in turn has subsequently led to a crisis for tertiary music education, which requires students to have and progress in advanced skills.

Let's be clear, these students are bright, ambitious, plugged and technically savvy and they know how to access information. The problem comes when they do not have the fundamental skills in their chosen field to take them where they wish to go - in some cases they cannot even read or write music! They come with bold ambitions but are simply ill-equipped to begin their studies as aspirant musicians.

This is a general challenge of skill acquisition of course and is not only evident in music education. In my observation, it is a problem almost every nation faces in one context or another. For the Film Industry, there is a parallel problem for aspirant Film Directors who, when considering music and sound for their films, instinctively draw on their own musical education and general experience of music – or lack of it – as the basis for their decisions.

Thirdly, there is a serious cultural issue we cannot avoid. Every nation on earth with its associated educational system - in almost every industry we might think - has to deal on some level with the pervasive influence of so-called 'Developed Nation' values: products, systems of production, distribution, cultural and economic domination, not to mention politics. This is the modern world.

Of course there is another more subtle reality, that of a secondary cultural domination, induced by the technical and media systems that dominate global culture and industry. This in the contemporary world appears inescapable.  For artists, including film makers, the most fundamental question of all is how we contextualise the dominance of a global industry and its cultural, educational and systemic influence with our own national, educational and individual values.

Within all of these challenges, we as established professionals and educators have to produce successful future professionals, whether it is in the music or the film industry. Of course, we have to understand and respond to the professional and cultural aspirations of individuals. We however also must consider the needs of the industry; and for that we have to consider the needs and function of the educational institutions that sustain the industry. In short, our success will be measured in how we as professionals in any field respond to these challenges.

Beyond this, as musicians, I believe we have an even more serious existential challenge.  As part of this, the music industry and aligned educational processes must take responsibility for not facing up to a very serious and specific problem.  We have failed, outside of a narrow specialist provision, to create a new type of music education that takes account of and embraces the exponential advances of an electronic and media driven world. Furthermore, in broad philosophical terms, we have failed to reconcile the past with current and future needs.  The result is that, whether as educators or industry professionals, we are not adequately meeting the aspirations of young people who wish to enter higher training institutions but have had no access to, or experience of, a thorough and skill-based, visionary music education.

In the broader profession, I believe there is another, more specific challenge to do with the quality of modern film music.  Personally, my concern with contemporary film music is not so much about the music itself, but about how music is increasingly being used - or rather, not used - by Directors; how Directors understand - or do not understand - the power music has to help create the visual narrative, how this narrative is inter-dependent, supported and developed in a direct relationship with the architectural, psychological and dramatic content of the music they choose to use in their films.  

Practically, it comes down to how Musicians and Directors communicate with each other about music.  Mexican film composer and pedagogue Miguel Almaguer identifies and addresses this eloquently in his sound design and music development curriculum for Film Schools which he calls Sound Concepts.  In brief, he suggests that creative success in both industry and educational process are compromised by the lack of an effective common language of communication between composer and director.  

As illustration, we can point to one of the greatest modern day Director-Composer partnerships, that of Stephen Spielberg and John Williams; consider why that is such a successful and remarkable collaboration.  It seems a sine qua non to say that establishing effective communication will promote a successful creative partnership; but why does this so often not happen? and how can we address this issue?

The second part of my paper will describe the collaborative initiative we are building here in South Africa between the music profession and the Mexican and South African film industries and their Film training schools.  Our initiative aims to address in particular the issue of communication between Composer and Director, through production and curriculum development and practical experience with live musicians and orchestral, muscial experience.

© Graham Lea-Cox 


Graham Lea-Cox, international Orchestral Conductor, is a classically trained, African born musician with eclectic experience and taste, from African to Western traditional repertoires, from orchestral, opera and music-theatre to rock and independent popular music to world music. After graduating from Oxford University he worked on the edge of the film and television industry in the USA, a young 20 -something-year old loitering on the Hollywood Warner Brothers MGM Studios and Universal Studios in the early 1980s and sucking up everything possible. Subsequently, as a Director and Conductor of California and Texas based musical ensembles, he recorded and composed for HBO Specials and toured nationally and internationally for Columbia Artists (USA/Far East), before returning to Europe to concentrate on an international career as an orchestral conductor.