Matmail: We've all heard the theme music for “Loony Tunes” cartoons on TV and at the movies. Was this music composed for “Looney Tunes,” or was it taken from a classic piece of music (excerpted)? When did it first begin to be used, and what brilliant composer did the deed? Did the composer compose any other significant pieces of music? — Colt, the Net
Cartoon music. Another great American contribution to the betterment of mankind. The unquestioned pinnacle of the art form is Warner Brothers’ “Looney Tunes” and “Merrie Melodies,” full of musical puns and orchestrated sound effects, the first toons in which the music matched the action. The composing deed was done by the late Carl Stalling, who wrote the two theme songs and the scores for around 600 “LT” and “MM” cartoons between 1936 and 1958. And to make sure the string section plunk-plunk-plunk-plunked in time with Sylvester’s steps as he tiptoed up on Tweety, Stalling was forced to invent a system to keep the orchestra in synch with the action as they recorded the soundtrack. He left no other musical legacy. As if he needed to.
Just about every Stalling score had some recognizable quote in it, usually a pun or “comment” on the action, anything from nursery rhymes to Beethoven. But his biggest borrow for the toons he scored after 1942 was from a quirky composer/conductor/inventor named Raymond Scott. Actually, Scott’s name was Harry Warnow. When he changed it for professional reasons, he just browsed through the phone book and picked “Raymond Scott” because he thought it sounded nice. Scott was big on painting catchy aural pictures and naming his tunes to match — to wit, “War Dance for Wooden Indians,” “New Year’s Eve in a Haunted House,” “Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals,” “Reckless Night on Board an Ocean Liner,” and “Confusion among a Fleet of Taxicabs upon Meeting with a Fare.”
Scott had a popular jazz quintet in the late ’30s. Well, it was a sextet, really, but Scott liked the sound of the word “quintet” better, so that’s what he called it. Warner bought all the music Scott wrote for the ensemble, and Stalling borrowed freely. In addition to jazz and pop tunes, Scott wrote advertising jingles and sound effects; composed scores for TV, films, and Broadway; conducted the orchestra for the TV and radio versions of Your Hit Parade; headed Motown’s electronic music research division in the ’70s; and invented a whole series of strange, ahead-of-their-time electronic musical instruments and devices. But he died in near obscurity in 1994 at the age of 84.
Stalling’s cartoon music is available on a Warner release, The Carl Stalling Project. Scott’s music and electronic instruments are now being archived by some devoted enthusiasts, including Mark “Devo” Mothersbaugh and David “Kronos Quartet” Harrington. Some have been released on The Music of Raymond Scott: Reckless Nights and Turkish Twilights (Columbia) and The Raymond Scott Project, Volume One: Powerhouse (Stash). Or check out Ren and Stimpy, which frequently uses Scott’s tunes in the background.