Film music in Switzerland: An overview

Film music in Switzerland: An overview

Golden Eye Award 2022, Tonhalle Zurich. Photographer: Lucia Hunziker.

by Steffen A. Schmidt (2019)

Film music is booming. Not so long ago, it would have been looked down upon and deemed barely worthy of attention. But today, it’s both loved by the public, and an integral part of the canon for both teaching and research.

The market is growing. But what opportunities already exist today for performing, studying and promoting this music, and what opportunities should there be? The present article aims to offer an overview for film-music practitioners and other interested parties of the current, exciting endeavours to set up and expand film music institutions of all kinds – from archives to festivals, associations and university departments.

We shall not, however, be discussing actual production facilities here, despite their fundamental importance for the artistic and economic situation of film music. Nor shall we name specific composers unless they are relevant in the context of either current events (such as award ceremonies) or the film music curricula discussed below, or unless they happen to be significant to our cultural heritage. We also wish to note that this article lays no claim to completeness, not even with regard to the topics we have especially chosen to discuss. Instead, we would like to offer a kind of panorama of the Swiss film music landscape.

Studying film music

For a long time, the composers working in the film industry enjoyed a thoroughly classical training – including many still alive today. Later, they were joined by others schooled in jazz. But the film music sector has become so varied that it now makes very special demands on its composers. These include a broad stylistic palette and the ability to produce music very quickly. For a long time now, film music has no longer been restricted to the symphonic, but offers a whole universe of the most diverse sound materials – from electronics to exotic instruments and even noise. What always matters, however, is that the context of the film is taken into consideration. In other words, composers have to write so-called “functional” music that creates a relationship with the other medium. Many renowned composers – such as the Hollywood composer Max Steiner – have pointed out time and again that their task is not to write autonomous music.

Right down to the present day, it is rare for one to be able to study “just” film music at an institution of tertiary education. But film music is included in the curricula of the big film academies. Besides Paris, London, Potsdam-Babelsberg and Rome, the arts universities of Bern, Geneva and Zurich also offer specialised courses in it.

The topic of “film music” is usually touched upon at tertiary level only in courses of a general or overarching nature, such as contemporary performance and media art. For example, the École cantonale d’art de Lausanne (ECAL) is specialised in video art and has also invited renowned artists from the field of music to teach as guest lecturers, including names such as Laurie Anderson and Nam June Paik. But film music is not a particular focus of these courses, and music in general is only dealt with on the margins.

In Switzerland, the situation regarding the study of film music is very different, depending on the approach of the university in question.

Swiss Film Academy, Geneva and Lausanne

Geneva and Lausanne offer a joint course that offers both a comprehensive curriculum and the opportunity to specialise. At the Swiss Film Academy / Ecole de Cinéma, based in Geneva, students can attend extensive courses on film music and sound design (see weblinks). The Swiss Film Academy also has connections to New York, which makes a bilateral study programme possible.

Bern University of the Arts

At the Bern University of the Arts (HKB), film music can be studied under the umbrella of the “sound arts” programme. According to the university’s website, this subject covers a broad spectrum of possibilities: “Music in a media context: sound art, film music, electronic music and many possibilities and interfaces that link space, movement, sound and light”. It is a Bachelor course, but the subject can also be included as part of a Master in Contemporary Arts Practice (see weblinks). The projects and curricula presented on the website show a clear focus on the field of sound performance, but graduates of this course also include specialist film composers such as Bänz Isler and Roman Lerch, who have both composed soundtracks for films ranging from advertising to feature films, and who have since become established on the film music scene.

Zurich University of the Arts

The Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK) has been offering a study programme entitled “Composition for film, theatre and media” (“FTM” for short) since 2008, founded by André Bellmont (see weblinks). It was initially conceived as a Master, but it can now be taken at Bachelor level. “This course is organised so that it fulfils the necessary artistic requirements, providing a diverse, solid technical background and offering an individual approach to composition, while at the same time meeting the functionality and application-oriented, market-oriented needs of composition”, says the website of the ZHdK. This Bachelor is essentially a network in which the students conduct experiments as if in a laboratory, and can branch out into different disciplines, from design to fine arts to dance. The Master consolidates these possibilities and offers a broad palette of different teaching contents, from film music to installation. The alumni of this programme include Michael Künstle, who completed his Master here in 2016/17 and has meanwhile been involved in many film music projects. His prime concern in them is to maintain stylistic independence while nevertheless remaining in tune with the needs of the film scene.

One of the youngest graduates of the FTM Bachelor is Mirjam Schnedl. After attending numerous masterclasses, including one with Howard Shore, she began to make a name for herself in the fields of game music, feature film and documentary. In 2018, she won the “Prix Taurus Studio pour la meilleure trame sonore Suisse” for the best music at the Festival Animatou in Geneva, which she won with her music for the film The Market of Lost Things (2017). It was at an information event for the film composition course that she decided to choose this field. She had originally intended to go to a traditional university, but the programme at the ZHdK immediately seemed ideal to her, because as a natural synaesthete, she sees colours when she hears music. She liked the variety of courses in the ZHdK programme, the way the course administrators are constantly adapting to the needs of the students, and also the excellent infrastructure, which makes it possible for students to engage in projects on a professional level. She does feel, however, that it would make sense for the programme to do more to prepare students for their everyday careers, such as negotiating contracts and networking. What’s more, as a young woman it was not easy to find her true identity as a composer in the film world, which is so dominated by men. She would also prefer the language of tuition to be more gender-neutral. Her experiences with her male lecturers, however, were not negative at all, and she has observed how more and more women are pursuing careers as composers, both in Switzerland and on the international scene.

SoundTrack Cologne

Building up national networks in your own environment is undoubtedly the most important task of film composers who want to make their career in that field. But it is just as important to get to know the international scene. An initiative has been set up by the SoundTrack_Cologne conference in Germany to try and create a transnational network of universities and academies that train students in film production, sound design and media music composition. It’s the “European Education Alliance for Music and Sound in Media” (EEAMS). It supports students, teachers and professionals from these different but related fields and thereby aims to create an inclusive framework to promote networking and help overcome disciplinary boundaries. EEAMS welcomes protagonists from European institutions and those from similar programmes in the USA, Asia and South America (see weblinks).

Orchestras specialising in film music

Over the course of the last few decades, film music has undergone a major shift towards developing highly differentiated instrumental sounds. There is a clear tendency to integrate exotic instruments in the Western orchestra – if we want examples, we only have to look at Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Alien, or any number of scores by Ennio Morricone. What’s more, recent decades have also seen film soundtracks move into the concert hall, where they have found new audiences – witness the music for films like Star Wars by John Williams, the Lord of the Rings by Howard Shore and Gladiator by Hans Zimmer.

As a result, film music is becoming an increasingly regular feature on the concert programmes of classical orchestras. Above and beyond this, there are even ensembles that have dedicated themselves largely to this genre – in some cases, exclusively to it, such as the 21st Century Orchestra, which was founded in 1999 by Ludwig Wicki and others and is based in Lucerne (see weblinks). This orchestra has enjoyed numerous collaborations with renowned composers such as Howard Shore, and this in turn has led to the world premières of live film music. In 2008, the orchestra played the first part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The 21st Century Orchestra employs up to 100 musicians and often plays in the Lucerne Culture and Convention Center (KKL). Its recent performances also include the score by John Williams for Harry Potter.

Other, smaller ensembles have focussed on contemporary works. These include the Ensemble cinéphonique in Zurich, which describes itself as “a group of young, highly professional musicians who are specialised in studio recordings for film, pop, jazz and advertising and can be booked for live concerts in different line-ups” (see weblinks). It is closely allied to the Film Music Forum (see below).

Interest groups

Film music needs composers too, of course. The history of film music is littered with cases of the involuntary transfer of copyright to production companies by composers whose music later became famous – and who accordingly made those companies rich. So the interests of film composers have to be defended, especially when we take the specific history of film music as a genre into consideration. The Swiss Media Composers Association (SMECA), based in Basel, represented the interests of stage composers, and film composers in particular. SMECA advised them about rights and performance issues, but was also engaged in matters of pensions and insurance, and represented its members on the political scene too. Since 2022, this organization has been integrated into SONART, the association of Swiss musicians.

The Hollywood composer Miklós Rózsa once remarked that film music has to have an immediate impact on the listener. But others have claimed that film music is only good if you don’t notice it – in other words, when it is subsumed in the overall impact of the movie. In fact, it takes skill to understand and appreciate film music properly. And film music certainly deserves to be heard on its own merits – a fact proven time and again in its history. In matters of knowledge transfer, the Film Music Forum has become an established institution. The Forum is linked to the Zurich University of the Arts ZHdK with its curriculum in composition for film, theatre and media. Its website states that its members are both responsible for the international film music competition at the Zurich Film Festival and also organise events, conferences and workshops with renowned film composers and film professionals at the ZHdK, as well as moderated film showings of films with historical scores, where these are also discussed. In 2017, they held an international symposium on the music of Hans Zimmer on the occasion of his 60th birthday.

There are also other festivals that promote knowledge about film music. In 2019, for example, “m4music” invited members of the Swiss Media Composers Association to offer information about synchronisation techniques for advertising, films and TV shows.

Institutions: funding and prizes

Despite the abovementioned ironic claim that film music is best when you don’t notice it, it is indeed noticed, and can even achieve the status of “hits” – witness Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther theme, for example. Legendary soundtracks have their own independent place in our cultural memory, and are accorded their own awards and film music prizes. The market is enlivened by opportunities for film music promotion and by competitions; they also serve to intensify its societal impact. Cultural funding programmes that recognise film music projects are run in Switzerland by the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia, the FONDATION SUISA and SONART (the successor organisation to the Swiss Association of Musicians).

However, given that the societal acceptance of film music has a different history from that of the other music genres, a specific culture of funding and prizes has emerged for film music. In 1989, SUISA, the cooperative society for composers, lyricists and music publishers in Switzerland and Liechtenstein, set up its own charitable foundation to promote contemporary Swiss music-making: the FONDATION SUISA. Until 2017, this foundation awarded an annual prize for film music, but in 2018 this was halted in order to fund individual projects instead. The aim is above all to support “courageous, innovative” composition projects. The last film prize, worth CHF 25,000, was awarded to Balz Bachmann at the Locarno Film Festival for his original composition for the documentary film Bis ans Ende der Träume (To the end of dreams) by Wilfried Meichtry. It was the third time that he had been awarded this prize.

At the Zurich Film Festival, an international jury chooses the best international film music for the Golden Eye Award at the International Film Music Competition, which is worth CHF 10,000. It was instituted in 2012, and requires applicants to create the music for an existing film or part of a film (see weblinks). The jury nominates five compositions out of a total of 300 entrants from more than 40 countries, which are then performed by the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra under the baton of Frank Strobel.

The “Quartz” is an annual prize for the best film music, and is awarded by the Federal Office of Culture, the Swiss Radio and Television Corporation (SRG SSR), Swiss Films and the Swiss Film Academy. It is named after the trophy designed for the award by Jean Mauboulé, and is no less important than the Zurich Film Festival’s Golden Eye. It is worth CHF 5,000, is presented at the Solothurn Film Days, and in 2019 it was won by Marcel Vaid.

The animated film festival Animatou in Geneva, which was founded in 2006, also gives a prize for the best soundtrack. The Solothurn Film Days and the pop music festival m4music, organised by the Migros Cooperative, also award a prize for the “best Swiss video clip” in collaboration with FONDATION SUISA. The animated film festival Fantoche in Baden also gives a prize for “best sound” in general.

The Locarno Film Festival might be the one with the richest tradition in Switzerland (it was founded in 1946), but it seems to devote little attention to the topic of “film music” since the film music prize of the FONDATION SUISA ceased being awarded after 2017 (see above). Apart from this, film music seems only to achieve any prominence at the Festival when there is an important historical anniversary (such as the 100th anniversary of film music, celebrated in 2009 – though how that anniversary was calculated is a matter of debate).

There are, however, festivals devoted specifically to film music, such as the one organised every November by the Institute of Incoherent Cinematography (IOIC), which is based in Zurich. It holds a marathon of silent films, spread over several days, featuring improvised or newly composed live music. When choosing the music to be performed, the event organisers pay special attention to the social and cultural background of the musicians and their music, and place an emphasis on variety in matters of their musicians’ age and origins.


To close, we should like to mention the various archives that hold documents about the historical development and the cultural memory of film and film music. Film music exists before a backdrop of historical processes and historical research; these too have an impact on the present cultural identity of Switzerland, and will do so in the future too.

The Cinémathèque suisse in Geneva – the Swiss national film archive – possesses a comprehensive collection not just of Swiss films but also of international films, and naturally also focuses on film music both Swiss and international. As part of the retrospectives it organises, the Cinémathèque also presents concerts of Swiss film music (see weblinks). In 2015, for example, on the occasion of the launch of the anthology Musique de film suisse: 1923–2012 in collaboration with the FONDATION SUISA, it held a concert in Lausanne that featured a broad spectrum of film music from the period covered by the publication.

The Zurich Film Podium also works together with the Cinémathèque and similarly offers live music events on its programme.

In Lugano, the Fonoteca Nazionale (the national sound archive) collects all Swiss sound recordings in collaboration with SUISA. These naturally also include film music. “All the sound carriers that it receives in the course of its work in managing authors and reproduction rights are deposited by SUISA in the Fonoteca Nazionale”. The Fonoteca’s collection includes both published works and those unpublished recordings that have been registered with SUISA (see weblinks).

Composers’ archives and scores are also to be found in the large Swiss libraries. These include the Zentralbibliothek Zürich, which holds the archives of Robert Blum, whose film music scores included that for Die Gezeichneten by Fred Zinnemann (who also directed High Noon), and of Walter Baumgartner, who early on began employing jazz in his film music, such as in the film Café Odeon, for example. The Swiss composer Arthur Honegger also wrote important film scores in the early years of film music. He composed for great directors such as Abel Gance and even scored for unusual instruments such as the Ondes Martenot. In 2015, the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel published a complete inventory of Honegger’s music manuscripts, in collaboration with the publisher Schott.

The above mentioned anthology of Swiss Film Music was edited by the musicologist Mathias Spohr and was commissioned by the FONDATION SUISA. It covers the period from 1923 to 2012 and offers a broad panorama of Swiss film music, including accompanying CDs. Since 2018, an online version has been in preparation in collaboration with the Film Music Forum, and is constantly being updated by various authors, with the editorial assistance of the composer Bruno Spoerri.

Film music is booming, there’s no doubt about it. And current developments in the infrastructure of research and teaching confirm this increase in interest. But are other institutions also ready to come on board? What about publishers and agencies that specialise in film music? And what is the public perception of film music today? The above mentioned prejudice that film music ought not to be noticed is as inappropriate as it is widespread. We can only counter it through a constant, active policy of communication and information and by promoting public awareness: in this, we can be inspired and supported by festivals and funding institutions. Film music might be functional music, but it is also a fundamental component of a Gesamtkunstwerk – a “total work of art” – as the Hollywood composer Miklós Rózsa once remarked. Its possibilities are far from having been exhausted.


(Author: Steffen A. Schmidt. Translation: Chris Walton. First published as part of the joint project of FONDATION SUISA and Pro Helvetia in 2020, editor: Céline Gex.) plzm.e445f59f-533f-4bc3-9960-4c7db0e1770e?.gif