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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.

Halloween
Halloween, by Mayank Kumarr.

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.

Jurassic Park
One of the most famous shots of all time. The first time dinosaurs are seen in the film is also the first time the iconic theme is heard.

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.

Michael Myers
Michael Myers stalking Laurie

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.

Halloween
Laurie after taking Michael Myers’ knife from him.

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.

Jurassic Park
Alan Grant bonding with the children.

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.

Works Cited

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Heldt, Guido. 2013. Music and Levels of Narration in Film. Bristol: Intellect. 66
  4. Rivera, Joshua. “The Best Part of Jurassic Park Is Its Music.” GQ, June 11, 2018. https://www.gq.com/story/jurassic-park-vevo.
  5. 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.
  6. Heldt, Guido. 2013. Music and Levels of Narration in Film. Bristol: Intellect. 65
  7. Green, Jessica. “Understanding the Score”, 83
  8. 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.
  9. Heldt, Guido. 2013. Music and Levels of Narration in Film. Bristol: Intellect. 179
  10. Green, Jessica. “Understanding the Score”, 84

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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37 Comments

  1. aggio
    0

    Perfect timing, I am going to be making a movie that takes place in one room, while outside that room an extinction level event is occurring. I have been thinking a lot about what that will sound like, because its going to rely heavily on that.

  2. deffo
    0

    The filmmaking and film loving community is so lucky to have a publication like this.

  3. Tonia
    0

    I definitely love how much music (or lack there of) can play into the mood of the film. Specifically, I loved in The Dark Knight Rises, when Batman fought Bane the first time, there was no music playing. I felt like that scene was so intense and we can feel the magnitude of it even more without music. Music would have killed that scene for me, so without it, it was one of my favorite most intense scenes.

  4. Tony Jung
    0

    Excellent article to express the importance of music in the various films out there, even outside the cinema, since it works quite well in video games.

  5. Sean Gadus

    Music is so critical to creating/adding to tone and emotion in a film. I love listening to movie music. Interesting article. Nice work on it.

  6. Stephanie M.

    Nice article. I tend to notice musical impact more in romances, period pieces, or dramas (since that’s mostly what I watch), but there are some great pieces there, too. One of my favorites is the Orchard House Main Title, originally used in Little Women, but often heard in the trailers of Jane Austen adaptations and similar films.

  7. Caroll
    0

    A separation, salesman, and children of Heaven, Iranian movies, don’t have any background music, it is all on the characters’ expression and the screenplay…

  8. Joette
    0

    My communication teach was bragging how simply talking can be captivating and great, he showed the example of the nescafe ad( the one where a dude asks question and tell people to sit if they haven’t been in touch with speaker)

    He said how his words sounded so simple yet great, I said that it was lame and it sounded grand because of Skylar Grey’s song in the bg.

  9. pridy
    0

    Thanks for the article. I’ll add it to the required reading for my students in film studies.

  10. lemon
    0

    This got me really excited to start thinking about how I think of and use music in film and personal projects!

  11. Noreen
    0

    Imagine for example if the beginning of The Social Network had Metallica or any other typical college rock track instead of Trent Reznor’s chilling score. Trust me, that score made the movie so worth it for me.

  12. Kathrine
    0

    I love the goosebumps when the score matches a scene perfectly. My suggestion is Junkie XL’s “brothers in arms” from Mad Max: Fury Road. Or another is the magneto scene in X-Men Apocalypse. It’s called “shattered life” by John Ottman. As a musician, I really love when the track is charged with emotion, the crescendos, the staggering, the tremolo of the strings. So dramatic.

  13. I was told by a music teacher when I was younger that seeing a movie without a soundtrack was boring. This article would be the contrapositive to that position.

  14. Denyse
    0

    In my opinion a score should never tell the audience how to feel, it should support the feelings that are given by the story. I think a hollywood composer said that in an interview (Hans Zimmer I think, big fan of him) and I completely agree.

    If a score tells you how to feel it’s probably very generic (a big problem for filmmakers who can’t get a composer for their film and has to rely on premade stuff).

    A lot of directors who work (for example) with Hans Zimmer, trust their composer to the extend, that in crucial scenes their is only score playing, no major dialogue, maybe with a little monologue (for example the endling of Inception, Interstellar or The Dark Knight/The Dark Knight Rises).

    I think the connection between composer and director is very important, look at Zimmer and Chris Nolan, they have done some spectacular cinema moments.

  15. Deandra
    0

    Then there’s The Birds… A film that is terrifying due to its complete lack of music.

  16. Mahan
    0

    I really like when the filmmaker plays with our heads, and plays a score incongruous with the action on the screen.

  17. Greenberg
    0

    I watched Sicario recently and the music in that is phenomenal. The score accompanying them driving through a foreboding Juarez in Mexico felt as if someone had physically injected me with liquid fear, it’s that manipulative and commanding. Didn’t realise the capabilities of music in film until then.

    • Val Pierson
      0

      I really how the score for Sicario sounded typically horror-like for a film about government fiddling in drug cartels.

  18. Ezequiel
    0

    Two words for film scores: Studio Ghibli.

  19. Sarak
    0

    As interesting as studying films is, I have lost the passive nature of watching films; after studying sound design, Foley, surround panning techniques and orchestral scoring, I can’t simply sit down and enjoy a movie anymore. Last movie I saw at the cinema was Suicide Squad and I kept getting pulled out of the story and on-screen action by slight mistakes in levels and panning. I was watching it with a friend and when we discussed the film on our ways home, I realised that the things I noticed were too subtle for him to take note.

  20. Sean Bell
    0

    Film scores are the hardest piece of music to compose for a musician/composer. You often end up breaking musical convention which for a musician can be very uncomfortable.

    • Tammy
      0

      So true.

      I once wrote a piece of music that started of as a 2/4th measure for the establishing shot of a 1940s Dutch village where Nazis were running through the street capturing young men.

      We then cut to two people Waltzing (my idea was a waltz because it is so Prusian and it ties in with what later happens with one of the two characters who turns out to be a traitor 😉 so the music suggests that already). And this waltz is a 3/4th measure and a little more up beat.

      The lady sips wine (another visual hint that they have some richess that most could not afford) and as the male character suggests to go to bed and she goes to put the glass down while he kisses her neck and air she misses the table and the glass falls to the floor and at then we cut to a guy running being followed by Nazis. In a 4 quarter up beat march with more minor progressions than the Waltz that had major chord progression.

      But when I listen to that score on it’s own it’s a musical mess — which was my fault because that was what I at some point only focussed on from my background as a musician. But in combination with the images it works. Only when I went to listen to other movies that had these hard hits and soft hits I realized that it’s the norm. But when you read and hear the music you are like: “what?!?!?!?”

  21. Richard
    0

    More recently my favorite use of movie score was in Swiss Army Man where the score and soundtrack of the movie was interwoven into the chants and hums of the characters themselves, blurring the line between what’s happening within world of the movie and outside of it.

  22. adameve
    0

    One of my favorite things in film is the musical accompaniment, and I believe it’s also one of the most important emotional factors in creating a film. I can name scenes on all of my favorite films where the music completely made the film or scene in question, like Toy Story 3 (the final scene comes to mind), Don Hertzfeldt’s It’s Such a Beautiful Day (incredible usage of classical music to portray a mood, and one of the greatest films ever made in my opinion, go watch it on Netflix now, it’s only about an hour long), ET like you mentioned in the article, and Jurassic Park.

  23. Eugene
    0

    American Beauty has one of the most extraordinary film scores I’ve ever heard. It is quirky, but plays off the emotions in the movie perfectly.

  24. Anna Cox
    0

    Ah… Halloween 1978. The music is a character in that movie.

  25. hillz
    0

    I remember in prison break, whenever the antagonist for the season showed up a church bell dings indicating his arrival.

  26. hella
    0

    I think that the music in The Shining plays a big role. Take out the music, and the film is definitely not as suspenseful or scary.

  27. mark
    0

    This is why I want to compose music for films.

  28. Agueda
    0

    No LOTR? really? The emotions evoked by the score alone, and the amount of work that went into each individual piece of music, the motifs and everything, too great, too important to be left out.

  29. Yeah, the songs are a really important part. They make my whole body get chills.

  30. dice
    0

    I think apocalypse now helicopter scene with ride of the valkaries is an example of how music perfectly acompanies an action. I always think of ride of the valkaries every time I fly a helicopter in a video game for example.

  31. Raymond
    0

    I love the film industry and thanks to you, now I can appreciate better this kind of art.

  32. Carlos
    0

    Name me a more iconic duo than Steven Spielberg and John Williams.

  33. Arthur
    0

    I always feel that background score is more vital to convey the emotions to the viewer and make him/her feel being a part of the scene. Background score often covers up for shortcomings in the actor or the screen play. Unfortunately I do not think background score composers are not given their due recognition, compared to actors and actresses.

  34. nElso
    0

    Foxcatcher is a pretty good example of how NOT using any music is very effective.

  35. Another film that comes to mind is Cuaron’s Gravity. Without Price’s music, a lot of the tension would be lost in pivotal scenes.

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