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Alfred Newman - Film Composer

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If Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams are the closest rivals for the title 'Godfather of celluloid music', then the honour they are inheriting belonged first to Alfred Newman. One of the most prolific and influential film composers of all time, 'Pappy' Newman's career spanned four decades, included scoring for films of all genres, and work in over two-hundred-and-fifty films in total.


Newman was born in Connecticut in 1901, one of the elder children in a family of ten. He was a child prodigy, learning piano from the age of five and performing from seven. He studied at New York's Von Ende School of Music, learning piano from Sigismond Stojowski, and composition, counterpoint and harmony from George Wedge and Rubin Goldmart. He won medals for his work in piano at this time, and afterwards studied three years with Arnold Shoenberg.

Newman played piano concerts to support himself from his teens, and after school he was introduced to Broadway by the vaudevillian Grace LaRue. He conducted a number of unsuccessful shows before he got his break, being appointed by George Gershwin as a musical director on The George White Scandals in 1920 and 1921. He worked on Broadway for a little over a decade, working on productions by Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Al Jolson, before a commission from Irving Berlin brought him to Hollywood in 1930.

Berlin wrote the theme music for the film Reaching for the Moon, and commissioned Newman as musical director on the film. Deciding to settle in California, Newman was brought into the studio system by Samuel Goldwyn.


Alfred Newman's career is one of the most prolific in Hollywood history. As well as composing music for over two hundred films, he acted as musical director, arranger and conductor on many more, in particular arranging many musicals for the silver screen, as well as arranging and conducting Charles Chaplin's music for his films, Modern Times and City Lights. He composed the fanfare for Twentieth Century Pictures, later to become Twentieth Century Fox, one of the most familiar pieces of music in the industry.

In 1939, Newman began a twenty-one year stint as Musical Director for Fox, in which he not only composed, but also worked with many of the other greats, including giving Jerry Goldsmith his first big break. His work spanned the genres, as composer, conductor and musical director, and garnered him forty-five Academy Award nominations - a total surpassed only by Walt Disney - from which he gathered nine Oscar statuettes.

Alfred Newman's impressive filmography, and further details can be seen in his entry for the Internet Movie Database.


When Newman died in 1970, he left his legacy to Hollywood in the form of his family. Alfred's brothers Lionel and Emil were both film composers, and Lionel also has a substantial body of work as a musical director and conductor with Fox. Small wonder then that Alfred Newman's two sons, David and Thomas, should also be successful film composers. As if that were not enough, another brother of Alfred is the father of singer-songwriter and composer, Randy Newman, who wrote the songs for the film Toy Story.

Musically, Alfred Newman is often credited with the invention of the Hollywood string sound, and for bringing the musical grandeur of Broadway to the motion picture. He also revolutionised the performance and recording of movie scores with the Newman system (see below), and fostered the careers of some of the great composers of today.

In recognition of his contribution, the main music recording sound stage at Fox is called the Alfred Newman Stage.

The Newman System

The Newman System is a means of synchronising the performance and recording of a movie score with the film itself. A print of the film is played for the conductor's reference, specially marked with punches and streamers. Punches are tiny marks in the film, for two of every ten frames, creating a standard beat to help the conductor keep time. To synchronise music and action, the conductor then uses streamers, horizontal lines which move across the screen at a regular pace.

This system was instituted by Newman during his stint as Musical Director at Fox, and is still used today.

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