Music in Film and Video
Since the birth of film, music has been an integral element to heighten emotions and affect what we experience or are about to experience. Music is also used extensively in television commercials and documentaries to influence our state of mind and receptiveness to the message. Even before sound film production, theatres used orchestras, pipe organs and pianos to accompany the silent movies to guide the emotional response of the audience.
Use of music in filmmaking and television productions evolved into a fairly predictable formula, starting with the opening introduction. The beginning of a film or program is marked by a musical prelude of a style and instrumentation intended by the composer or producer to capture our imaginations and communicate in advance the tone of the production – be it light-hearted, comical, mysterious, dramatic, scary, romantic, adventurous, political, historic or a combination of several emotions. Like in an opera or ballet, the opening music commandeers the attention of the viewer/listener and prepares him or her for the story. It is the film or video’s first attempt to influence our brains with music.
Following the introduction there is usually a musical piece that helps set the stage of the opening scene with time, place and activity cues. The intensity and complexity of the music typically matches the scale and energy of the scene. For a film that opens with a wide shot of the great outdoors that could mean a full orchestra simulating the majesty and vastness of the wide open landscape. For a western town bustling with horses, carriages and pedestrians it could be a smaller orchestra with fewer but still energetic instruments and a more syncopated, stepped-up beat. If the opening scene is a smaller environment or inside a building, the music may be just one or a few slower-paced solo instruments with minimal accompaniment. If the scene is quiet and placid, regardless of the size, there may be no music at all – to emphasize tranquility, solitude or desolation. In that case the “music” may be the sound of crickets, squeaky hinges, barking dogs in the distance, water drips or just the wind. It is often the calm before the storm.
As the movie or program progresses, music is constantly manipulating our brains. It may startle us with a sudden blast of instruments; it may agitate us with sustained extreme frequencies or assault us with drum beats that affect our heart rate and blood pressure (Jaws?); it may alert us of impending danger or give us a sense of doom, anxiety or frustration through dissonance and disconcerting orchestration; it may depress us with somber tones and minor keys; uplift us with sweet strings and melodic passages; or interject passages that transition us from one place and state of mind to another. The music usually has underlying motifs that carry through the entire story, increasing the viewer’s emotional commitment through familiarity and repetition—similar to the way great composers use motifs in symphonies.
At the end of the movie, either in the final scene before the credits or during the credits themselves, music typically brings closure to our emotional roller-coaster ride. The music can leave us relaxed, energized, reconciled or conflicted. Or its composition may remind us of the emotions we experienced during the telling of the story. We have become so dependent on music in films to guide and confirm our emotions that the absence of music at the end can leave us uneasy, introspective and unsure of the outcome. Some of us are disappointed if we didn’t hear a happy tune telling us everything is now okay.
For those who remember or have watched re-runs of the television series The Rifleman, you recognize that the same music tracks are used in every episode. The emotions of each scene are defined as much by the music as by the acting. The carefree melodic music in the opening scene, followed by musical clues of danger and conflict ahead, the steadily building drum beats and horn blasts leading up to the gunfight, and finally the stirringly loud string crescendo of emotional release right after the last shots are fired. The formula is similar in other movies and productions.
I have thought a lot about this musical manipulation. It’s now hard for me to watch a film or TV show without being overly conscious of the music track. What was background before now seems to jump out at me, more prominent than before, preventing me from totally immersing myself in the film. The same is true of my increased awareness of laugh tracks designed to make us think something is funny when usually it is not. Sometimes it’s not a blessing to be a good listener.
I thought this an interesting enough topic to post on the forum, and invite responses to the following relevant questions:
- If we had never heard a music track in a movie before, how strange and distracting would it be?
- How much of the emotional response generated by the music in a sound track is based on our prior experiences and associations with similar music in other films and entertainment venues? Are we mainly responding to a musical vocabulary developed previously in operas and vaudeville?
- Is it possible to produce a successful adventure film without music? Or are we too addicted to music to attain a sufficient level of excitement without it?
- What are some examples of the most successful film music tracks ever, other than musicals? Are there examples of successful films that had no music at all?