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The role of music in storytelling

Before the days of barely enjoying a movie on your phone with headphones on, there was no colour and no sound. I know right, a movie without music, a terrible thought considering the two art forms are made for each other. Cinemas originally had a pianist making the music up as he went along to go with the film. As the 1920’s went on sound was introduced to film and ‘talkies’ were made, but in 1929 The Great Depression started and the industry came to a halt. When the film industry began picking up again filmmakers realised the impact music could have on a viewer, every score or song in a film is there to create an emotion and it’s done in a huge variety of ways.

For instance a horror film’s intention is to scare the audience. Now a basic horror film might use sharp strings, quick changes in pitch or volume and have a dramatic build up to do this and sometimes it works like in Jaws or Psycho. However these films were innovators and these types of scores have now become clichéd and worn out. Audiences evolve very quickly and catch onto these techniques and can tell what’s coming, so when an audience evolves so do the filmmakers. What some films did (which I love) is having a juxtaposition between a scene and the music, who could forget Huey Lewis and the News in American Psycho, Stuck in the Middle in Reservoir Dogs or Singing in the Rain in A Clockwork Orange. The fact something horrifying is happening on screen with a happy song in the back plays with the audience and confuses them with two contrasting elements making them even more horrified as a result. Mark Perkins, the Creative Director of W communications, said

Imagine Jaws without the music. There is not much that’s terrifying about a crudely made rubber shark, the fear comes from the music, which is a trigger in our senses that something awful is about to happen to the person splashing about happily in the water

Music in film can have a huge array of effects on the audience and a good film will create these emotions in their audience in a unique way without just having plain old happy with happy and sad with sad. A great example of this is in The Graduate (spoilers!) where our main character ‘rescues’ his kinda sorta girlfriend from her wedding. They run away seemingly happily together and board a bus. The audience now expects a run of the mill happy ending but then The Sound of Silence starts playing (if you haven’t heard it do it now) which is a tremendously sad song which is odd considering this is meant to be a happy moment. Both characters are smiling wildly when first boarding the bus but the scene lingers on as the song plays, at first the audience may be confused considering what they’re expecting. Then their wild smiles begin the fade and the song choice becomes clear as the weight of the character’s actions becomes clear to them and the audience at the same time with the song as a subtle foreshadow.

With music playing such a big role in film it’s no surprise there are some film scores and themes which are so deeply related to a film it’s impossible to think of one without the other. Think Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters and Rocky, you hear the first few seconds of them and the films spring into mind almost immediately. That’s another power music has over an audience, it gives them an idea about the film. You can tell the tone of Indiana Jones in the first 10 seconds of the score, adventure. The Creative Director of FleishmanHillard Fishburn, Kev O’Sullivan, said

A surefire way to appreciate the value of music to watch iconic unspoken scenes – preferably of horror or romance – on mute. Immediately, the image loses a tremendous amount of impact. Psycho or Steel Magnolias are handy examples.And in fact, you can totally decontextualise or recontextualise any scene with different music – I refer you to the legion of comedy YouTubers who have transformed films like Mrs Doubtfire and Mary Poppins into thrillers.

However the score doesn’t just give you a better idea of the film but also a better idea of a character through the choice of music in their scenes. A scene that nails this is an early scene in Star Wars: A New Hope where Luke stares out over the horizon. The scene has a unique score to accompany it (as opposed to the normal Star Wars theme) called ‘Binary Sunsets’ in which the viewer learns so much more about our main character from his expressions and the accompanying score than from dialogue.

Music in film has come a long way from a pianist in a theatre, now it’s one of the key elements. You see I explained what music does in film but not why it is so crucial for the audience. Music for the most part is somewhat in the background of the audience’s mind when they watch a movie because they’re so caught up in what is happening on screen, but that serves a purpose. While the audience is focused on the visuals music subtly guides the audience’s emotions as they watch. It also amplifies the emotions the audience are already feeling, an exciting scene will have exciting music to increase that feeling and captivate an audience.

A film that I think nails this on the head is The Italian Job. Its score is just wonderful capturing the exact mood of any scene and conveying it perfectly. From the opening scene driving through the mountains with smooth music playing throwing the audience off what is about to happen, to the chase (see 4:54 for music) through the streets, finally almost getting away and then the final cliffhanger. The famous scene on the cliff is great for many reasons but one is the majority of the scene has no music keeping the audience on edge and when music does play it is short, subtle and effective. Brilliant from start to finish.

There’s thousands of great ways to use sound in film but the same can be said for silence. Think of No Country for Old Men and the amount of tense and terrifying scenes in that with no music, and what does this do? The same thing. It increases the emotions the audience are already feeling. After the audience has been introduced to the psychopath Anton they’re put on edge as soon as they see him. Unlike most killers in movies these days Anton is quiet and understated, all whilst committing these terrible acts, the sound choice reflecting this. This lack of music makes every scene he’s in feel more real and more terrifying as a result.

Sound as a whole whether it’s soundtracks, songs or silence will always have been chosen for a specific reason and that reason might be obvious  and sometimes you might need to think a little but there will always be a reason. My media studies teacher once told me if I took this subject I would never be able to watch a film again without analysing it and at the time I thought that was nonsense, but she was right. Now without even meaning to when I see a film I ask myself, why did they do that, what does that mean or why did they choose this music with this scene. So next time you’re watching a film and hear music starts to play, have a think about it.