I’ve been fascinated with orchestral cartoon music since I was a kid. The stuff you hear in a Tom & Jerry or Tex Avery cartoon is as complex and technically demanding as anything you’ll encounter in the most experimental contemporary music: drastic changes in mood, style, tempo, key, time signature and dynamic almost every bar. Complex runs, atonal noises, deeply serious and completely silly melodies constantly alternate with little or no time in between to adjust. The musicians, composers and arrangers creating these soundtracks had an incredible level of craftsmanship.
The two composers mainly responsible for developing the musical language of the cartoons are Carl Stalling (1891-1972) and Scott Bradley (1891-1977). The golden age of cartoon shorts (1936-1957) was at the height of the Hollywood studio system, when actors, directors, technicians etc. were on a full time exclusive contract with the studios. Each studio also had their own orchestra to record the soundtracks, and when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer opened their in-house cartoon studio in 1937, the newly hired cartoon composer Scott Bradley was given access to the studio’s orchestra to score the cartoons. A similar situation happened from 1936 on at Warner Brothers, where composer Carl Stalling used the studio’s 30-piece orchestra for the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons.
Scott Bradley was an admirer of contemporary classical composers like Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Bartok, and managed to use some of their compositional techniques in the cartoon soundtracks, such as Schoenberg’s 12 tone system. MGM’s orchestra were known to complain about the technical difficulty of Bradley’s scores, but both composer and orchestra seemed to enjoy the creative freedom the “funny music” gave them. Bradley is mainly remembered today for his brilliant scores to all of the classic “Tom & Jerry” cartoons.
Carl Stalling’s style was slightly different, as he – much more more than Bradley – relied on already written music, having access to Warner Brothers’ extensive catalogue of popular songs of the time. He developed an intricate system of musical quotations, where the action was commented upon by the melodies he used (such as Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude in scenes with rain). Stalling’s style fit nicely with the wacky tone of Warner’s cartoons, like Bugs Bunny and the many Tex Avery characters.
Both composers developed the entire vocabulary of cartoon action – pizzicato when characters tip-toe, chromatic descending lines when characters laugh etc. Along with composer Max Steiner, Bradley and Stalling are also credited with the invention of the click track, a recording technique used not only in film but on practically any recording session these days.