As a film fan, chances are you've been asked about the moment you fell in love with cinema — that one pivotal scene that transported you to a galaxy far, far away, taught you about the circle of life or made you let you believe in witchcraft and wizardry. And while the process to fully convert you into an apostle of cinema most likely took a number of years, you can credit a particular sequence with the title of "life changing." I know I can: As a wide-eyed child, I sat in awe and amazement as Richard Attenborough welcomed me to Jurassic Park. As he spoke, John Williams's operatic masterpiece slowly built into a crescendo of wonder and beauty, and I was instantly whisked 65 million years into the past as I watched a herd of majestic, prehistoric creatures venture toward a watering hole — but what if that score never existed?
Remember that Jurassic Park scene I was telling you about? Well here it is, without music:
It goes without saying that it's pretty flat to say the least. Awkward, clumsy, gargantuan beasts wander around the plains looking for their next branch to feast on as Sam Neill fumbles around for something to say. Gone is the magic and wonder.
Since the very inception of cinema, there has been an accompanying score. Before Deadpool first swore, Arnie said "I'll be back," or Brando screamed for Stella, there was music. Live pianists would ornament films with accompanying scores, sometimes with sheet music, often by improvisation. Initially, these scores would be crude, yet effective. When a mustache-twirling villain stalked the screens, slow minor chords would ring throughout the theater, chase scenes would be accompanied with fast tempo notes, and so on. While scores may have become more complex now (thanks to multi-layering and technological advances), the nucleus of those live pianists is still at the core of cinema scores to this day.
Let The Music Play
Academy Award-winning composer, Aaron Copland is often sighted for his belief that music in film shouldn’t be noticed. Speaking with Soundtrack Magazine in November 2000, he said:
“I believe that it shouldn’t take up so much of your attention that you stop thinking about the film. It’s a high art, I think, to write a really effective film score that doesn’t get in the way and serves a fully emotional purpose. Very often I’d go to a movie in the old days with some friend and ask – 'well, what did you think of the music?' He’d reply, 'what music? Was there music going on?' That’s a compliment to the director because then the music didn’t get in their way.”
And while he’s undoubtedly correct in his analysis, it’s because of music's subconscious effect on the psyche that scores can often go unnoticed. Copland, of course, wasn’t negligent to this. In 1940 he wrote an essay in which he included what he thought to be the five most important uses of music in cinema. Below we will take an in-depth look at each, with some examples of how they come across on the big screen.
1. Creating A More Convincing Atmosphere Of Time And Place
Since the rise of the infamous Inception "braaam" from Hans Zimmer, this nuance has somewhat faded as many scores are now interchangeable. For example, a 1942 super solider in Captain America: The First Avenger will get comparable music to a Star Trek movie set in 2233. However, as seen in Tron: Legacy (2009), rich symphonic textures can often portray a sense of scenery and time, as Daft Punk exhibit in the scene above, giving "The Grid" an etherial otherworldly ambience.
2. Underlining Psychological Refinements
The psychology of cinema — subtle changes in what we see or hear on screen affecting us in different ways — is something that has always fascinated me. Music plays upon the emotions of the audience in a way that many other mediums cannot. Executed flawlessly by John Williams, with just two notes the entire landscape of cinema was changed forever. Now, every time we hear an E and an F note, our brain tells us the increase in tempo mimics the increase of psychological stress.
Another example is Bernard Herrmann's score in Psycho, which instantly strikes fear into all those who hear it. In fact, a 2010 study by the University of California concluded that the reason Hermann's score was so terrifying was that its stretched violins mimicked that of distressed animals, triggering a primal alarm in humans.
3. Serving As A King Of Neutral Background Filler
Believe it or not, some films have music no one is supposed to hear. This is the most ungrateful role a movie composer can ever undertake, but is nevertheless an important one. Although not technically a soundtrack, Paranormal Activity used filler to manipulate the audience using low frequency sound waves, extreme bass waves that have been known to cause anxiety and distress in some people. The 2002 French thriller Irréversible was also savvy to using this technique. Next time you give the two movies a watch, see how uneasy you get while very little is happening on screen.
4. Building A Sense Of Continuity
When it comes to gargantuan movie scores, look no further than Howard Shore in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. With the inclusion of so many different races intertwined throughout the 12-hour runtime, Shore created a sense of continuity by crafting a theme for each realm and race of Middle-Earth. From the thunderous battle drums of Mordor and the industrious theme of Isengard to the magisterial Rivendell or the placid country notes of the Shire, each time a new scene started the audience knew exactly were they where thanks to the ingenuity of the composer.
5. Underpinning The Theatrical Buildup Of A Scene And Rounding It Off With A Sense Of Finality
My personal favorite use of theatrical build is during the "Ride in the Sky" scene in Steven Spielberg's E.T. John Williams slowly builds the theme throughout a nail-biting chase sequence, as the kids face a blockade of police cars and officers. Williams's score takes a dramatic turn, creating an "all hope is lost" moment, only for the score to lift into a hopeful, heartwarming crescendo as Elliot, E.T and co. rise with the notes into the skies and away from danger.
Give Life Back To Music
Even the Simpsons kept the score when they parodied Psycho:
Scoring (or in some cases, not scoring) is crucial for establishing extra depth to motion pictures. In a society where our attention spans are largely condensing, scores are becoming increasingly important for audience retention rates, acting as flying carpets for audiences to be conveyed further into the world in which the movie is establishing. Film scores allow viewers to become more emotionally devoted, even if they don't realize it.
So next time you're watching a movie, pay special attention to the use of score. Not only will it make you see film in a different light, but it will give you a whole new appreciation for the magic of cinema.
What are your favorite cinema scores? Sound off below!
(Sources: Film Music, Aaron Copland)