The Role of the Score

Image courtesy of Peter Szustka

Music is an integral part of movies. As proof, the list of successful films without scores is quite short: Annie Hall, Catch 22, Network, The Birds, Dog Day Afternoon, and just a few others. Why? What is it about music that makes it so common in films?

Music provides several elements in a film that are difficult or impossible to achieve in other ways, and it is of tremendous importance in reinforcing other aspects and strengthening their impact. Here’s just a partial list of what music can add:

One of the most common uses of film music is to heighten or enhance the emotion of the onscreen action. Ideally, the actors will deliver much of the emotional impact of a scene, but the score can help the viewers connect more directly with the characters and their feelings.

Often, the music in a film will underscore the action onscreen, giving it vitality and energy. A good example is a chase scene. Here, music can provide drive and urgency and propel the action forward. Without it, the chase would be significantly less exciting. The score helps draws us in and make us feel more invested in the outcome.

Subtext is the unspoken thoughts and emotions of the characters onscreen. Quite common and easily achieved in literature, music is often the only way to realize this device in a film. If you are watching an otherwise mundane conversation but the music is full of anxiety and tension, the viewer will feel that there’s more going on than meets the eye. Perhaps one of the characters has malevolent intentions, or one character is suspicious of the other.

Time and Place
The score can help enhance or establish the time period and location of the film. For example, Renaissance music may imply Elizabethan England, or banjo music indicate the Appalachian South. Of course, the filmmaker will set the stage visually as well, but music can assist the images and in some cases, as in an opening credit sequence, establish period or location before we’ve seen a shot.

Music is great at creating mood and establishing atmosphere in a film. Horror movies are an excellent example—the creepy music at the opening of a horror movie sets us up for a spooky ride even though the first few scenes may be quite mundane. Likewise, stirring Americana at the opening of a Western prepares the viewer for the sweeping vistas and exciting adventure common to the genre.

Many film scores use themes to establish and enhance the main characters and ideas in a film. Star Wars, for example, has themes for Luke, Princess Leia, The Force, and in later films, Darth Vader and the Empire. These themes help the audience identify the characters and main elements in a film. Even when they are not onscreen, hearing a particular theme lets us know subconsciously that that character or thing is responsible for or affected by the current action. The “Ring” theme in the Lord of the Rings movies is an excellent example—the ring looms large over the entire story and the ring theme plays frequently in the films, even when the ring is not onscreen.

Music can also have more mundane roles in a film. Source music is music that is being played or performed onscreen by a band, one of the characters, on the radio, etc. Source music is often less tied to the emotion or subtext of a scene, but can fulfill those roles as well.

This is just a brief overview of the uses of music in film. I’ll expand on each of these aspects in upcoming posts. Stay tuned!

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