Because I’m a bit of a nerd about this stuff, here’s another interesting tidbit on the psychology of music, this time from none other than the New York Times. “Why Music Makes Our Brains Sing” focuses on why it is we humans love music so much and what exactly we get out of listening to it. Turns out it’s the same thing we get from food, sex and drugs: everyone’s favorite neurotransmitter, dopamine.
The interesting part is that we get rewarded not only for the emotional highs in a piece of music, but also when we anticipate them. This is why good music needs to strike a balance between predictable patterns and moments of surprise—when the listener correctly anticipates a climactic moment, their brain gives them a reward. But too many moments of predictability and the song becomes boring. Like a good story, there need to be some clever twists to throw the listener off and make them work a bit, and that gives you more pleasure when your predictions are correct.
There’s a lot of other research out there lately saying similar things, so this isn’t exactly new information. But like it or not, we as composers are in the reward business, so the more you understand how and why music affects us, the better you’ll be at affecting your listeners. If you’re interested in reading more about music and the brain, I highly recommend Daniel J. Levitin’s excellent book, This Is Your Brain on Music.
You may have seen this video already, as it’s been making the rounds on Facebook and YouTube in the last few days. It’s not specifically about film scoring, but it is an amazing look at the power of music. It’s part of the Music & Memory project, dedicated to improving the lives of the elderly and infirm through the use of personalized music and digital technology. Visit their site here.
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.
Here’s an interesting listen: Why Do We Love Sad Songs? was the topic on the radio show To the Best of Our Knowledge last Sunday. Up for discussion: Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the science behind the minor 3rd, a brief history of country music, and the melancholic sound of Bach’s Cello Suites.
It’s an interesting subject—sad music—especially for a music-psychology geek like myself. What is it about a particular piece of music that makes us feel down? Why is the minor 3rd interval so tied to sad music? And why do we crave depressing music? My friends would probably all describe me as a generally happy person, and yet I love a great sad song. Why?
There’s a good deal of compelling content here, of interest to musicians and non-musicians alike. For example, the minor 3rd is common in sad music, but it’s equally common in speech, especially when we’re feeling gloomy. And the discussion of Adagio for Strings is fascinating, describing the piece’s incredible popularity, and its ability to sustain a single, melancholy emotion for a full eight minutes.