What does it mean for film music—subordinated, contingent, and ‘unheard’—to be plucked from its intended context and placed at the forefront of listener attention? The tradition of excerpting and arranging movie scores for the concert hall poses this question sharply. While scholarship on “cinematic listening” has picked up in recent years, the specifically music-theoretical issues raised by this repertoire have been largely unaddressed. In this article, I argue that film-as-concert music presents hearing “cinematically” as a valid alternative to structural modes of listening, a form of hearing that subverts both naïve formalism and reflexive anti-formalism.
Following a discussion of theoretical and interpretive priorities for analyzing film-as-concert music, I begin investigation of a subset of the film-as-concert corpus: standalone scherzi originating from action setpieces. More than any other type of underscore, action cues answer to dramatic/editorial/visual imperatives rather than “absolute” logic. My core data emerges from a detailed study of 43 of John Williams’s film/concert scherzi, with short analyses of cues/pieces from E.T., Indiana Jones, and Star Wars. My approach emphasizes the way in which formal alterations bring about drastically different ways of hearing the work tonally and expressively across multiple versions. A larger-scale case study of “The Asteroid Field” from The Empire Strikes serves to demonstrate the tonal, sectional, and narratival transformations that occur between movie theater and concert hall. To conclude, I propose that the film-as-concert mindset can be transferred to filmgoing itself, as a new mode of cinematic listening.