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Why Is There Music In Film?

film music Dec 15, 2020

Music is a curious thing. Ask a million people what music means to them and you’ll probably get a million different answers. This is largely due to the fact that music subconsciously triggers our memory. Understanding how music relates to memory is crucial to understanding why filmmakers rely on music to help tell their story.

“There are different kinds of memory, including explicit and implicit memory. Explicit memory is a deliberate, conscious retrieval of the past, often posed by questions like: where was I that summer? Who was I travelling with? Implicit memory is more a reactive, unintentional form of memory.”

When someone hears a piece of music their memory is involuntarily triggered.

Think about that for a second.

Every audience member can have a different response, recall a different memory, to every piece of music they hear.

This idea alone will give you a sense of how powerful music is in film, and why it is so important to interpret the wishes of your director correctly. This is also why directors can get nervous working with composers. This is also why directors continually work with the same composers.

As you can imagine, everyone will have a different opinion about why music is in film. But it all comes down to the same idea: music in film is used to evoke an implicit, subconscious response in the viewer to support the story being told. What I’ve found is that if I want to trigger a specific emotion then I have to find a sound or register that is associated with the emotion I wish to evoke.

When you come right down to it… we are all animals and are susceptible to being controlled by conditioned responses. For example: if you hear a loud, sharp noise there is a good chance you’ll jump. If you hear a low, sustained, slow moving sound (think low cellos playing whole notes)) you might feel a little anxious. If those low tones have a rhythmic pulse (think Jaws) your anxiety will increase. When you match those sounds with an image the response is heightened. Or, if an inappropriate sonic convention is applied, the meaning of the scene can be changed. This can mean a drama can become a comedy. A comedy can become serious or scary and on and on . The thing is: every story or film is different which can make writing appropriate music a minefield with few markers to guide you. Knowing how to identify those markers will determine your success or failure as a film composer. Therefore, it is important to understand that there are two parts to film music. There is the intuitive, emotional reaction (right brain) and the analytical (left brain).

Never forget: music in film is a tool that is used to manipulate an audience’s emotional response.

The challenge for the film composer is to match the convention that evokes a specific emotional response or reaction with the specific need of the story.

Sign up for “Crib Notes”- a free resource and community for composers to learn more about film music, compositional techniques and more. Sign up here.

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