Study Guide

On the Waterfront Music (Score)

Music (Score)

Tender Strings, "Dirty" Sax

When you listening to the heart-wrenching score of On The Waterfront, you have only one thought.

And that thought is, "Wow, I bet the dude who composed this also wrote that iconic 1950's tune "Gee Officer Krupke." (Because nothing says "iconic 1950's tune" like a song title that include the word "Gee," right?)

Hmm. That thought wasn't going through your mind? Well, it actually should have been.

Leonard Bernstein is considered to be a great American composer, and he's famous for writing the music to West Side Story, a.k.a. a moving love story about street gangs that sing and pirouette before killing each other.

But Bernstein did other things too. He threw parties for hip New York people. He did the music for the musical version of Peter Pan and for On the Town. He won worldwide acclaim.

And he composed the music for On the Waterfront, whichwas Bernstein's only film score for a non-musical. Nice choice. If you're only going to do one, it should be for a classic, right? (Source)

Maybe because this way his only non-musical score, Bernstein packs in all the emotions. When violence is going down, strings shriek, drums bounce around—there's impending gnarliness is in the air. But then, he compliments the scene where Edie and Terry are getting to know each other in the park with a tender melody.

The scene with Charley and Terry in the back of the car combines both a tender feeling and tension—tender because Charley and Terry are having a moment of truth as brothers, and tense because Charley pulls a gun on Terry at one point, and Johnny wants Terry dead.

According to USC professor John Burlingame, the different themes in the "Symphonic Suite" Bernstein wrote for the film represent different things. We hear a lonely French horn at the beginning, soon joined by a flute—this represents Terry, and his own courageous and solitary resistance. Then, there's the "violence theme"—the aforementioned part with hot drums, tight strings, and a "dirty" alto sax—followed by Terry and Edie's "love theme." (Source)

So, the movie's score is like Bernstein himself—capable of covering lots of emotional territory. It gives you the feels before making you tingle with suspense.