How Film Music Works

Film brought forth an art form centred around seeing motion on a screen. But film is far more than only visual. Music plays a huge role in the heightened realism at the heart of a scene. Different film scores can completely alter the mood of a scene and filmmaker carefully pick their soundtracks or film scores to convey certain emotions or ideas. But how does it work? Today we're looking at the psychology of music and how our brains respond to different auditory stimulation in films.

Soundtrack or Score?

But to talk about music in a film we should first distinguish between a soundtrack and a score. A film score is written specifically for what's happening on the screen, while a soundtrack contains songs independent from the movie itself, and were not made just for that movie. Most films have both and one example is Forrest Gump, which has a soundtrack of songs not solely associated with the movie, and a film score written specifically for that film.


To really understand the importance of music in a film we should compare final cuts of movies with the intended film score and that have removed or edited music. The famous shower scene in Psycho is so much less frightening without its score.


Before the Talkies

Using music to psychologically alter a scene has been around since the silent era. Silent movies used to be accompanied by a live piano player who would play along with the movie. At first, the music did not interact with the film at all and was only there to avoid silence in the theatre. But later piano players would either improvise along with the action on screen, or they received sheet music to play along with.


The psychology of the accompaniment was pretty straight forward. When the screen shows a villain, the piano plays a diminished minor chord which sounds eerie and unnerving. Heroes get uplifting anthems. Chase scenes have a fast tempo while sad scenes are slow and sombre. These early psychological musical techniques set the standard for film scores in modern cinemas and while the orchestras have grown bigger and the scores more effective, the general ideas of silent film piano accompaniment have remained the same.


Audiences Biologically Programmed

Let's return to Psycho. The shower scene is a perfect example of the psychology of music in film. The scene where Marion Crane gets stabbed to death in the shower features one of the most effective film scores in history. The screeching sound of the violin mimics sounds we biologically associate with stress and danger. In other words, the music score is a frantic cry for help. A study by the University of California in 2010, found that non-linear alarm sounds give us an emotional response that instinctively unsettles us. Bernard Herman, the composer on Psycho, purposefully constructed the film score to replicate these unsettling noises and the effect makes the scene significantly scarier.


In Jaws, we hear the music before we see any danger. This technique unsettles us in a different way. The anticipation of the danger is what makes each scene so frightening. The fact that we know something bad is about to happen, and the characters in the film don't know, adds suspense to the scene. Despite being warned of the danger by the film score, we have no choice but to watch the horror unfold. As the music slowly speeds up, so does the camera, and we feel psychological terror from the disorder of the music and the anticipation of the inevitable.


The majority of film scores deliberately stay in the background and only provide subtle clues to the audience. Film score pioneer Aaron Copland defined five ways a score serves a scene, and most of them stay in the background.


Five(?) Tunes to Serve Them All

The first is to create a more convincing atmosphere of time and place and is pretty much self-explanatory. Many genres have their own settings and style of music to go with it. A classic example would be the Western, which has a very distinct sound. Second, music can underline psychological refinements. Unspoken thoughts or unseen dangers are shown or reinforced through the music. We may not see the danger but the music reminds us it's there.


The third is to build a sense of continuity. If the music between shots is the same, we relate those scenes to each other. This includes montages, as in the 'Rocky' training scene, or flashbacks. 'Citizen Kane' uses music cues as an indicator of a flashback. In 'Catch Me If You Can,' the music tells us that the chase is on.


The fourth way music serves what's happening on screen is to give us a sense of finality. Copland notes that this takes place usually at the end of the film or after some major triumph. The triumphant sound of the music psychologically links us to the triumph on screen. And finally, Copland tells us that sometimes music is just there to fill the silence. Interestingly, he admits that this is the hardest film score to write because the audience shouldn't notice it.


Sometimes, Silence is Louder than Music

Film scores enhance the emotion of a scene but sometimes directors choose not to use any music at all. This can work just as well. In 'No Country For Old Men' the vast majority of the film had no music, only dialogue and ambient noise. And it totally works. Hearing nothing but a man struggling for his life is pretty menacing. The storming of the beach scene in 'Saving Private Ryan' overwhelms the sense with the sounds of gunshots, explosions, and cries for help instead of a film score.


Our brains often subconsciously react differently to a visual given the music playing behind it. This is interesting because it shows how subtle film scores can be, and yet how vital they are to a film. The psychology of music is one of the most important cinematic techniques in film. The emotional and thematic potential of these techniques is limitless, and in this article, we've only just scratched the surface. So, take your favourite film, watch it again and pay close attention to the music and how it enhances the film, maybe without you even noticing. How does that sound?

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