Why Music Can’t Fix a Flawed Film

Photo courtesy of J Boontje and sxc.hu

Great film music can do a lot of things, but one thing it can’t do is “fix” a broken film. Yet composers are often asked to do just that. I suppose it’s bound to happen—we’re typically one of the last people to touch the film. Sometimes a project’s problems don’t really come to light until the editing phase, and music is often the next stage in the assembly line. Money is tight at that point, and there aren’t many other options available. So the director hands his baby to the composer and says, “Is there anything you can do?”

When asked to repair a director’s terribly flawed film, Bernard Herrmann famously said, “I can dress the corpse, but I can’t bring it back to life.” Music, as wonderful as it is, can only do so much. It’s great at enhancing what’s already there. A great score works with great writing, acting and cinematography to intensify the audience’s experience and pull them into the drama. But if the movie is weak, the score may help distract from the badness at times, but that’s about it. Imagine a poorly-paced car chase that’s obviously happening at 20 miles per hour. Putting super-intense action music behind it isn’t going to make it seem that much faster, and in fact it may make the scene more ridiculous. Audiences are savvy, and if what they hear doesn’t match what they see, they’ll feel manipulated and may even turn against the film.

Another problem with using a score to fix a weak film is that there’s a tendency to fill the movie with music to mask all the mistakes. This additional music only dilutes and weakens the music that actually makes sense. Music, like anything else, has the most impact when it enters and when it goes away. If the music is continually starting and stopping (or worse, if it never stops and just keeps going), it’s effect is severely diminished. The audience grows accustomed to constantly hearing music and it ceases to be an important part of the drama and the fabric of the film. Like the hum of traffic on the freeway or the buzz of a refrigerator, we get used to persistent sounds and eventually tune them out.

In addition, music is problematic when it has no dramatic rationale. My film scoring teacher called it “dishwashing music.” If someone is washing dishes—no drama, just dishwashing—and you score it with “busy” music, the effect will be gratuitous and dated-sounding. Using music in this way was fairly common in the ’40s and ’50s, but is thankfully no longer in fashion. Music needs to make sense in the story. It’s presence must be justifiable. Great music can contribute so much emotion and energy to a film. Using it merely as a background texture wastes it’s impact and turns it into wallpaper.

But in spite of this power, the best that music can do is add the final 10 or 20 percent to a project. That 10 or 20 percent can be incredibly important and can really elevate a film, but there has to be drama there for the music to play off of. It’s sad that for numerous reasons some projects don’t achieve their full potential, but there is no magic tool to save a train wreck. Music is a crucial part of the moviegoing experience, but it can’t work miracles. Not even Bernard Herrmann could do that.


  1. Erik

    Ha! “dishwashing music”. That’s a good one. A technique akin to “Mickey Mousing”: providing a score hit to mimic every physical action of the character. I think it’s easy for filmmakers to get hypnotized by the camera because it’s something everyone secretly thinks they can understand and probably do fairly well, while music is mostly emotional and intangible unless there’s a musician on set, like in the silent days.