In 1933, Max Steiner made film history by composing the first full Hollywood film soundtrack. That movie was King Kong, and it set the stage for what would become one of the most powerful elements of filmmaking ever since.
Music and emotions in film became immediately intertwined. Bette Davis was famously quoted as saying “Who’s scoring this film? Max Steiner?” on the set of Dark Victory. When the director said he believed so, she responded “Well, either I am going up those stairs or Max Steiner is going up those stairs, but not the two of us together,” in reference to the Academy Awards. She recognized the immense power of music and how, if done correctly, could outshine even the best acting. Which is to say, while filmmaking is a visual art, music can bring that art to life!
Principles of a film score
To develop and edit a film score, you should understand the elements that build that score. While sometimes it can be as simple as finding a song that matches the emotion you want to convey, usually, you need to go deeper. According to “Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music”, there are seven principles of film music.
- Invisibility. Where the technical apparatus of non-diegetic film music is not visible. In layman's terms, the source of the music is not on screen, nor is it implied to be present.
- Inaudibility. Where the music is NOT meant to be heard consciously, but rather sits in the background to the dialogue or visuals.
- A Signifier of Emotion. Where the music is setting or emphasizing a particular emotion.
- Narrative Cueing. Where the music helps build the narrative. It can be one of two types:
- Referential. Where the music provides a reference or narrative cues, such as a point of view, formal demarcations or establishing characters and a setting.
- Connotative. Where the music interprets and illustrates narrative events.
- Continuity. Where the music delivers continuity between scenes, or through transitions. Filling the gaps to keep things congruous.
- Unity. Where using the music (or variations of it) many times helps to build a formal narrative.
- Violating Any Principle to Serve Other Principles. Where the music can violate any of the previous six principles, as long as it is at the service of any of the above six principles.
By understanding the principles of a film score, you can better apply them to your scene or film. Also, keep in mind that while a film score involves direct composition for a specific scene.
Music and emotion in film
It's well established through previous research that music has a direct impact on our emotions. Konecni's 1982 study "Does Music Induce Emotion?" shows clear evidence that complex melodies and loud volumes create anger in viewers. While soft, soothing and simple music work to calm people slightly. In "The Effects of Music on Responses to a Dining Area" by AC North in 1996, the researchers found that music had a direct effect on the mood of diners. Where soothing music made people more engaged in discussion, and stimulating music (or no music at all), had the reverse effect - lower engagement. When it comes to film, those same emotional triggers apply. Let's look at some common music styles that are used in modern cinema to elicit an emotion in the viewer.
The hero. Uplifting.
A hero or the protagonist of a film will always get an uplifting anthem when they're introduced on screen. The music is upbeat and builds confidence in the viewer that THIS is our hero. They are the ones we are rooting for, and hope to see come out on top on the other side.
The villain. Unnerving.
Whether it's a murderer or a monster, film scorers use eerie or unnerving music to help let the audience know that this is our nemesis. Darth Vader is an excellent example of this. The impact of the booming 'DUN DUN DUN duh-duh-duh' has the immediate emotional impact of being nefarious. It triggers fear of something coming.
The chase. Heart racing.
A chase scene is accompanied by a frenzied, uptempo score to highlight the tension or speed at which it is happening. This can go in a variety of directions from the silly - such as the Benny Hill chase music. It's fast-paced, excites the viewer, and yet still delivers the laughs. Or it can be like the chase scene in a James Bond movie, where death and destruction are part of the mix. Your heart will race as Bond is chased (or is chasing) a target.
The heartbreak. Sadness.
The main character dies. A world without life. A breakup so unexpected, you're brought to tears. These scenes in a film are always accompanied by music that makes them feel so much worse. Consider the real world effect of your own breakups, and how so many songs feel like they're talking about you? The 4-minute relationship in Up uses sad music so effectively at the end. The scene itself is widely regarded as one of the best love stories ever made on film. It hits you that deeply.
The attack. Panic.
One of the greatest panic scenes of all times is the shower murder scene in Psycho. The disturbing sounds that the violins are able to create replicate sounds that humans natural panic when hearing. Music that is so sharp and disturbing to hear, it elicits the feelings of panic, fear and a desire to get away as a viewer. Another great example is Jaws where the "DUN-duh" signifies something is coming. Our body starts to tense up as we expect something bad about to happen.
Homework: watch your favorite movie
When film scores are used effectively, the audience should not really notice it at all. Instead, it should play second fiddle to what they are witnessing on screen. It serves to tap into our emotions, more than we are aware that it is happening.
One of the best ways to realize just how important (and effective) music is in films, is to sit down and watch your FAVORITE movie. Instead of trying to enjoy the movie though, take yourself out of it by instead focusing on the music of the film. You already know the film, now experience why certain scenes are so powerful (and why you like them so much). Often, it's not the acting, or the story or the scenes visuals - but the music that has triggered the most powerful emotional reaction.
You may even notice that directors will use NO music at all, especially if something visceral is happening on screen. Which is another effective way to use music - by not using it.
So get creative, figure out the emotions and theme of your film, and start playing with music. You'll find so much potential in exploring various types of music and how it completely changes the feeling of your films.
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