Hearing is Believing: Score and Thematic Sound

In the second chapter of this three-part blog, we look at the impact score and thematic music has on film.

The Unsung Heroes of the Production Crew

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"Music by..." seems to be one of the most overlooked credits in movies today. We love our directors (as we should), we scrutinize who's hired as a writer on a particular film and we laud over the cinematographers who deliver the visuals of a film. But what about composers? These people are responsible for so much more than providing music for a film. They can mask audio imperfections, provide smoother transitions, change or enhance the tempo; but more importantly they can make a scene feel.

Think of your favorite music cue from any movie...What was it? Star WarsIndiana Jones? Titanic, maybe? Better question, did it also make you feel something? That's the power scores have in movies. They can take a serious of images and turn them into a moment in the film. Now think about your favorite emotional moment from any movie...is there score in it? I bet there is. Some scores have become synonymous with their movies because the pairing of that sound with the imagery has left an impact on us. If you were to hum "The Imperial March" from Empire Strikes Back, everyone in the room would know what movie you were referencing.

Just like our highly praised directors, writers, and cinematographers; film composers can put their stamp on a film with a touch of style. We get dramatic, almost fairytale-like music from Danny Elfman. Hans Zimmer has a tendency for epic, percussion-heavy sounds. And nobody can whisk you away to a new world quite like John Williams with his sweeping scores. The way music collaborates with images is reflective of the director's relationship with his or her composer. They both know what they want the audience to feel in the moment, so they must come together and decide how to draw out that emotion through sight and sound.

Modern film scores can elevate the experience, draw out raw emotion, and become forever stamped in our minds. But their origin was not to accompany a film, it was a mere distraction.

"Noise Cancelling" Technology is Born

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Back in the late 1800s, when motion pictures became a popular new form of entertainment, the theater owners had a huge problem on their hands; the noise created by the projectors showing the film. The sound coming from the projector was loud and disruptive enough to take one out the movie's experience. To combat this distraction, the owners replaced it with a louder but more pleasant distraction, a film score.

Film scores are defined as "original music written specifically for one film". At first, film scores were not tailored to the movies themselves. The theater owners instead had stock music for a specific tone to a film. A pleasant melody for feel good movies, a melancholy piece for dramatic films, and so on. In fact, some theater owners had live musicians perform the scores in-house with cues written on their sheet music. The instruments easily drowned out the noise of the projectors and moviegoers finally received the entertainment they paid for.

Filmmakers started to notice how the music lent itself to film so well they began to craft the first original scores to heighten the movie in ways dialogue couldn't at the time. The first film to incorporate a full length score was The Assassination of the Duke of Guise (1908) by Camille Saint-Saens. As has always been the case in this industry, other studios started to notice the trend and decided to create their own scores. Competition breeds innovation and stagnation demands evolution, film scores are not exceptions to this rule.

A Perpetual Evolution of Sound

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As with all aspects of film, once new ground is broken the scene is set for experimentation to discover what limits, if any, the new technology has to offer. In 1924, French composer Erik Satie created the first "frame-by-frame" score for the film Entr'acte that was completely synchronized to the film down to the 1/24th of a second. After the birth of talkies in 1923, films began to use scores less and less. Filmmakers wanted the sound to be focused on the dialogue and take advantage of the new soundscape. But in 1933, a film was released that changed the medium forever in so many ways, and that film was King Kong.

Forget the special effects, the narrative structure, and all of the other ways King Kong impacted movies. Those revolutions seem to overshadow Max Steiner's contribution to cinema; the first film score synchronized to the film's action. When the Skull Island native approaches the film crew, a low note is synced to his footsteps. A small moment that affected the industry in large ways. Some of the most memorable moments in film flow with their scores. The Shape stalking Laurie Strode in Halloween (1978), the leg braces bursting off in Forrest Gump (1994) and of course, the score for the impending shark attack in Jaws (1975).

Up until the 1950s, film scores were mostly composed of Western Classic music, symphonic and orchestral pieces written by composers. It was Elia Kazan who first decided to incorporate a jazz-like score for his films A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On the Waterfront (1954). This led to more experimentation with scoring films that would eventually give us Psycho (1960), arguably the most famous film score of all-time. Once composers saw what Bernard Hermann did in that film, the floodgates were open for limitless discoveries in scoring.

Easy Rider (1969) was the first movie to use previously released music in lieu of an original film score. This technique has become more frequently employed by filmmakers today. Like an original score, these music choices can make such an impact that they become associated with a film when heard like "Stuck in the Middle with You" for Reservoir Dogs (1992) or Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" for Say Anything...(1989). Movies like Baby Driver (2017) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) have become almost as famous for their soundtracks as the movies themselves.

From the synth orchestras of A Clockwork Orange (1971) to the African-rhythm inspired beats of Black Panther (2018), film composers are constantly working on new ways to impact the scene with music and draw out an emotion from the viewer.

The Final Effect

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In the beginning of this blog I mentioned how a score can make a scene feel. I could write on and on about the feelings that a score imprints on you as a viewer. Instead, I'll ask you to go back to that favorite emotional moment in film of yours from earlier. Watch it with the sound on and then watch it again muted. If you don't have your favorite moment queued up, here's mine below.

It makes quite a difference without the music, doesn't it? Take notice next time you watch an emotional moment in a movie. How does the score affect the scene? Does it heighten the emotion? Or does it underscore the tone of the scene? Is there no music at all and you're just in the raw moment? A lack of score can have just as big of an impact as a score can on a scene.

In my last blog about foley, I mentioned how the best work goes unnoticed. With score however, the best work stands out in the movie and is imprinted onto our minds. Say what you will about whether Police Academy (1984) still holds up as a movie today, that is still one of the best themes I have ever heard in a film. I have, like many others I found, a Spotify playlist that is completely dedicated to my favorite film scores. I listen to it every night when I sit down to write.

Directors, writers, and cinematographers have had their effect on style in my journey as an aspiring filmmaker. But composers inspire me to create. I hear that music and I'm taken back to that moment in the movie. I feel what I felt at that time. Movies aren't written around scores, scores are written around movies. Someone's words inspired that music and now that music inspires my words. All I can hope to do is to find the right words to inspire the right composer to pair their music with my visuals to create a moment.

I know I'm not saying anything original or unique when I say, "music makes a person feel something". However, I do think that there is something unique about film scores because the music not only brings out an emotion, it has an image to pair with it. Go back to that emotional moment in film one more time, what do you see? Better question, what do you feel?

Dennis StackComment