click to buy 'Hearing Film - Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Hollywood Film Music' at Amazon.com(New York/London: Routledge, 2001)

The argument often made about film music and film sound books is that they are scarce when compared with books on the visual image. While this may have been true ten or so years ago, today there is a reasonable selection to choose from, if one is satisfied with frequent analyses of Hollywood classical films in the main. While Anahid Kassabian also largely draws on Hollywood films for her case studies, her Hearing Film book is refreshing in dealing with films of the 1980s and 1990s. It is also relatively rare to find film music books that seriously explore scores that rely to a large extent on popular music tracks. In this sense, Kassabian’s book follows on the heels of Jonathan Romney & Adrian Wootton’s UK essays on popular music in films since the 1950s (1) and Jeff Smith’s detailed research into the role of popular music, music industry, music supervisors, etc in the US film industry (2). That which sets Kassabian’s book apart from this work is her discourse analyses of contemporary film music and the identification of the “perceiver” (in Kassabian’s term) in the musical representation. One of Hollywood film music’s central functions, she argues, is to condition, or track, paths of identification. As such, Hearing Film is a useful addition for a burgeoning area of teaching and research.

While primarily directed to film studies, the volume offers discursive models for cultural studies, general media and popular music scholars. This reflects Kassabian’s own inter-disciplinary background as Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University, as well as Chair of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music and Editor of the Journal of Popular Music Studies.

Hearing Film has two main sections, the first introducing elements of how film music “works” for the audience and the second dealing with audience identifications with film music according to race, gender and sexuality discourses. In the introduction and literature survey opening Hearing Film, Kassabian discusses her approach to musical meaning and musical representation as applied to film music and takes issue with the lack of address to popular music in film that overlaps both theoretical disciplines of popular music studies and film studies. While popular music overly concentrates on uses and social context, and film theory focuses on meaning production and pleasure, Kassabian addresses the operation of popular music scores via both agency and desire.

Kassabian tackles a methodological deaf spot in her discussion of semioticians like Philip Tagg and Robert Clarida in their reception studies examinations of audience responses to musical items (3). But where this work attempts to derive an overarching theory of how music therefore can be used for particular effect/affect, Kassabian attempts to demonstrate how scores are open to interpretation according to the perceiver’s cultural and personal baggage. Although her analysis of the methodology of audience/reception studies is not comprehensive in that she avoids some of the inherent problems in such an approach (for example, how reception interweaves with authorially-informed textual analysis), nevertheless it offers a useful starting point for further work in this neglected area of film music analysis.

Kassabian’s book centres on a set of binary oppositions around how films engage perceivers through their scores, labeled as assimilating identifications and affiliating identifications. By these terms she distinguishes assimilating scores that “track perceivers toward a rigid, tightly controlled position that tends to line up comfortably with aspects of dominant ideologies” (p.141) from affiliating scores that “track perceivers toward a more loosely defined position that groups. several different narrative positions within a fantasy scenario.” (ibid). In Kassabian’s analysis, her preferred affiliating scores are those which “open outward” and allow for multiple subject positions rather than assimilating scores that “narrow or tighten possibilities” (ibid) drawing perceivers into “socially and historically unfamiliar positions, as do larger scale processes of assimilation” (p.2). So “classical” scores speak to a social/socialised approach while affiliating scores more readily accommodate personal/individualised profiles of perceivers in their identifications. Affiliating scores, according to Kassabian, are exemplified by films like Bagdad Café (Percy Adlon, 1987) and Dangerous Minds (John N Smith, 1995), compared to the assimilating scores of Lethal Weapon 2 (Richard Donner, 1989) and The Substitute (Robert Mandel, 1996).

In the two weightiest chapters of analysis titled ‘A Woman Scored’ and ‘At the Twilight’s Last Scoring’ Kassabian’s analysis draws on textual (semi-musicological) techniques to offer a powerful argument for the extent to which scores condition the engagements between perceivers and film. In terms of the resources drawn upon for film scores in 1980s and 1990s film, Kassabian loosely connects popular music and the currently-popular style of compiled scores with affiliating identifications while composed scores in the European style of ‘classical’ Hollywood scores tend to offer assimilating identifications that offer little allowance for perceivers’ racial, gendered and sexual differences. This is due in part to the prior experiences and knowledges that perceivers bring to hearing popular music in the context of a film score. For example, in her discussion of ‘female-centred’ scores for five films, including Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991), Dirty Dancing (Emile Ardolino, 1987) and Desert Hearts (Donna Deitch, 1985), Kassabian argues that “the practice of scoring female narrative agents with pop soundtracks makes possible a more diffused set of identifications for perceivers” (p.85) due to the perceiver’s prior knowledge of popular music tracks or genres and the ways in which film music refers both to histories of music and film music itself.

In this sense, Kassabian’s book clearly critiques the kind of social model offered by mainstream US films, particularly action-adventure films like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Steven Spielberg, 1984) noting how “US nationalism is a defining feature of Hollywood film history. and continues to be played out through scores” (p.93). While Kassabian initiates a general discussion of national identity as represented in scores and scoring approaches, this is limited (and the term itself undefined) and could be extended into some further comments about the application of her notion of identification in place of the subsequent analysis of Corrina, Corrina (Jessie Nelson, 1994). This analysis complicates the projected arguments about assimilating/affiliating identifications by examining music that is tightly woven into the narrative centred on shared (musical) tastes. In this situation, the ‘affiliation’ of both central protagonists to the main musical materials is inevitable and appears to be as much about musically-oriented narrative as it is about scoring. This analysis, then, seems out of place here or in such a form.

Despite these reservations, Hearing Film is a useful volume opening out several conceptual areas within film generally as well as in relation to film music. While demonstrating the various ways in which popular musics work within different recent film scores, Kassabian highlights how such applications of international Anglophone musical items in film are culturally informed and identity informing.

Click here to order this book directly from Amazon.com


  1. Jonathan Romney and Adrian Wootton (eds) Celluloid Jukebox: Popular Music And The Movies Since The 50s (London: British Film Institute, 1995)
  2. Jeff Smith The Sounds Of Commerce: Marketing Popular Film Music (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998)
  3. Philip Tagg and Robert Clarida Ten Little Tunes (A Report For The Liverpool Institute For Popular Music Research)