If you’ve grown up giggling at the madcap music that accompanies Tom chasing Jerry, or the mock-sympathetic lament that plays when Wile E Coyote misses the Road Runner yet again, you’re certainly not alone. For several generations now, many children’s earliest musical tastes have been shaped and informed by the cartoons they watch on a Saturday morning. Today, music remains as integral a part of the world of animation as it’s been ever since cartoons took the leap to the silver screen.
While the earliest cartoons were silent, the idea of synchronizing them with music was quickly adopted with the advent of sound film in the mid-1920s. Suspension of disbelief, so important to any work of fiction, is particularly crucial to animation, and music was as good a way as any to draw viewers into the world of the cartoon. Daniel Goldmark, Assistant Professor of Musicology at Case Western Reserve University and the author of Tunes for ‘Toons – Music for the Hollywood Cartoon, says that, “Music has been important to film from the very beginning, but cartoons especially, because you have to get over the fact that no matter how craftily or well it’s done, you’re still looking at drawings or paintings.”
Early animated features featured no dialogue – instead, they were synchronized with music. The soundtrack was often classical music, a trend continued for years afterwards – the most famous example is probably Disney’s Fantasia suite, which uses eight pieces of classical music as the basis for its eight animated short films. The reasons for using classical music were simple, Goldmark says: “Classical music was mainly used because it was free. That was one of the big reasons, but there was another reason – a lot of people were familiar with this music. Maybe they didn’t know all the Beethoven symphonies by heart, but they certainly knew Mendelssohn and Chopin and some of the more mainstream orchestral works. It wasn’t just a matter of ‘It’s cheap’ – it was more that ‘It’s cheap and people will have a reaction to it.’ That’s why a lot of composers used folk music and national anthems – they’re free and people react to them very quickly.”
However, studios also came to realize very quickly that cartoons could be used as a vehicle to sell music. Goldmark explains, “Warner Bros. ensured that every cartoon had at least one chorus and a verse of a song that’s featured, so that people heard it and said, ‘Oh, I think I should buy that song.’” The result was that cartoon music became the vehicle for some of the most popular chart hits of the 1930s and 1940s – ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?’ (from Three Little Pigs, which won the 1934 Oscar for Best Cartoon), ‘Singin’ in the Bathtub’ (from 1930’s Sinkin’ in the Bathtub, the first Warner Bros cartoon), and many others.
This potential for cross-promotion played a huge part in the appeal of animated pictures for studios; indeed, it was the reason that Warner Bros, a studio which would become synonymous with animation, adopted the genre in the first place. Goldmark explains, “[Producer] Leon Schlesinger took the idea of animation to the Warner brothers and said, ‘We’ll use one of your songs in each cartoon, and this will help make some money with your music.’ Cartoons came in with sound in 1928, with Steamboat Willie [which marked the first appearance of Mickey Mouse], and by the 1930s the Warner Bros cartoons are in full swing – literally!”
The other important aspect of cartoon soundtracks was (and is) the incidental music. As the genre evolved, so did the music, becoming dazzlingly intricate and intimately connected to the action on screen. Studios often had in-house composers – Carl Stalling at Warner Bros is perhaps the most well-known today, and was the subject of an exhausting posthumous retrospective (The Carl Stalling Project – Music from Warner Bros Cartoons) released in 1990, with a second volume following in 1995. As is often the case with innovators, the importance and influence of Stalling’s music was only recognized widely after his death.
The genius of Stalling’s work was that it linked with the action on the screen but was equally able to stand alone as innovative music in its own right. Being able to create such music is no doubt a challenging task for a composer. So how does one approach providing a score for animation? Does a composer have to take a different approach when dealing with animation, rather than live action? Alf Clausen, the veteran composer who has been solely responsible for The Simpsons since the show’s earliest days, thinks not. “The process is the same,” he says, “But it’s an interesting question, because I had an interview for the position of composer, and during that interview [Simpsons creator] Matt Groening said to me ‘We don’t look upon the show as a cartoon – we look upon it as a drama where the characters are drawn.’ That has always been my take on the show, and when in doubt, I look to the emotion of the character for cues.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is the punishing schedule. Carl Stalling turned out one score a week for the best part of 22 years. When The Simpsons is in production, Alf Clausen works to pretty much the same schedule: “The Simpsons is very time-intensive. We have 22 episodes a season, and I generally have a week to turn them around.” The pressure to constantly turn out new music and new ideas means that composers have always had to turn to a variety of genres and sources, both contemporary and historical, for inspiration. Stalling was a master at the sly musical reference to an existing song (a benefit of working at Warner Bros, who owned the rights to a great deal of music), but other composers were less subtle in their lifting of ideas.
Once they moved beyond the idea of using the familiar sounds of classical music, early cartoons took music from any number of sources – jazz, popular songs, and everything in between. Goldmark says, “Some of the studios in the early 30s had either their own music – they wrote their own music in contemporary styles – or, in the case of some of the other studios, they had deals with some of the publishers to get music cheap, so that they could put popular songs in the cartoons.” The result was a riotous variety of sounds, making cartoon music the vehicle for some of the most interesting music of the time.
As time passed, however, the landscape changed – in particular, the advent of television spelt the end of the golden age of cinema animation. This, along with a Supreme Court decision in 1948 that forced studios to sell off their allegedly monopolistic interests in cinema halls, meant that the studios started cutting budgets dramatically.
A mechanical, formulaic approach to music would soon become the norm. The newly formed Hanna-Barbera company was one of the first to take cartoons to the small screen, and by far the most successful, becoming the dominant force in TV animation by the 1960s. The company spent far less on its shows than studios had done in the halcyon days of the 1930s and 1940s. Cartoon aficionados lamented the loss in animation quality and the shortcuts taken in production, but these didn’t seem to dent Hanna-Barbera’s popularity. With its emphasis on mass production and keeping costs as low as possible, the budget for music was non-existent.
As Goldmark notes, “If cartoons had already become superfluous, the music is waste upon waste in the eyes of the people who run the books. So studios tried to find ways to be more budget conscious, and what they do is to write music that’s descriptive, but not so descriptive that it can’t be used again and again. The idea is one that had already been used in television for a while – it’s called the Library Cue. You literally go into a whole library of music, and it says “’Sad Music #13’, or whatever. You pick one of these pieces and use them over and over. You only have to pay to have them written once, but you make money off them over and over again.”
The ubiquity of the library cue was unshaken throughout the 1970s and 1980s, an era that seems to be universally decried as animation’s lowest ebb. Things started to look up, though, with the advent of a show that would eventually change the face of animation, kick-starting a renaissance in the genre: The Simpsons.
The Simpsons is a remarkable show for many reasons, and its use of music is no exception. In an era of cost-watching and corner-cutting, it insisted from the start on using entirely original compositions for its score. Alf Clausen explains, “Matt Groening has always been, and continues to be, a big champion of live acoustic music. I’m very lucky – I have a 35-piece orchestra, I write fresh music every week, everything is custom made for the episode. It’s a blessing for a composer.”
Not every composer is as fortunate as Clausen – the library cue is still very much a factor in today’s music. Goldmark says, “It’s pretty much that way now, although there are more shows like The Simpsons that have original music. There are other shows that have a mixture, where they use the same themes a lot but have some money to go back and come up with original music. And then there are the real bottom-of-the-barrel shows where they just give $1500 to a guy with a synthesizer and say ‘We need 20 minutes of music.’”
Still, with the renaissance of animation has come an increasing inclination on the part of studios to take cartoons, and cartoon music, seriously. As Goldmark says, “10 years ago a feature film of a cartoon would never have been taken seriously. It would have been seen as a two-hour toy commercial. Things have changed now – I think it’s indicative that the studios are seeing the music as being potentially more profitable. Spongebob and The Simpsons film have put out soundtrack albums, and clearly they think that these are going to make money. This means more opportunities to write original music.” Along with The Simpsons film, the TV show is also releasing a new soundtrack album, entitled The Simpsons: Testify, which Clausen has produced. “It’s the first Simpsons album in eight years,” he says. “It’s very exciting.”
With the ever-increasing commercial clout of animation, both in the realms of big-budget CGI blockbusters like Shrek and in the re-blossoming of TV animation through shows like South Park, Rugrats and many others, it seems that the doldrums of the 1980s are being left behind. Both Clausen and Goldmark are optimistic about the future. “I think motion pictures, particularly, are alive and well, and therefore music for animated motion pictures is alive and well,” Clausen says. Goldmark agrees: “I’m pretty positive about where it’s going. I also see a lot of new shows coming out, which is great, and animation festivals popping up everywhere around the world. And then there are shows that have been around for a while – The Simpsons is about to enter its 20th year! The fact that my college students weren’t even born when The Simpsons started frightens me (laughs).”
With the increasing role of cartoon music has come a renewed interest in the composers who started it all, those unsung musicians whose work millions of people have heard, but whose names are only now starting to get recognized. “It’s probably not a coincidence that at the same time that new shows with good music are coming out, we also have people reissuing or issuing old recordings,” says Goldmark. “When The Carl Stalling Project came out, all these people started saying, ‘There’s this unsung genius out there.’ Well, he may be unsung, but everybody’s heard him and you’ve been listening to his music for the last 75 years!”