We see with our ears as much as we see with our eyes, and it’s true when we watch movies! Even during the silent movie era, music played an integral part in setting the mood, creating atmosphere, and telling the story. These functions of music are still as true today as it was then although the music itself has changed.
No wonder then that contemporary cinemas like Event Cinemas ensure that their sound systems are of the highest quality, a must for the films’ music to shine. Many of them even have seats that move in synchronization with the music onscreen, thus, the audiences’ experience is heightened.
Creating the Atmosphere
Music can set the film’s tone, a fact when it’s used in the opening sequence. The audience will know the level of drama and the genre from the opening music alone, as well as from the use of music in strategic parts. Think of Jaws and you will see how its music builds up the suspense of the killer shark devastating a seaside community.
Creating Plot Relationships
Richard Wagner used leitmotifs in his operas to great effect and it has been and continues to be used in film. Basically, certain characters and/or places have their thematic music that aids the audience in connecting certain plot relationships. For example, a villain may have a theme that, when used in strategic scenes of the film, provides us with a clear hint of his presence in it, even when he isn’t onscreen.
While leitmotifs are important in films, filmmakers are careful not to overuse it as it can be old-fashioned once it’s overdone.
Portraying the Emotions
Even with the best actors – Meryl Streep comes to mind – music is necessary to get the actors into their characters’ emotions. Our brain responds to the upbeat or sad emotions contained in a song or classic movement, and it’s a fact that many directors and actors use in their work.
Music is also used to evoke certain emotions in the audience. In Breathe, for example, the last scene depicted the Cavendish couple dancing to a romantic song about forever love with the setting sun as their backdrop – it’s as romantic as can be and shows the audience the depth of love the characters have for each other.
Music is also used to stimulate the audience’s basic, even primitive, emotions like fear and horror. It taps into the mind’s psychological response and stimulates the body’s physiological (i.e. physical) response. The result: The audience feels like they are in the movie itself and being in the situation where the characters find themselves in.
Music as a tool for psychological and physiological conditioning is more commonly used in horror and thriller films where the audience respond not only to the type of music used but changes in its volume, too. Shock effects are also used in scores, such as when the music builds up in volume as the monster approaches and then reaches its peak when it attacks.
You can’t help but be on the edge of your seat as the music builds up to its terrifying conclusion. This is also true when watching rom-coms, comedy and musical films, all of which use music in a quite different way. Instead of the obvious effect in horror and thriller movies, the directors go for subtle effects in getting the audience in the appropriate emotional direction.
Commenting on the Scene
In the early days of film, music was used primarily for commenting on the images seen onscreen. Music was used to state whether a scene was happy or sad, or a person was good or bad, or a situation was heroic or not – commenting, in other words.
But such function isn’t as widely used in contemporary movies as it was in the early days of film. This is because it can be an annoying redundancy in scenes where the dialogue, among other things, are already commenting on the scene. But in the hands of a masterful director, it can move the audience into the right emotions or frame of mind.
References to Time, Socio-cultural Aspects, and Geography
Music can be used effectively to make references to a cultural heritage of the characters, the geographical setting of a scene, and the time period in which the movie or scene takes place. For example, baroque music can be used to depict 18th century times while futuristic music can be used for sci-fi movies, as is the case for Space Odyssey.
Music can also be used to establish a location even when the details of said location aren’t flashed onscreen. For example, Irish music may be heard in the background so the audience knows that the scene may a street or village in Ireland.
So the next time you’re watching a movie, be sure to appreciate the music’s effects on your viewing experience as much as the visual images. You may even be intrigued about the music used in the movie and, thus, expand your repertoire.