John Barry

British composer John Barry was born 1933 and wrote a number of film scores for some of the iconic films from the 1960s to 90s, including Dances with Wolves, The Ipcress File and music for 11 of the James Bond films. He has won 5 Oscars and was awarded a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) fellowship for his contribution to writing music for film.

A close-up shot of John Barry with his BAFTA. 
John Barry

The types of film music

There are two types of film music:

  • non-diegetic is music included only for the audience’s benefit to build tension or heighten emotion of a scene, eg a battle or a love scene
  • diegetic music is heard by the characters in the film and by the audience, eg if there is a scene at a party with loud music

Film producers can choose to use music already composed, eg a Beethoven symphony, or commission a composer to write a film score. Out of Africa uses an extract from Mozart’s Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra in A major. However, John Barry composed original music for most of the film.

When music is synchronised closely with the action, it is referred to as Mickey-mousing. This technique was developed in music for cartoons such as Tom and Jerry. It is also heard in films such as Pirates of the Caribbean - swords touching is synchronised with the music.

Other film composers are:

  • Hans Zimmer, who wrote music for Gladiator, The Dark Night and Boss Baby
  • John Williams, who wrote the music for Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Harry Potter

Out of Africa - main theme

The main theme from Out of Africa begins with a French horn melody that makes use of an interval of a perfect fifth followed by a major sixth. The use of intervals gives the impression of open country and is a common technique employed by composers. The opening musical theme is accompanied by tremolo high pitch strings and a lilting counter-melody in the cellos. Following a timpani roll, the violins adopt the main melody before the flute plays an extract of the melody to finish the opening section.

The melody heard is a leitmotif that reoccurs throughout the film score to indicate love between the leading actors. John Barry changes the accompaniment or how the melody is heard to indicate to the audience a change in mood or in how the character feels.

The main theme in this piece is played by the cor anglais, which is lower in pitch than the oboe. This instrument is often used to portray love by composers of film music.

At one point in the film, the main female character, Karen Blixen, gets into a plane with her love interest to fly over the Serengeti plain. Initially, she feels uncertain conveyed through Barry’s use of strings, wordless voices and low brass. A more subdued version of the leitmotif is played by just strings.