In the 1950s, film scoring began to reflect the new seriousness and frankness in the subject-matter of the films themselves. Two key films from this period, both from 1955, were Rebel Without a Cause, and The Man with the Golden Arm. The former features a dissonant, often atonal score by Leonard Rosenman that reflects the huge tensions in the story and the anguish of the characters. In the latter, the first serious Hollywood film about drug addiction, Elmer Bernstein combines similar elements of the twentieth-century avant-garde with jazz, used extensively for the first time in mainstream film scoring. From this point, through the 1960s, although more traditional, neo-Romantic background music continued to be used, composers more and more often employed styles reflective of modernism, using highly dissonant atonality but also more subdued styles when appropriate. Among many examples, some of the most striking are Bernard Hermann's score for Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), Quincy Jones's for The Pawnbroker (1965) and Jerry Goldsmith's for Planet of the Apes (1968).
The 60s also saw a new trend in which films began to employ popular songs as background rather than classical-sounding orchestral music or even jazz. The pathbreaking film in this regard is Mike Nichols's The Graduate (1967) with its Simon and Garfunkel songs. Most of these were songs that Paul Simon had written earlier and that the duo had already recorded; only one of them, "Mrs. Robinson," was written specifically for the film. This is a seminal technique which has been used more and more frequently in both the cinema and television over the past fifty-plus years. But at the same time, much of filmmaking in the 1970s returned to the use of lush, neo-Romantic orchestral scoring, as in Nino Rota's music for The Godfather and Godfather II (1972 and 1974). This throwback trend was continued, perhaps ironically, in films of that period and the following decade which were pathbreaking in subject, film technique, and special effects. John Williams's music for the Star Wars films was in many ways a rethinking of the work of early twentieth-century classical composers such as Gustav Holst (appropriately, the composer of the orchestral cycle The Planets).
What has largely occurred from 1980 up to the present is an increasing diversity of technique in film music. Unlike prior to 1960, there is no single, mainstream type or style of background music. Some composers, such as Williams, Howard Shore, and James Horner, continued to write full-orchestral, classically oriented music. In the 1980s, electronic and synthesizer music came to be employed more and more. Pathbreakers in this technique were Giorgio Moroder in his scores for Midnight Express and Scarface, and Vangelis in Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner. In Moroder's scores both electro-pop instrumentals and vocal numbers are used. Along with the continued use of often preexisting popular songs and the traditional, classically oriented symphonic background score, a new tendency beginning in the 2000s has been a deceptively simple, scaled-down type of film music in which one hears merely a quiet, sustained bass with little change over long periods of the film. This tends to be used in thrillers and horror films. But in general, filmmakers, as stated, avail themselves of a huge variety of types of music. Eclecticism seems to be the ruling principle in film music, as in so many aspects of modern artistic attempts.