5 Approaches to a Film Score
Music is an incredibly powerful tool within film and media. It can add another dimension of emotion, meaning, and connection to the story if executed properly. Choosing the right type of music for each scene, character, etc. is most likely a challenge for all directors, however, when the visuals and score are effectively combined, they feed one another and build each other up, resulting in a beautiful project. This synergy, if you will, creates an enhanced human experience while the audience watches a world unfold before them on screen. That’s a lot of pressure for directors trying to decide on music for their projects. So below are 5 generalized approaches to a score and the possible psychological impact it can have on the audience.
#1. Go with it
This is a simple and effective approach. Akin to what Meg Ryan says in the adorable romantic comedy French Kiss, “happy - smile. Sad - frown. Use the corresponding face for the corresponding emotion.” Or in this case, use the corresponding music for the corresponding scene. When the tone of the score matches the visuals of the film, it reinforces that sentiment with the audience. Dead Poets Society and Under the Tuscan Sun are a good example of beautiful, supportive scores that match the tone of the visuals.
The score can take a back seat to the visuals, however, it’s important to realize when the score is not necessarily noticeable, it doesn’t mean the score is not impacting the overall experience. This is never more apparent than when you watch a film with music that just doesn’t go. Discordant music can completely take the audience out of the moment and suspend belief in the world the director tried to create. Now, as simple as that concept is, the director must consider this- what does happiness or sadness actually sound like?
#2. Go against it
‘Going against’ is like a serene song over a chaotic scene; like classical music playing over a violent car crash. This is otherwise known as soundtrack dissonance. A very prominent example of this is Clockwork Orange. Another good example is Good Morning, Vietnam playing “What a Wonderful World” over a montage of violence from the Vietnam war. Or even Lilu Dallas in The Fifth Element, fighting a pack of Mangalores with a beautiful alien opera singer intercut between fight scenes. Another approach could be a song that is purposely unfitting and clashes with the visuals. A great example of this from American Psycho, when Bateman hacks a guy up to the song “Hip to be Square.” Or Queen playing while Shaun and his buddies take on a hoard of zombies in Shaun of the Dead.
Either way, this method adds a mental interest; the contrast can signify the duality of a scene, amplify the drama or add a humorous touch by having the audio and visual not quite match up. Mentally what’s happening is the audience’s feeling of being embedded in the world with the characters is taken away and instead switched to the mentality of onlookers. While they are still engaged in the world and still relate to the characters, the subtle change can give them a chance to see things in a different way, find humor in violence, tap into their own empathy, etc. Meaning, while the audience can always think and feel what they think or feel, this technique offers them a reprieve from being informed and led by the visuals.
Jaws, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, Star Wars; you can probably hum the theme song to all of these films. John Williams is the master of composing iconic and memorable themes that transcend time. Gladiator, Inception, Interstellar, The Dark Knight; Hans Zimmer’s themes are perhaps less hummable but are immediately recognizable and stunning.
While the concept of a musical theme is straightforward enough, the application can be very involved. It is essential to have a question-answer or antecedent-consequent melody that can be built upon. Generally the more simplistic the more memorable; just look at Jaws. While there is absolutely more to that score than the ominous two notes, those two notes are what everyone remembers. Furthermore, the director must decide if the theme should be applied to certain characters, objects, emotional or metaphorical cues. Or if the theme is applied to the overall film, variations of the theme need to compliment the different visual scenes. This can be accomplished by a change in key, different instruments, only utilizing certain sections of the theme, etc.
If a theme is associated with a corresponding person or object, the repeated union can build up a subconscious interconnectedness. Star Wars was able to have a theme for almost everything, for the overall film, for certain characters, and film motifs. It can strengthen the emotional attachments or help make mental connections, so if the visuals don’t show something, the audience will think of it anyway because the music acts as a stand-in for that character or object. Just think of the theme song, otherwise known as leitmotif, for Darth Vader and the Empire. While it might be used as the ringtone for an in-law to denote dread, most people will immediately flicker to a memory of Vader’s dark figure walking the halls and that iconic helmet breathing heavy. That’s the power of nostalgia and effective theme songs.
Another possible effect of an overall theme is to make the audience feel like they know something. Humans are creatures of habit and take comfort in the known. Even with key changes, different instruments, different intensity or tempo changes, utilizing a familiar melody makes the audience feel a sense of comfort because they feel like they know and understand the theme. They can still be surprised by the visuals and not know the plot, but take comfort in knowing or anticipating the next notes of the score. This happens subconsciously and doesn’t detract from the film, it simply creates a pleasing continuity and deeper connection to the characters, ideals, and story overall.
#4. No Theme/Ambient Music
There are films that don’t really have a theme because they consist mainly of songs by other artists, songs frequently heard on the radio. However, in this case, no theme means ambient music. Meditative type music is excellent at enabling a person to reflect inward. Similarly, ambient music can often act as a mirror for the audience.
The Grey and The Revenant are gorgeous examples of this. There are twinkles of themes coming through, but they aren’t theme-driven like a John Williams’ score. Another example of a beautiful score that does not necessarily correlate to the visuals is The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The music, while stunning, seems to just drift along on its own, like a companion to the film.
Have you ever listened to a song and swelled with an emotion then listened again and it just wasn’t the same? Music has a transmutable power. When music doesn’t seem to have an intent or denote something specific, when it simply fills up the screen and the audience, it allows the individual’s mind to reflect inward. When in conjunction with a film, it allows the audience to feel like they are tapping into the characters and the world. Because the music is not informing the audience, it allows them to think for themselves, but because they are engrossed in the world on screen, they then apply those feelings back to the film. This can cause the audience to self-identify more with the characters because they think the character is thinking what they are thinking or feeling what they are feeling. Ambient music may not have this impact with the audience, but it shouldn’t detract from the visuals either, making it a great approach to add fullness to the audience's viewing experience.
#5. Diegetic and Non-Diegetic Music Comparison
Although Birdman uses clever applications of this technique throughout the film, this is more of a technique used to punctuate certain moments, not a driving style.
Diegetic sounds come from inside the world on screen. For example, a blender in the background of a cafe scene, phones ringing in the background of an office scene. Likewise, diegetic music is music that comes from within the film’s world. Non-diegetic music is from outside of the world, like the score. Although interwoven seamlessly, non-diegetic music has an omnipresent effect when compared to music from inside the film. A simple example of this is when a song playing as part of the score switches to an audio source within the film, like a car radio or a character’s headphones; and can sometimes be denoted with a shift in the quality of music. However, there can be much more subtle and ingenious ways to execute this technique.
The Truman Show is a character within a world within a world, and another audience inserted between Truman and us, the real audience; making the diegetic and non-diegetic musical classification like Inception. Music heard by the audience viewing Truman is still part of the film world, therefore diegetic, although it’s not part of Truman’s world, therefore it’s non-diegetic to his character. This added musical complexity really helps solidify the terrifying concept.
A hilarious example of this is from Blazing Saddles, as Bart rides across the landscape to a non-diegetic big band song, and then continues to ride right up to Count Basie and the musicians themselves; revealing the music as diegetic in a ridiculous way. When watching a film an individual can become enveloped, making it almost as if they have been transported into that world. Diegetic and non-diegetic comparison can momentarily snap the audience from that sense of being transported; it’s almost like breaking the 4th wall, only with music.
This can add humor by disrupting expectations, it can deepen immersion or effectively redirect the audience’s attention, humanize the character or further manipulate emotions, or remind the audience they are onlookers, so it needs to be done carefully. The juxtaposition adds auditory interest and if not meant to add humor is usually more effective if it goes from the non-diegetic to diegetic to non-diegetic, or from the score, the character’s music, and then back to the score. This way the audience gets sucked back into the world after the brief reminder that this music is the character’s reality and they are still the audience.
Scores can be true labors of love. They can take on a life of their own and breathe soul into a film, or they can distract the audience and detract from the film. The 5 generalized approaches in no way encapsulate all of the fantastic techniques and options a director can use when creating an auditory element for their film. However, it gives an idea of some of the more prevalent approaches and perhaps can inspire a unique take for an upcoming project.
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