Scott Bradley – Genius

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I have many musical heroes. From Bach to Bacharach (yes, really), Mozart to Monae. Barely a day goes by in this part of SE27 without a silent acknowledgement of some kind to some composer, instrumentalist, singer, ensemble or conductor – “wow that’s good. We’re not worthy.”

High high high in the pantheon is a name I fear not many of you will know, although I have no doubt you know his music.

Scott Bradley.


Maybe if I said “Tom & Jerry” you might have a better idea.

Bradley was an in-house composer at MGM from 1934 – 1958 and composed the soundtracks for over 270 cartoons, including all the Tom & Jerry episodes.

Until the 1930s, cartoon music was mostly a collection of popular songs stitched together to form a generic background for the animated action on the screen. It was Bradley who came up with the idea of matching the music closely to the action. The result was a new musical language that is now familiar, but all too easily taken for granted – Tom reels drunkenly after a blow on the head to the strains of swooping clarinets; Jerry scurries into his mouse hole accompanied by twinkling xylophone and piccolo; they career round the corner to find Spike and a scrunch chord waiting for them. You know the deal. It’s brilliant, virtuosic writing, and I wonder if Tom and Jerry would have quite the same lasting appeal without it.

Bradley was formally trained, and studied for a while with Arnold Schoenberg. His musical language occasionally displays that influence, but also that of other ‘serious’ twentieth-century greats like Stravinsky (there’s a nod to the trombone part from The Firebird at about 2:57 in the example below) and Bartok. At the same time it is firmly rooted in the American tradition of popular song and jazz.

Bradley made great demands on his 20-piece orchestra – the action is non-stop, and speeds change every few seconds. And the virtuosity that is required from individual instrumentalists is sometimes breathtaking, but always dispatched with the minimum of fuss by the brilliant studio musicians available in Hollywood at the time.

Bradley is sometimes credited with the invention of the click track, the device that is now standard in recording studios for keeping the music synchronised with the action on the screen. His scores certainly require extremely close synchronisation – one late bang or crash and the comedy is lost, or at least undermined.

Above all the music is fun with a capital FUN, and matches the equally brilliant anarchy on the screen.

Scott Bradley died, I now discover, on my 12th birthday. It’s entirely possible I was enjoying some of his work at the time. I’ve continued to enjoy it ever since.

So here’s my Advent homage to Scott Bradley. It’s an early one – if you didn’t watch this every year at Christmas as a child, I feel sorry for you.

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  1. I have never seen it – but we did not have television or access to a picture theatre! (I had a very “deprived” childhood in the Australian “bush”.) That said I have always wondered about the sound tracks because, in his teens, my maternal grandfather used to occasionally play for the silent movies.

    1. You poor deprived thing! No Tom & Jerry! However, I do think the world might be a more civilised place without the relentless television we have nowadays. Only problem is that so much of it is so good and entertaining.
      Fascinating about your grandfather – a real art. Bradley’s immediate predecessor, Carl Stalling, played for the silent movies. I think the style of music that Bradley wrote sprang directly (although not entirely) from that tradition.
      A friend of mine has started a terrific venture – he’s putting on a monthly performance in which top musicians improvise ‘live’ to a silent movie projection. The catch is that they have no idea until the film starts what it’s going to be. You can read about it here:
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. What a lovely episode – it will be watched/listened to on Christmas eve in the Pallici household for sure – Stravinsky trombone nod an’ all.

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