Join Ashley Kennedy for an in-depth discussion in this video The power of music: Emotion, subtext, information, and rhythm, part of Introduction to Music in Film and Video.
- For anyone who's ever heard a note of music, it's clear that it's a very powerful thing. And in this course, we're gonna be talking about a special type of music, film score. Film score has tremendous influence on the viewer and the amazing thing is it primarily happens at a subconscious level. We watch the film, we pay attention to plot, character, and conflict, we feel the rising action and experience the climax with the characters. We focus on all of that, what we don't often consciously focus on is the accompanying musical score.
This seeps its way into our subconscious in amazing ways. Now, music's inclusion in film is almost as old as the motion picture itself, but the reasons behind it have certainly evolved. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, music wasn't synced to the movie at all, it was just used as accompaniment to the onscreen action initially for reasons as simple as masking the sound of the projector in an otherwise silent theater. And because those early films lack dialogue, music initially helped audiences stay engaged by providing the appropriate audio backdrop.
But it wasn't long before music was used to enhance the mood of specific moments on screen and connect to audiences in meaningful ways. Early on, movie houses employed pianists and organists and even entire orchestras to play music during silent films. Music cue sheets and sometimes full scores were often distributed with the prints of the film so they could be played along. And when cue sheets weren't available, the musicians improvised to provide an appropriate emotional shape to each main character and plot point, syncing their musical cues to the film on the fly.
Since those days, the basic principles of using music to emotionally enhance the picture have remained in tact and have grown exponentially. There were actually brief movements in the 1950s and later in modern times when pockets of realist and purist filmmakers rebelled against music in film. But those movements certainly didn't last. Audiences demanded music, and even more, films themselves demanded it. So we're gonna talk all about music's role in film in this chapter and in this movie I'm gonna break things down on a high level.
First, music impacts emotion, a lot. In a basic sense, this is the same as music you would listen to on its own. Slow, soft music most often calms. Fast, vibrant music excites. There are different musical strategies to evoke tension, uneasiness, romance, bravery, sadness, and dozens of other ways of feeling. Now take all of that and put that with the moving image. When combined, music can put thoughts and feelings in the mind of the viewer to produce a totally new or an elevated result.
I wanna start very simple, not with a scene from a movie but just with a single shot. Take a look at this short clip of an aerial dancer descending down a silk. We don't see her face, we're just getting a general sense of movement. Now let's take a look at this same shot but with different musical undertones. (slow reed instrument music) (calming piano music) (suspenseful music) As you can see, music can make us feel different things about what we see even when what we see doesn't have much emotion attached to it to begin with.
But it's this juxtaposition of image and sound that is so often explored and sometimes exploited, reaching into our subconscious in ways that images alone simply can't. Now I wanna talk more about this notion on a deeper level because music doesn't just affect the way viewers feel about a particular shot or scene, it also offers clues about the subconscious of the characters within the film. It acts as a type of subtext. Because, think about it.
When you're reading a book or a script or some other text, you get plenty of clues in commentary about the character's own inner thoughts and emotions through the written word. The author often tells you what the characters are thinking or at least gives you enough to make your own deductions. It's because you get so many more layers of information in the written form that many prefer a good book to the movie's adaptation of it. Now you can certainly pick up on some of that in the form of great acting and cinematography, sound design, and other cinematic tools.
But it's the role of music that plays a large role in giving us this subtext. So let's take a look at another very simple shot. This time focusing on a person whose face you can see. It's just a guy drinking a beer. We don't know what he's thinking, and the video doesn't give us many clues. But now what do you think he's thinking? (sad music) Or now? (upbeat drum music) Or how about now? (pensive music) So again, now we're going beyond how we feel as the viewer and we're transposing different types of subtext on what this character could be thinking and feeling.
What else? Well music can also provide us information about things like setting, culture, nationality, and even time period. Every area of the world and most periods of time have specific music characteristics and filmmakers use that all the time. Take a look at this slow panning shot of some mountains and trees, which we'll assume is the opening establishing shot of a documentary. See if you can tell what clues you might get about this setting or culture. Perhaps it's in Asia. (Asian music) Or Africa.
(African drum music) Or an island nation. (tropical music) Truth be told, it's actually in California but as you can see, music is a tool that can help establish information and context even before we're provided with any actual details in the film. In fact, this is used so often that film score has actually contributed to many stereotypes in regions and cultures around the world, so just be aware of that.
Sometimes you're hearing what people think is the music of a place rather than the authentic music of a place. Next, I wanna talk about how music can set a rhythm to a scene that may not have inherently been there before. And of course this links back to emotion. There are many ways to think about this, and countless examples, but let me just talk about a couple of different musical strategies that can help evoke emotion through rhythm. For example, when composers want to convey calm and tranquility, they might use smooth, quiet musical elements.
They'll use notes of longer duration and they'll also use silence. In this scene from American Beauty, a single shot lasts for more than a minute. It's just one shot, along with a few thoughtful, sporadic lines of dialogue. It's the music though, that helps to mesmerize and calm the viewer. (soft music) - [Voiceover] It was one of those days where it's a minute away from snowing and there's this electricity in the air.
- Let's go to the other end of the spectrum. If composers want to convey tension or unrest, they might use heavy repetition, sharp, uneven articulation, dissonant harmonies, and non-chord tones. In another scene excerpt from American Beauty, which is also comprised of very slow, long shots, we get a totally different feeling, again spearheaded by the music. Pay attention to how the music controls the rhythm of the scene, how it makes you feel, and how the inserted moments of total silence work with this technique as well.
(upbeat ukulele music) (suspenseful music) Music also defines and shapes style. There are countless styles of film, and each one comes with its own varieties of music. If you listen to these few examples, even with your eyes closed, you'd likely know that this is a Western, (whistling Western music) this is an adventure film, (suspenseful music) and you might even know that this is a quirky indie film.
(elevator music) These styles have been created and molded over a century, and while they are certainly variations within each style, it's important to be aware that the general musical characteristics of each style's instrumentation, melodies, rhythm, pacing, and so on, are set in the audience's minds. Therefore, when filmmakers choose to deviate from a particular style, it can work, but they just need to be aware of how that deviation may set with viewers who already have certain expectations.
Speaking of expectations, music can also function in an ironic sense. Sometimes directors choose to use music that doesn't at all match the action on screen. For example, when lighthearted music accompanies something brutal. And so sometimes this can help underscore the horror of what's going on as we see here in a battle scene in the movie Gladiator. (soft music) And in Schindler's List, a Yiddish children's choir sings as the ghetto is being liquidated.
(choral music) Music functioning in this way is a relatively common device in cinema, and it functions in different ways. Sometimes for dramatic irony, sometimes satire. But almost always does it bring the viewer out of the experience just enough to be able to observe or comment on the action at hand, which is a powerful tool for sure.
I want to expand on this a bit. When the tone of music is different from the content of the scene, it can function as a tremendous narrative device. In the film There Will Be Blood, the main character gives a speech to the people of the town where he's going to be drilling oil. I'm just showing you a excerpt here but notice that it's a matter-of-fact, borderline inspirational, children-are-the-future type of rhetoric. But listen to the music that goes with it. - [Man] Men to bring their families, as well. Of course, it makes for an ever so much more rewarding life for them.
Family means children and children means education, so, wherever we set up camp. - It's not too inspirational, is it? The music exudes dread. So while the deliver of the scene suggests optimism, the music foreshadows disaster, which is of course what happens. In the next movie, we'll expand on this and talk about music as a unifier.
- Understanding the impact of music on tone, emotion, subtext, rhythm, style, and theme
- Setting the music plan
- Working with preexisting music: public domain, Creative Commons, and production library music
- Working with a composer