How the Score Impacts a Film
There is no greater weapon in a director’s arsenal than a strategically placed song. Music has a magical power to transport us to a different time and place. That is a power that it shares with film. When the two combine it creates amazing moments on screen. Music is integral to the movie watching experience. Songs trigger emotions in the audience. Music can make a sad scene sadder, or turn a cool moment into an epic one. It plays with the audience’s emotions, and determines the tone of the film. The real power of film music, is how it makes viewing a film better without the audience realizing. Film music enhances the cinematic experience by providing a deeper emotional connection to the characters and themes within a film.
Now, I could talk about every movie in relation to this topic but for the purpose of this article, I’ll be focussing on two very well know but diametrically opposed films. Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1993) and Halloween (Carpenter, 1978) which both demonstrate this ability in slightly different ways, one to astound us and one to terrify us. The soundtracks of both films manipulate audience emotion, and use musical cues to communicate implicit meaning.
Music Makes Us Feel
Music has an immense effect on how audiences view a scene. A study done in 2008 shows that viewers will interpret the same scene differently depending on how it uses music. 1 Thus, the score of a film is often thought of as a way for a director to tell the audience how to feel during a given scene. While changing the type of music in a scene will alter the context, the truth is, film music is not telling us how to feel, it’s making us feel what the characters are. A great film score is “a tool that can expose the inner feelings and thoughts of characters and can shape the way that viewers feel about what’s happening on screen”. 2 By making us feel with the characters, as opposed to for them, the score immerses us deeper into the film world.
John Williams score for Jurassic Park demonstrates this best during the scene where the main characters, Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler, see dinosaurs for the first time. It’s a moment of pure awe and wonder as the main melody of the movie plays in the background. We can see what they are feeling, but the music allows us to feel it as well. The reason this scene is so impactful and memorable is because the score doesn’t represent the audience’s perspective, “it informs us of something that is fictionally true”. 3 We don’t just feel joy as spectators, the music communicates their joy and allows us, to not just feel joyous watching them, but to feel joyous with them. It’s a powerful moment because in addition to the characters wonderment, the music gives viewers “total willingness to mirror everything” that Alan and Ellie are experiencing. 4 As viewers, our connection to the characters deepen as the music makes us experience this moment as they do.
Halloween, scored by John Carpenter, features a soundtrack that is meant to scare and unsettle us. As a horror movie, Halloween, is trying to scare the viewer as much as it wants us to be scared for the characters. It achieves this by not only using the music to denote when the characters are scared but by having most of the music as a stand in for Michael Myers himself. The same few melodies repeat throughout the movie and they work to indicate when Michael may appear. It sets up expectations in the viewer that when they hear certain musical beats, something “bad and unstoppable” is near. 5 Once Laurie starts to see Michael stalking her, the music that plays is the same music heard at the beginning of the film when Michael kills his sister. Guido Heldt says that “nondiegetic music can seem to be an emanation of something within the diegesis”, 6 the music in the film communicates the feelings of the characters as well as representing the spectre of Michael himself. When we hear the song first heard during Michael’s first murder, not only does its ominous nature convey to us that Laurie is frightened but because we associate it with Michael and death, the viewers become scared for Laurie and frightened themselves as to what they might see next.
Themes and Motifs
Film score does more than just make us feel. Just as films have themes and motifs, so does the score. By repeating certain sections of music at different points in the film, the score is cluing us in to the themes of the film. An advantage that music has over other elements in a film is the “power of suggestion concerning what a character may be thinking”. 7 By hearing a piece of music with a previous emotional association, we can analyze the meaning of a scene.
Underlying the horror of Halloween, is the theme of responsibility. Each one of Michael’s victims is a teenager who is shirking their responsibility of babysitting in order to drink, smoke and have sex. Laurie, the final girl, is the only one of the teens portrayed in the film, who follows through on her babysitting duties. The first clue we have as viewers to this theme is in the opening scene of the film which is shot from Michael’s point of view. As young Michael watches his sister Judith through the window, there is no music. She is supposed to be babysitting Michael but is instead making out with her boyfriend, oblivious to where Michael even is. Once Michael, sees them go upstairs and the bedroom lights turn off, the music kicks in. As Michael moves towards the room, the moment he lays on the sister who was supposed to be taking care of him, we hear the same musical cue as when the lights went off. This provides the audience with a link for the rest of the film as “it highlights the reason the murder is about to be committed.” 8 Furthermore, because this is the music we hear as Michael stalks and prepares to kill his intended victims, the music is a connective tissue that provides a motive for the killings that the film itself does not.
One of the themes of Jurassic Park is parenthood and what it means to be a parent. We are first clued in to this, thanks to the use of familiar music. The second time that we hear the main musical theme, it’s not the grandiose song we heard when we first saw dinosaurs. It is part of a quieter song, during a subtler scene. As Alan Grant, who was established as not liking children, is sitting in a tree with children in his arms, bonding with them, the main theme can be heard in the soundtrack. Music is a way to “focalize a character’s inner state” in a way that doesn’t tell us, but uses the “language of cinema for showing us that state.” 9 and by pairing this moment with a song that is associated with joy and happiness, the music shows us that Alan is now changing his stance on children. Because that is the song we hear, we know that he is happy in this moment with the kids. Paired with the imagery of when the melody was first heard, the music becomes more than something in the background and takes the “role of actually affecting and creating meaning in the film”. 10 We see that he is warming to to the idea of parenthood, but the music communicates that he is happy about it, which brings new meaning to the scene had there been no music
Film music represents the words that cannot be spoken. Without it, films would be experienced completely differently. The score of a film is much more than just background noise to elicit emotion. Jurassic Park and Halloween, show that the score works to connect us to characters and allow for thematic analysis in a way that other filmic elements couldn’t. A film with music transforms into a different film without it. Music is the element that works in the shadows to create movie magic.
- Tan, Siu-Lan. “How Film Music Shapes the Storyline.” Psychology Today. Last modified October 30, 2013. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-shapes-film/201310/how-film-music-shapes-the-storyline. ↩
- Green, Jessica. “Understanding the Score: Film Music Communicating to and Influencing the Audience.” The Journal of Aesthetic Education 44, no. 4 (Winter 2010), 81. doi:10.5406/jaesteduc.44.4.0081. ↩
- Heldt, Guido. 2013. Music and Levels of Narration in Film. Bristol: Intellect. 66 ↩
- Rivera, Joshua. “The Best Part of Jurassic Park Is Its Music.” GQ, June 11, 2018. https://www.gq.com/story/jurassic-park-vevo. ↩
- Zinoman, Jason. “‘Halloween’ 1978: The Times Finally Reviews a Horror Classic.” The New York Times, October 17, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/17/movies/halloween-1978-review.html. ↩
- Heldt, Guido. 2013. Music and Levels of Narration in Film. Bristol: Intellect. 65 ↩
- Green, Jessica. “Understanding the Score”, 83 ↩
- Burnand, David, and Miguel Mera. “Fast and Cheap? The Film Music of John Carpenter.” In The Cinema of John Carpenter: The Technique of Terror, edited by Conrich, Ian, and David Woods, 49-66. London, UK: Wallflower Press, 2004. 58. ↩
- Heldt, Guido. 2013. Music and Levels of Narration in Film. Bristol: Intellect. 179 ↩
- Green, Jessica. “Understanding the Score”, 84 ↩
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