Understanding Music in Film

Much attention is paid to the images displayed in a film, yet how often does one stop to consider the music that one hears? Music has the potential to have a great effect on a work of film, altering the overall mood and guiding the audience’s reactions and emotions. When the percussion begins to pound, excitement and tension build, and when the strings begin to soar, tears start to flow. The music of a film may linger in the mind long after the picture itself has been forgotten, or become irreversibly connected with the images and emotions it accompanies. The following is a brief look at the importance of the art of music as it applies to another art, that of film.

To begin, allow me to address two commonly confused terms: score and soundtrack. Although often used synonymously, these two filmic elements are actually very different. A score is music that has been composed specifically for a film, and includes not only the recognizable melodies that appear, but also the subtle background music and sounds that are almost constantly present in many works. Scores work to create atmosphere within a film, and one generally understands that the music is present for the audience alone; the characters in the film cannot hear the score as we can. A soundtrack, on the other hand, is a collection of music that may or may not have appeared within the movie itself, but which the filmmakers have decided accurately reflect their work. Often, snippets of songs heard within the film will be rerecorded in their entirety and released on the soundtrack. For example, music-heavy films such as Moulin Rouge! (2001) and The Great Gatsby (2013) do not allow the plethora of pop songs that they present to be heard in full, so fans may purchase the respective soundtracks in order to hear the complete versions of each. The scores of these films would present the fragmented pieces as they are heard in the film, as well as any music that is not a traditional song used to link scenes or reflect a mood.

Still from "The Great Gatsby" - Music
Still from “The Great Gatsby”

One must also draw a distinction between diagetic and mimetic sounds within film. Diagetic sound is that which occurs within the movie world and which we can assume that the characters can hear. Mimetic sound, on the other hand, is made up of elements such as the film’s score or voice over narration. There are times when these two forms of sound coalesce, however, as some filmmakers enjoy playing tricks on their audience. For example, imagine a scene in which characters are driving in a car accompanied by what one believes to be a mimetic road trip song, which is cut off abruptly when the character switches off the radio, thereby ending the diagetic music. This technique can work the other way as well, such as when a character is seen listening to music that continues to play even after a new scene has been introduced. Although diagetic sound is necessary to allow an audience to understand what exactly a character is able to hear at a given time, mimetic sound is equally important in shaping the overall atmosphere and mood of a film.

Music has been an integral part of film since the very invention of the medium. During the silent film era, which occurred from 1894 to 1929, diagetic sound was unrepresented and dialogue appeared as words across the screen as opposed to sounds out of the mouths of the characters. To make up for the lack of sound within a film, theatres often presented live music to accompany each work. A pianist was hired by each theatre to match the mood of each scene and guide the audience’s responses and emotions, often with music entirely improvised on the spot. Eventually, the solo acts began to expand to entire orchestras that could create special sound effects to reflect actions, such as galloping hooves or approaching steam trains, as well as music. Interestingly, silent movies provided most of the work available for instrumental musicians during their period of greatest popularity, an example of the ways in which one art form can greatly support another. The first film with synchronized sound, or “talkie” as they were colloquially known, was The Jazz Singer, and made its appearance in 1927, changing the relationship between film and sound irreversibly.

Music is significant in all genres of film, but none greater so than in the Bollywood film industry. While the popularity of movie musicals has declined worldwide, the majority of Bollywood films are still musicals. These films are known for their distinctive song and dance numbers, which blur the line between diagetic and mimetic sound; yes, the actors must hear the music that they are creating, yet do they hear the accompaniment that appears out of thin air? North American movie musicals occupy the same grey area in their relationship of sound to film. Here, songs sung by characters are interwoven directly into the narrative. Musicals that consist entirely of song and scant spoken word are known as “sung-through musicals,” although much dialogue may be present in regular musicals as well. Lee De Forest created the first known musical films in 1923, and the genre still exists today, although it is only popular within a select crowd.

Still from "Les Miserables" - Music
Still from “Les Miserables”

Some find this usage of music in film to be unrealistic and too fantastical, while others are able to enjoy the musical numbers that work to further the movie’s plot. I personally have a very high tolerance and appreciation for musical movies, and consider many, such as Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and the sung-through Les Miserables (2012) to be very effective screen adaptations that boast some of the strongest scores created. Other movie musicals, such as Sunshine on Leith (2013), use songs originally created by a band – in this case, the Pretenders – and string them together through plot. In this film, the result was charming and successful, but in others, the attempt falls flat. Whether or not one is a fan of movie musicals, one must admit that they allow for a very unique relationship between music and film.

The American Film Institute (AFI) also agrees that a strong score can have a great effect on the success of a film. This institute has released a list of what they believe to be the greatest film scores of all time, cataloguing the top five as Star Wars (1977), Gone With the Wind (1939), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Psycho (1960), and The Godfather (1972). It cannot be a coincidence that all of these top films also appear on the AFI’s list of greatest movies of all time, indicating a connection between a strong score and overall mastery. Although I have certainly seen films that I did not enjoy overall but that boasted wonderful soundtracks, this occurrence is uncommon. Generally, a detailed and emotive score indicates a well-made and thorough work of film.

Legendary Composer Howard Shore - Music
Legendary Composer Howard Shore

The power of a brilliant soundtrack can be conveyed through a personal experience. I grew up listening to a recording of the sweeping music of Roland Joffé’s The Mission (1986). The music is stunning on its own and out of context, but understandably did not evoke a particular emotional response in me as a child. After being deemed old enough to see the movie, however, my reaction to the music changed; the first time the soundtrack was played after I viewed the film, I found myself sobbing at many key moments. The music had taken on a whole new life and set of associations, and was able to move me to tears even without the accompanying devastating images. Thus is the power of a strong film and soundtrack that have been perfectly matched. I also remember observing my mother crying in a hardware store after hearing “My Heart Will Go On” shortly after viewing Titanic, but I believe this event to be a testament more to the power of a great film than to a cheesy and melodramatic love song.

It is difficult to imagine iconic films such as Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy without the grand accompaniment provided by composer Howard Shore; indeed, I was fortunate enough to attend a screening of the first installment accompanied by a live orchestra, which was a stunning experience in and of itself. Would Psycho (1960) and Jaws (1975) generate as much tension and fear without their famous scores, or The Color Purple (1985) and Finding Neverland (2004) as much heartbreak? Music changes the way we feel about movies, and can often prompt very strong emotional responses. Music and film may be very different forms of art, yet they can be brought together to create experiences that neither could achieve alone. It is this very special collaboration that makes many movies, and many scores, the successes that they are.