Theme Songs without Words

Max Steiner and the Big Theme


  • William H. Rosar University of California



Max Steiner, theme songs, underscoring, photoplay music, background music


When Max Steiner arrived at RKO Studios in late December 1929, he came as a seasoned Broadway conductor and arranger to work on musicals. Applying the art and craft of song arranging from musical comedies on the Broadway stage to so-called “theme songs” that were sung in dramatic films in the early talkies, he developed what came to be known as “the big theme” in Hollywood Golden Age film scoring parlance in which a song-like theme was featured instrumentally as background music rather than sung on screen. In conjunction with this practice, Steiner and his Hollywood cohorts continued and adapted the existing dramatic techniques of silent film accompaniment to “talking pictures,” which, because of music playing under dialog, was given the name “underscoring.”

Author Biography

  • William H. Rosar, University of California

    William H. Rosar is a cognitive musicologist and neuroscientist. Founder of the Film Music Society based in Los Angeles he is editor of The Journal of Film Music. He did doctoral studies in philosophy at UCSD and cognitive psychology at UCLA and interdisciplinary studies in musicology and psychology at the Claremont Graduate School. He worked in human factors in telerobotics at NASA-JPL and later taught history and analysis of film music in USC's Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television Program. Currently he is a Research Associate in the Center for Brain and Cognition at UCSD.


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How to Cite

Rosar, W. H. (2022). Theme Songs without Words: Max Steiner and the Big Theme. Journal of Film Music, 9(1-2), 8-22.