What is the Role of Music in Film?

Music to film is like butter to bread, like ketchup to fries, and like sugar to coffee. Music plays an important role in how we as the audience perceive the images on the screen.

Music greases up various elements and scenes, jelling emotion with the plot to make a film interesting and relatable. 

Many don’t realize it but music influences our movie viewing experiences in the most profound ways. Indeed, music is the second most important element in making a movie (only the actual video production comes first).

For Star Wars fans, when you close your eyes and imagine a galaxy far, far away, it takes the strongest of wills not to burst along to the catchy theme. It has created an identity for the franchise, inspiring an adventurous sense of defying-the-odds. A movie without music would feel like a home video. Simple, not a bad watch, but nothing too great about it either.

Its total absence would take away from filmmaking, making it impossible to create immersive cinematography.

Music is emotion. It can set the mood for scenes and toy with heartstrings. Music brings back a tidal wave of memories, giving a movie its nostalgic aura if need be. It can set the stage for a lighter turn of events, capture the extent of hopelessness, inspire the audience to its feet, evoke fear and suspicion, among many emotional goals that filmmakers would want to amplify for compelling storytelling

Music is usually not an afterthought, but considered way in advance during pre-production. In certain cases, a spur-of-the-moment idea may just provide that musical spark that some scenes need to take off.

The iconic murder-shower scene in Psycho is proof of music’s pivotal importance. Though often subconscious to most cinephiles, it creates powerful, emotional responses nonetheless. If director Hitchcock had his way, the motel scenes, including this famous shower scene, would have played out quietly. 

An insistent musical composer won the fight, and his shrieking violins created a tonal masterpiece that the horror genre has looked up to ever since. The piercing sounds add more to the scene, bringing a certain level of tension and panic that wouldn’t have been adequately captured without the violins. 

What’s more, it enhances the chilling calmness that follows. The music grinds to a halt and the reality of death slowly seeps in for the character. We can feel the cold transition and the deafening significance of what has happened. 

What is a soundtrack? 

The term “soundtrack” is actually a combination of Latin and French words that loosely translate to “noise trace.” It was popularized in the early 20th century, referring to music that accompanied TV shows or films. 

Filmmakers choose a list of songs that they need for the movie. It is this collection of songs, including musical scores as well, that make up what the industry refers to as the soundtrack, or OST (original soundtrack). 

A musical composer and his team are usually responsible for its compilation. He selects an arrangement of music that gives the movie its feel, rhythm, and tone as needed across various moments. A film’s soundtrack may be sought from a pre-existing collection of known songs.

It’s also quite common for some of the songs to be recorded specially for the movie. Titanic, for instance, brought on Celine Dion to create its amazing and timeless musical theme “My Heart Will Go On.”  This is done to make the song specific to the storyline, in a way that builds up the emotional crescendo to boiling point and intimately connects better with the audience. When filmmakers or composers feel that no existing songs can quite capture what they’re looking for, they’ll resort to creating their own. 

What is a musical score?

Musical scores are individual pieces of original sound or music that accompany movie events, to reinforce what the audience is seeing on screen. They are mostly made by classical instruments or orchestral pieces. 

However, in recent times, electronic instruments may generate scores as well. A film composer usually writes the musical scores. He works under the director’s guidance in search of sounds and music that would complement scenes. The composer brings alive the director’s vision for certain story events through sound.

A musical score, in essence, is a sound or music created by the composer, and usually performed by an orchestra, or sometimes synthesized electronically. The score is not always a complete song but sometimes a recurring sound effect that builds an association with certain film elements over time. Other sobriquets for a musical score include background music and incidental music. The score may also be referred to sometimes as the underscore because of scenes where it plays under conversations between characters.

One famous example of the most iconic scores in film history would be the haunting tubas from Jaws. Composer John Williams managed to create a chilling theme for the movies, establishing a motif of danger and dread that contributed massively to the franchise’s success. 

When the tubas started playing, viewers knew straight away what was coming, even if the threat wasn’t visible. As was mostly the case for unsuspecting characters. The lines between musical scores and soundtracks, or rather songs in a soundtrack, can be blurry. 

However, the major point of distinction is usually the absence of lyrics on a score, which is more about the sounds than the music. We delve further into these and other differences below. 

What is the difference between a soundtrack and a musical score?

A couple of other things set apart the musical score and the soundtrack. For instance, musical scores are usually meant for the audience and not the character. Scores are always exclusive to viewers in that they can only be heard by them. They don’t exist in the fictional world of the characters. In other words, musical scores are non-diegetic. 

You know how sometimes characters hear and are influenced by songs in movies, and how these transcend into a beat for the viewers? That type of sound is called diegetic. It originates from the world of the characters. A soundtrack and the songs in it may sometimes be diegetic while a musical score never is. 

A good example would be the opening scene of Guardians of the Galaxy when Peter Quill grooves to Redbone’s “Come and get your love” on his Sony Walkman. That song would be part of the soundtrack. It is diegetic hence not a musical score, and for other reasons too.

Crucially, the musical score can be one of the elements of the soundtrack, which encompasses basically all the songs and sounds of a film. The score is only one of the components while the soundtrack refers to the entire assortment. 

A soundtrack may include foley (both natural or otherwise), sound effects, instrumentals, songs, and onset dialogue and overdubs. Musical scores, on the other hand, are only a part of that collection.

The other difference would be originality. Songs in a soundtrack are not always original. Most of the time, composers choose existing or pre-recorded songs from other bands, musicians, or artists for a film’s soundtrack. After obtaining legal permission, the composer and his team may revise the tunes or use them as is depending on the desired feel. A score transitions into a song that’s part of the soundtrack if it’s accompanied by lyrics. It ceases to be a score when words come into play. 

Why is music important to film?

Music offers many things to movies. It goes where words cannot, speaking when words fail. 

Music serves purposes that include enhancing storytelling and fostering an emotional connection with the audience. It’s another tool for the auteur to put a stamp on his or her movie.

Here’s a curation of what music does for film:

  • Emphasize movement
  • Time, culture, or location travel
  • Drive emotion or set the tone

Emphasizing movement

The use of music to illustrate movement in a movie is a technique known as “mickey-mousing.” It is a concept popularized by the similarly named cartoon, where character actions were accented by strategic sounds that set the stage for these actions. For instance, eyebrow raises were accompanied by a “ping” effect in rhythm with the movement. 

A light bulb moment was complemented by the sound effect and a character action that implies a new revelation. In movies with a much lighter tone, such as Jim Carrey’s The Mask, suspenseful musical notes aid the scene where he sneaks across the hall at night. That hilariously paves the way for the chaos that follows.

In the 2017 thriller Baby Driver, composer Steve Price and writer-director Edgar Wright agreed to go with the hit classic “Bellbottoms” for movement enhancement in the opening scene. 

A getaway driver listens to the tune while his colleagues rob a bank. The snare drums build as the car slithers out for an escape. As two other vehicles collide when the driver maneuvers and escapes an impending collision, the kick drum hits at the moment of impact to emphasize the bang. Strategically, the driver brakes as well when the “I’m gonna break” line in the song comes up. The music choreographs various other motions as well to thrilling effect.   

Time, culture, or location travel

How do you paint a picture of a character’s next destination in a movie via sound without offering some other exposition to let your audience in on the secret? 

You probably go for some heritage music. The sitar, for example, is tied with Hindustani music and has become an emblem of the culture. Sounds from the instrument instantly give viewers that exotic, yet very specific, hint that the film is associated with India in some way. Mariachi music, on the other hand, speaks of a Mexican vibe. In these examples, music enables the filmmaker to transplant us to locations and cultures of his choosing.  

The right music can also be a beacon for certain eras and sometimes even specific dates. Say your neighbor’s watching a movie. You can’t see what it is but you can hear some of the audio. Whitney Houston’s playing in the background, perhaps “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” 

That probably makes you believe that it’s an old movie. You instantly get that 80s feel coursing through your veins. Some baroque music alternatively would probably have you thinking about the 18th century. Music accents time periods during flashbacks or period pieces enabling the audience to deeply connect with that era. 

For example, viewers are taken through an assortment of 70s/80s music in the club scene in 2013’s crime-drama America Hustle. 

It plants the audience back in time to give the scene more compelling power and believability. 

Drive emotion or set the tone

Music influences how we feel. It can put us in a place of bliss or hit us over the head with sadness. A high note on a string often evokes the latter. In Avengers: Endgame, the musical score dubbed “The Real Hero” at Tony Stark’s funeral offers an example of how music can puppeteer emotion. 

The glass bowls and oboe, not forgetting the acoustic guitar, sets quite a somber mood. In the final scenes of E.T the Extra-Terrestrial, the gloomy score perfectly captures the hard goodbyes between an alien and his newfound human family.

On the positive side of things, music can also elevate a scene and give it that feel-good factor. When Jim Carrey puts on the mask for the first time in The Mask, the up-beat tuba and instrumentals indicate the happy-go-lucky personality we meet on the other side of the transformation. The once mundane character is changed into a witty, funny, and flamboyant person who derives pleasure from joking his way out of situations. The music changes with him, shifting the film’s tone, which has been rather subtle until that point. 

3 great composers of film

John Williams

Born in Queens in 1932 to a percussionist at a big NY studio, John Williams’ love for the orchestra and music, in general, started at an early age. He grew fond of the clarinet, trombone, and trumpet, and even mastered the piano and other instruments by the time he reached teenagehood. 

John Towner Williams is considered one of the most iconic film composers in the country and beyond, having scored upwards of a century of films including many big blockbusters. The award-winning music maestro has 5 Oscars among many other accolades to his name, stemming from more than 40 Oscar nominations over the years.

Forever the most recognizable music for a villain character (or anti-hero Anakin):

John Williams and Steven Spielberg were a match made in heaven. Their paths crossed after Spielberg initiated contact for his theatrical debut The Sugarland Express, wowed by William’s work in The Reivers. They have worked together for over four decades since as a genius scorer and a talented director combined to execute film masterpieces we remember fondly to this date. One of the most famous works from this iconic duo is the 1975 epic, Jaws

Williams created a shark motif that has persisted as a call to danger in many other movies since. Two low alternating tuba notes have become the go-to for threats, especially in aquatic movies. It’s now a popular cinematic alarm for ominous presences in the water and sometimes beyond.

Without John Williams, we would not have the exhilarating and catchy Star Wars theme we constantly hum along to in the shower or strum up incoherently on a home drum-cum-table. The galaxy far, far away may not have been very, very memorable for its opening score. Director J.J Adams gave a perfect assessment of Williams’ musical importance to Star Wars. He said that some people compose music, then there are those that write feelings. Williams is the latter. He has a unique talent for making the heart soar in the waves and delirium of music. 

Hans Zimmer

Hans Florian Zimmer was born in Germany on 12th September 1957. Zimmer was drawn to music via a home piano, choosing to self-teach himself as he wasn’t a big fan of formal classes. In pursuit of education, the German composer moved to London during his teenage years, where he humbly began his distinguished career in the United Kingdom. 

Zimmer in Intergalactic captures humanity’s search for meaning and place in the universe:

He started out playing for English bands in the 70s as a synthesizer and keyboardist. Stanley Myers, a prolific film composer, took note of Zimmer’s talent and partnered with him to co-found a recording studio. The company grew unique for harmonious blends of contemporary orchestral music and modern electronic sounds, which remains presently as Zimmer’s trademark style.

Rain Man would be Zimmer’s career turning point. The director stumbled onto the filmmaker in a feat of luck as his wife heard an old drama that Hans had composed music for and loved it. Barry Levison then handed him the scorer role for his film. A task he did splendidly, helping to the movie to four Academy Awards. Primarily using a Fairlight CMI, he synthesized the undertones, combining steel drums to offer a new perspective to road movies, which were usually associated with strings and jangly guitars. 

His score was nominated for an award. Although he did not win it, it was considered a huge achievement in the genre at the time.  Zimmer eventually went on to win two Grammys and a Golden Globe.

An Academy Award for Best Original Score is also in his collection after the 1994 success of The Lion King. The virtuoso has a number of prolific child films to his credit, but none quite reached the heights that this Disney coming-of-age masterpiece did. His Africanized musical scores fit in with the nature and the animals, adding emotional leverage to the vast green plains and the animal ties that flourished on it. His underscores provided the perfect backdrop for the soundtrack to flourish, most notably providing an excellent music canvas for Elton John’s “Can You Feel The Love Tonight.”

Zimmer said the movie touched quite close to home, with Mufasa’s death mirroring his father’s demise at an early age. Consequently, he went for a much more serious tone for some of the scores than you’d typically find in Disney movies. The talented composer reprised his role for the 2019 live-action adaption of the same movie. His sterling CV also encompasses Blade Runner 2049 and The Dark Knight

Basil Poledouris 

A Greek Orthodox heritage and Miklos Rozsa, a German-trained, Hungarian-American musical composer, are credited by the man himself as inspiration for his style and choice of career. A religious upbringing saw Basil fascinated by the church choir’s orchestra, shaping his journey into music. He was quite handy with the piano during this musically passionate childhood. Poledouris studied music and filmmaking at university level, trying his hand at the industry with a couple of short films in the process. 

This cult movie wouldn’t be the same without Basil Poledouris magic:

While at the University of Southern California, his paths crossed with directors Randal Kleiser and John Milius, who would later take him on for various scoring roles. The 75-year-old’s forceful orchestral techniques and close attention to detail propelled him to stardom. He may not be the most famous name in Hollywood, but Basil Poledouris is without a doubt one of the best composers of his time.  

Proof of that comes in the way of the incredible soundtrack for the 1982 adventure, Conan the Barbarian. Old friend Milius brought him on and he composed the entire soundtrack, which was originally meant to borrow from famous pop songs of the time. We’re extremely glad they didn’t otherwise we wouldn’t have the adventurous, lift-you-car inspirational prologue, Anvil of Crom. Poledouris studied the storyboard of Conan and came up with a soundtrack from scratch, guided by storyboards and the actions he envisioned from them.

He ensured each song matched the rhythm and tempo of the scenes to reflect the actors’ feelings onto the audience, performing numerous revisions during shooting.  

The Kansas-born composer is also fondly remembered as well for his musical contribution to RoboCop. To adequately capture the futurist theme of the man-versus-machine angle, Poledouris went with synthesized sound and orchestral accents. Introverted strings balance delicately with heavy brass to make music that would famously resonate with 80s generations everywhere. His scores fill the emotional voids making scenes powerful, making a cyborg seem more human than he was metal.

Basil sadly lost the battle with cancer and passed away on November 8, 2006, but his legacy and musical genius will forever live on in his many great works of film. Some of which include The Hunt for Red October and Starship Troopers. Basil Poledouris composed over 80 film scores during a highly successful career.  

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