> Emotion and Film Scores > Background

Film Scores | Background

Music has been a part of film almost since the beginning of motion pictures. Music originally had a practical use: to keep the audience from talking and dull the sound of the noisy projector (Buchanan, 1974).

Martin Williams writes that even today, "[a]t the crudest level, one might say that the music is there simply to keep the audience from becoming distracted" (Williams, 1974).

Music is used in various ways in movies: as part of the story as in musicals, as background music within the story (for example, when a character turns on the radio), and as background music to which only the audience is privy. It is used in this way to complement cartoons, comedies, action-adventures, science-fiction, and drama.

Though the film score is intended to be subtle, it is far from inconsequential. Apparently, "parts of Alex North's music for A Streetcar Named Desire were attacked . . . as 'too suggestive'" (Embler, 1974). This paper focuses on the emotional effectiveness of the film score (the music to which only the audience is privy).

The following list contains assumptions made by most people inside and outside of the film industry regarding film scores:

  • Music adds to the emotional quality of the film. There is some empirical evidence to support this: fast and loud music arouses, slow and soft music calms. Motion and emotion are often entwined (Meyer, 1956).
  • Music, used skillfully, can cover up otherwise weak directing and/or cinematography.
  • The most effective scores are those which operate just below the consciousness of the moviegoer.
  • Many in the film industry, including the composers, feel that music offers a kind of sub-text; it serves as thought bubbles on screen. When stories are transferred from the page to the screen, inner thoughts and commentary are lost, a major reason why many people feel a film version of a story is far inferior to the book. This sort of commentary is somewhat replaced by the music.
  • Composers who write film music are craftsmen rather than artists (though "serious" composers such as Sergei Prokofiev and Aaron Copland have composed for films).
  • Some film historians consider film music to be a leftover remnant from the silent film era (rather like a vestigial organ).
  • Often what is true is not as important as what moviegoers think is true. Fred Karlin writes, in Listening to Movies, "We get a lot of our historical musical information from Hollywood. These conventions now sound authentic" (Karlin, 1994). For example, moviegoers have a schema about Asia and what Asian music should sound like. The composer will write more successfully if s/he chooses music that evokes Asia in the listeners' minds rather than authentic Asian music. In this way, false conceptions of cultures' music have been propagated over many decades and are now in the collective consciousness.
  • Music is generally thought of as a universal language.
  • Instrumental cliches are common in the industry. According to Kalinak, strings are thought to be the most expressive instrument because they are closest to the human voice in "range and tone" (Kalinak, 1992).
  • The eye is generally thought to be superior to the ear in our culture (Kalinak, 1992), though Aristotle and Theophrastus feel "'[h]earing is the sense that most deeply stirs our emotions'" (Kalinak, 1992) and Hermann Helmholtz thinks that aural art "'stands in a much closer connection with pure sensation than any of the other arts'" (Kalinak, 1992).
  • Counterpoint music, which "does not duplicate visual information" (Kalinak, 1992), is far superior to the "Mickey Mousing" technique, in which music duplicates the visual exactly, most often used with animation.
  • Film composers sometimes get typecast. It is no surprise that John Williams's themes to E.T., Star Wars, and Indiana Jones are difficult to hum in succession because they sound similar.
  • Some people love the score to a movie within the context of the movie, but if they hear it outside of the context of the movie, they do not like it.

Most of the research in the psychology of music has dealt with the perception and cognition of music. However, little has been done regarding the listeners' emotional response to music and even less has been done specifically concerning the emotional effectiveness of film scores.

Sweeping statements have been made and assumed by those writing about film music. Statements such as "we are more relaxed when we are not straining to comprehend through one sense alone" (Embler, 1974) are made with such ease that they appear to be factual.

But these statements are little more than opinions until one provides empirical support to back them up. It may be true that senses aid each other, but statements such as these cannot be made in a vacuum. References to studies would add to the credibility of those writing about film music.

A greater problem arises when two writers explicitly differ in opinion. According to William Wolf, "music was applied to drama to tell an audience how it should feel at any given crisis" (Wolf, 1974). By contrast, William Alwyn writes that music is "a vital part of the dramatic structure of the production and not an emotional prop filling the sound track with false stimulants" (Alwyn, 1957).

Since neither of these statements is supported by empirical evidence, what is the careful reader to believe? Whereas Wolf refers to a recording studio as an "emotion factory" (Wolf 1974), John Huntley and Roger Manvell explain that "there's always been some form of association between music and the presentation of drama" (Huntley, 1957).

Regardless of its effects, most people agree that music is a vital part of film. The importance of film music does not guarantee respect for its creation, as composers generally enter the film-making process late in the game. They are asked to add music after a film is shot, rather than being part of the entire creative process.

People walked out laughing upon initial screenings of The Lost Weekend. But, when the music was changed, it won best picture (Karlin, 1994). If filmmakers agree that music can potentially add so much to a film, would giving the composers more time to create add to the emotional effectiveness of the film?

If laboratory and field studies show that the emotional quality of a film is affected by the quality of the music, perhaps directors and producers will treat the film score aspect of the movie making process with more respect and seriousness.

>> next