Garrett Breeze

A History of Trailer Music

Music has been part of trailers for as long as sound has accompanied picture.  The Jazz Singer (1927) is often hailed as the first feature-length movie to include synchronized sound.  Usually overlooked, however, is the fact that audiences would have first experienced this technological marvel through the film’s trailer. Several scenes from the film were previewed—thus, synchronized music was heard in a trailer for the first time.

Like so many other innovations in the entertainment business, the trailer was a creation of piracy.  National Screen Service (NSS) was founded in 1919 by a trio of New York ad men who would create movie trailers using bootlegged footage and sell them to theater chains.  Movie studios quickly saw the advantages of such advertising, and by 1922 all the major studios had signed agreements with NSS granting them exclusive access to their footage, as well as an effective monopoly on the trailer business which would continue for decades.

Early Sound Trailers and the Influence of Popular Songs

The early history of music in trailers is difficult to piece together.  For many years, the feeling persisted that trailers had outlived their usefulness once the picture advertised was released.  Indeed, the first trailers were generally quite crude, often made from outtakes and deleted scenes (directors considered their films too precious to risk sharing—even with advertisers).  Early trailers were not well preserved, and even present-day archivists place a low priority on their acquisition.  A potential treasure trove—the archives of the National Screen Service—were either lost or destroyed.  As a result, definitive statements about early trailers (and their music) are largely conjecture.

Since most music used in early trailers was recycled from other sources, feature films from the early sound period might provide a glimpse of what their trailers would have sounded like.  Unfortunately, here too is an area weak in scholarship.  As discussed by Michael Slowik in After the Silents: Hollywood Film Music in the Early Sound Era, 1926-1934, film scholars eager to study the music of the Golden Age of Hollywood largely ignored the early sound period, often using the following statement from composer Max Steiner as justification:

There was very little underscoring (background music) in those days, but chiefly main and end titles (opening and closing music).  Recorded music was deemed necessary only for musical productions such as Rio Rita, The Street Singer, The Rogue Song, and Vagabond Lover.

… Music for dramatic pictures was only used when it was actually required by the script.  A constant fear prevailed among producers, directors and musicians, that they would be asked: where does the music come from?  Therefore they never used music unless it could be explained by the presence of a source…

Slowik spends the rest of his book dismantling Steiner’s dismissal of early sound music as self-serving.   However, many early trailers lend credibility to the Steiner quotation by showing musicians playing (making the source of the music clear) before cutting away to other material.  Additionally, many early narrations in trailers were voiced by actors looking straight into the camera—likely for similar reasons.

Eventually, studios began shooting original material for trailers, and these “special shoot” trailers sometimes included custom music.  One of the earliest examples is Alice in Wonderland (1933) which had an original song written for the trailer.  It is probably impossible to prove conclusively whether or not this was the first example of custom music in a trailer.   It remains, however, a strong candidate; as 1933 was the year it became possible to mix separately recorded music and dialogue tracks after the editing stage without a significant loss of quality.  1933 was also the year of Steiner’s score for King Kong (1933), considered by many scholars to be the starting point for studying Hollywood film music.

There is evidence to suggest that early trailers relied heavily on popular music, with the music industry frequently using films as a vehicle to promote their songs (Smith 1998, 2).  The trailer for The Purchase Price (1932), for example, is essentially an advertisement for the movie’s theme song.  Rick Altman argues that although silent films relied on (live) classical music, early sound films drew heavily from popular songs:

A closer look at prewar sound practices suggests that early accompaniment may have been directly influenced by illustrated songs, film’s audio-visual partner in the nickelodeon business.  Repeatedly, we find producers recommending popular songs to accompany their films…

His book also includes a photocopy of instructions written to conductors explaining how to use song slide techniques to provide the trailer for War Nurse (1930) with its musical accompaniment.  Although this paper focuses more on composed orchestral scores for trailers, popular songs would continue to be used frequently in trailers—even in the present day.

Classical Hollywood, Star Directors, and Independent Trailer Houses

With production dominated by the NSS, trailers in what Kernan terms the era of “classical Hollywood cinema” (1927-1948) would generally follow the same formula:

Lots of wipes; dazzling titles that move and grow and shrink to interact with the image, frequent use of a narrator to augment title information, and the elaboration of formulaic rhetorical appeals to audience interest in stars, genres and story.

The most significant development for trailer music during this period was the adaption of stereo sound, beginning with This Is Cinerama (1952).  As the studio system began to break down in the 1950s, movie trailers would become more experimental, focusing less on star power and more on content.  The invention of the television, the “rival screen,” proved that “audiences could handle—in fact would demand—quick, sophisticated cutting.”  This led filmmakers to largely abandon the formulas of the classical era, and no new formula would take its place until the blockbuster films of the 1970s.  Leonard Martin described how these formulas influenced trailers: “As Hollywood underwent major upheavals and old fashioned ways of telling stories changed…then perhaps the trailers changed with them.”

This experimentation reached its peak in the 1960s, led by star directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick, who regularly pushed the boundaries of trailer form.  The trailers for Psycho (1960) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) are emblematic of this period, and although neither contained original music (Psycho recycled music from previous Hitchcock films and Dr. Strangelove used a new arrangement of the popular tune “Try a Little Tenderness”), they mark some of the most conscientious use of music in trailers to date.

The trailer for Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) is notable for its fast montage of still frames accompanied by Latin percussion, which, according to trailer maker Jack Atlas: “almost screwed up the entire trailer business; every producer wanted one like it.”

As quickly as it began, the age of the director-led trailer would come to an end as studios began outsourcing trailer production to independent companies.  In 1964, Andrew Kuehn, head of MGM’s trailer division (and former NSS creative) hired Electra Films, a New York editing house, to create the trailer for Night of the Iguana (1964).  Encouraged by the success of Iguana and other trailers, Kuehn left MGM in 1967 to head up Kaleidoscope Films, the world’s first “trailer boutique.”  This was the start of the modern trailer business, which soon became an “adjacent industry” to Hollywood.  Other NSS and Kaleidoscope employees would follow suit, forming their own trailer houses (as they are more commonly referred to today).  By the end of the sixties, most of the studios had scrapped their in-house trailer divisions, and the NSS had morphed into a distributor, rather than a producer, of trailers.

John Beal and the Modern Film Trailer

Jaws (1975) marked a sea change in the economics of the movie business as one of the first films to successfully leverage TV advertising into a strong opening weekend (and one of the biggest box office hauls of the decade).  Thomas Schatz called it “the New Hollywood…. ushering in an era of high-cost, high-tech, high-speed thrillers.”  Trailers had become big business, costing upwards of $100,000.  As trailer houses began to rely more on fast edits and long montage sequences, such as “the grid,” music became increasingly important as a means of tying everything together.  Vinzenz Hediger explained the relationship this way: “The disjunction of sound and image in trailers does not just deconstruct and deplete the original sense and meaning of the images, but more often than not makes the images speak in new and innovative ways.”

Big blockbusters brought big budgets, which in turn created opportunities for original music to be composed.  This led to the rise of composer John Beal, a singular figure in trailer music, who composed music for more than two thousand trailer projects beginning with Skatetown USA (1979), and including forty of the top grossing films of all time.

Beal’s compositions cemented many of the musical tropes still common in trailer music today, but it should be noted that he was rarely given a great deal of artistic license.  He, and other composers like him, typically received a cut of the trailer with instructions to follow the “temp music” closely.  This is no small task, as described by Melinda Newman:

Composers say they frequently get trailers with as many as 20 different music snippets in the two-and-a-half-minute reel.  It’s their job to compose something new that manages to hit all the high points as the temp music or write the bridge between licensed tracks.

With or without the demand of temp tracks, trailer music is a high pressure industry, with tight deadlines, fierce competition, and a complicated chain of command, as Beal once described:

You have a lot of producers—every trailer has to go through all the producers, producers’ assistants, executive producers, executive producers’ partners, co-partners, co-producers, actors who have some say in the final advertising, etc.  Then it goes to all of the executives in each of the studio corporations, and when that gets all done and they play it for their girlfriends and sisters and children, and everybody has finally agreed on version 20, alternate take A, it goes to the highest level at studio, the invisible owner, who then says, “You know, I’d really like to have this campaign go a whole different way.”  And everybody starts all over again.

Although the goal of a trailer is to stand out, ironically, most end up sounding similar.  As blockbusters got bigger and bigger, Hollywood became less willing to take chances, as described by Stephen Kelly of The Guardian:

In a way, the fall in demand for originality is understandable: on projects worth millions of dollars, why take a risk on something new that might not work? Then again, it could be seen as a snapshot of a wider picture: of a conservative, corporate culture that has seeped into every crevice of the Hollywood machine—the same culture that insists on endless sequels and remakes.

Beginning in 1968, focus group testing (where a random sampling of people are asked for their feedback) became an important part of the marketing process, and executives wanted the option to easily change music if it tested poorly.  Trailer music libraries soon rose to fill this need.

Production Music and the Rise of Trailer Music Libraries:

Production music libraries actually pre-date sound in film.  However, American production libraries did not begin playing a significant role in the film and television industries until the early 1980s, after the AFM (American Federation of Musicians) and AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) abandoned their insistence that musicians who recorded production music receive reuse payments after each use.  The explosion of cable networks in the 1980s and 90s created an almost insatiable demand for production music.  In 1980 there were twenty-eight cable networks.  By 1998, that number had risen to 171!  Twenty-four-hour channels such as CNN (founded in 1980) left producers scrambling to come up with music for programming that ran twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.  In most cases, hiring a composer to create that much music was not feasible, even if the budget was available.

Although trailers had been licensing existing music for decades, production library music was rarely used, as it was considered low quality.  This began to change in 1992 when Jeffrey Fayman and Yoav Goren founded Immediate Music to cater specifically to the boutique trailer houses by offering high-end, fully produced library music for trailers.  As more and more libraries followed suit, a distinct trailer music industry began to emerge.

Epic Music: Mainstream Acceptance of Trailer Music

At the time of this writing there are dozens of trailer libraries (mostly located in the Los Angeles area) which together provide the vast majority of music heard in trailers today.  Film marketing campaigns have ballooned, creating more opportunities than ever before for trailer music. Some big-budget movies create as many as thirty different versions of a trailer to appeal to various demographics, each requiring a different score.  The use of library music has had a unifying effect on movie trailers, creating a body of work that can be studied, analyzed, and appreciated on its own merits.

For the first time in history, a style has emerged that is identifiable uniquely as “trailer music.”  This music has even developed a life of its own—separate from the trailer—as the genre “epic music.”  In response to demand from fans, libraries such as Immediate Music, Two Steps From Hell, Future World Music, and Audiomachine have all released commercial albums of trailer music available to the public.  Two Steps From Hell has had more success than most: selling more than 300,000 copies of their album on iTunes, garnering more than 580,000 fans on Facebook, and even going on tour.  These releases make far less money for the company than their sync placements, but it speaks to the growing cultural significance of trailer music.

This is an exciting time for trailers, as more original music is being written for them than ever before.  It may not be custom, but it is nonetheless original.  Trailers, originally considered to be little more than disposable promotional material attached to a film, now have an independence and an artistic value that extends beyond the release of the film.  Trailer music is following a similar pattern, separating itself from film and standing on its own as a style of music enjoyed by an enthusiastic following of both musicians and casual listeners.


**This post excerpted from my Belmont University Master’s Thesis published in 2016.  For a full copy of the paper, including footnotes and bibliography, reach out using the CONTACT PAGE.**

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Garrett Breeze


Garrett Breeze is a composer, arranger, and orchestrator whose credits include film, television, video games, Broadway stars, major classical artists, and many of the top school music programs in the U.S.