The “Where the Hell is Matt 2008?” video is a great example of the impact of music on images and changes how we look at it.
In case you haven’t seen this, This video shows him dancing all over the world.
TURN OFF THE SOUND BEFORE YOU PRESS PLAY. Watch it for a bit.
Keep the sound off and imagine a gigue or whatever music you would imagine for a dancing elf. Or imagine a rock and roll song or any other kind of light, humorous and fun music.
Seen like that, it’s a funny video with a guy dancing badly while still having a definite “wow” factor because he is all over the globe. Nothing to get teary eyed about.
But now go ahead, turn on the music, and watch the video. The music brings out the subtext, that this video is not just about having fun, it brings people together from all over the world.
With the right music, it now becomes an inspirational video that can take your breath away. It makes us laugh, it makes us cry, it gives us hope of bringing our world together.
The power of music.
I have begun composing the score for a computer animated feature film. I have just completed the second week of work on it.
I will be keeping a weekly diary where I will keep track of all steps of the production, the good and the bad, giving a detailed look into what a composer goes through to get a score done.
See you there!
Structure is a crucial element of beauty, and film is no different. As I wrote in the previous post, a music cue can do more than just highlight action or represent the subtext; it can also play a large role in clarifying or even creating structure.
To that end, here are some questions to ask during the spotting session (or whenever you think of it!)
- What is the inciting event that motivates the action that follows.
- Where does the action proper start? (Note: The music could start on the inciting event, creating a sense of musical introduction, and the main melodic material arrive when the action truly starts. This creates a cohesive sense of structure.)
- Where does the scene end?
- What event signals the end of the scene or sequence?
- Are there multiple scenes that form a whole.
- Should the music play through the cuts and scenes?
- What cuts are structural.
Example: Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade: the boat race in Venice.
After facing rats and burning waters in the catacombs under the library, Doctor Jones and Elsa come out from a man-hole, surprising tourists. Indiana says “Ah, Venice.”
When the two come out, the music from the previous sequence ended, leaving room for this comedic moment. This musical break also serves as a structural point, separating the previous, more serious sequence from the following lighter action sequence; the boat chase in Venice.
Kazim and the Brothers come running out of the church and the music begins. This is the start of this scene, the inciting event that forces Indy and Elsa to start running.
The music is played as an introduction as they all race towards the boats. The melody itself only starts once everyone is in their boats, on the cut to Indy, Elsa and one of the Brothers hanging on to the back of the boat. This is the start of the action!
To find out how the ending music is structured, go watch Indian Jones and the Last Crusade and find out for yourself!
During the spotting session it is time to decide where music cues start and end. There are many reasons to bring in music, many points of entry.
From on “The Track: a guide to contemporary film scoring.” by Fred Karlin and Rayburn Wright.
In general, music starts most effectively at a moment of shifting emphasis. This might be expressed as
- A new emotional emphasis or subject in the dialogue.
- A new visual emphasis with the camera
- A camera move, which almost always is conceived for emphasis
- A new action, such as a car driving off, a person leaving the room, a cop ducking behind a barrier
- A reaction to something that has been said or has occurred.
So remember, the action or emphasis is a good place to start a cue, and this does not always coincide with a cut.
Let the drama, not the editing, be the motivation to start the music.
I was watching the original Star Wars yesterday and noticed a very interesting musical point of entry. (I was showing the film to a friend of my son’s, an 8 year old who has never seen Star Wars!)
When Luke walks off with C3-PO and the red droid, the red one blows up and R2-D2 takes its place. Light, bouncy music comes in when R2 rolls towards Luke and C3-PO.
The cue begins when the group is finally together, the music signaling the coming together of these three characters as an arrival point.
Furthermore, the music acts as a bookend to the scene. Music is a strong help in establishing structure in films, an important use often overlooked and not mentioned in the “On the Track” list above.
More on this next week.
From Claudia Gorbman’s “Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music”. 1987, Indiana University Press.
I. ‘Invisibility’: The technical apparatus of nondiegetic film music must not be visible.
II. ‘Inaudibility’: Music is not meant to be heard consciously. As such it should subordinate itself to dialogue, to visuals – i.e., to the primary vehicle of the narrative.
III. Signifier of emotion : Soundtrack music may set specific moods and emphasize particular emotions suggested in the narrative, but first and foremost is a signifier of emotion itself.
IV. Narrative cueing:
- Referential / narrative: music gives referential and narrative cues, e.g., indicating point of view, supplying formal demarcations, and establishing setting and characters.
- Connotative: music ‘interprets’ and ‘illustrates’ narrative events.
V. Continuity: music provides formal and rhythmic continuity – between shots, in transitions between scenes, by filling ‘gaps’.
VI. Unity: via repetition and variation of musical material and instrumentation, music aids in the construction of formal and narrative unity.
VII. A given score may violate any of the principles above, providing the violation is at the service ot the other principles.
One of the important uses of music in film is to provide tension and momentum.Â This is especially useful when the tension is in the subtext and not in the visuals or dialogue.
Jurrasic Park are a great example of this.
At 55:27 the character of Dennis Nedry begins the shutting down of the computer systems to allow him to steal the dinosaur embryos. This sequence is dramatically important, but the visuals are somewhat static and intercut with the characters of Alan Grant and Ian Malcolm humorously getting aquainted in the Jeep, oblivious to the danger ahead.
It’s all pretty quiet stuff which requires music to drive it along and give the right tone. The music is percussive, rhythmic and filled with tension, giving this sequence the necessary propulsion and the right sense of dread.
The Jeeps stop, the fences fail, Nedry escapes. It all is important to the plot but the dialogue and visuals are mostly static or slow with benign dialogue, so the music is important here and carries through it all. (This is not a failure on Spielberg’s part, but rather shows understanding of how to use music as part of the story telling.)
And then we cut to the goat at 1:00:21 and the music stops, leaving silence. We know the goat, it lets us know where we are and it also as a foreshadowing tool that lets us know something bad is going to happen. Music is not needed.
There is no music at all during the entire T-Rex attack.
Spielberg and Williams were smart to not put any music here. They knew that the audience was seeing something they had never seen before, a truly believable onscreen T-Rex. The shock of it was made even more intense by the relatively “empty” soundtrack, which must have bee especially powerful in a theater.
And there is context to consider as well. The shot of the goat which starts the T-Tex sequence was preceded by a long stretch of music. Silence makes a bigger impact when it is preceded by lots of sound.
After the T-Rex attack is done, we cut back to the control room with a slow zoom-in to dialogue about lines of code. Not the most exciting stuff. The tension here is in their obliviousness to what is happening outside, the subtext, so the music returns here to keep the tension and momentum going.
As a side note, when adding rhythmic music to a scene, it is always amazing to me how the music changes the tempo of a scene, making it seem to go by much faster.
Bottom line: Music is great at keeping tension and momentum going, especially when there is a subtext of tension that is not necessarily present on screen. Music is not always necessary when there is strong and dramatic on-screen action.
Actually, the insight comes from my four year old watching Scooby Doo, but first here’s the question.
How important is music to a film? How intrinsic is it to the experience you take home with you?
First, let me just say that I have never thought that music was as important to others as it was to me. I mean, I have loved film music since I was 4 and always paid attention to it, but others did not.Â I could not be objective about the subject.
So up until now, I always thought people didn’t pay much attention to the score, but then I started noticing how my two young boys responded to movies. You can learn a lot about the psychology of the audience by looking at how children react to things. Their responses are pure and untainted.
Here’s the story: I rented the movie “Scooby-Doo, Pirates ahoy!”, a direct to DVD release for my two sons, 8 and 4 years old. I didn’t expect much, but what the hell, for $1.24 I wasn’t losing much!
The animation was run of the mill, the standard for such films, the story was fine and worked well enough. But what most surprised me was the quality of the music.
From the start the instrumental melody of the main title sticks in your brain and sets up a great mood for the show. The songs are also very good (with a few exceptions.) My sons liked it right away and loved the music.
Now, here’s the kicker. This really surprised me and opened my eyes.
Lucas, who is four years old, started asking for the movie by singing the music. He wanted to see it again and he didn’t remember the name of it, so in order to ask me to buy it, he sang some of the music!
“Dad, buy me that movie … mmm …. I can’t remember the name … (starts to sing).”
Of course, my first response was “wow, that’s amazing! My son’s a genius!”
But after I got over my parental pride attack, I started to realize how important the music was to his experience in watching this film. How those melodies stayed with him and were part of his positive feelings for the film.
I thought about this for a while, about what this meant. I was reminded of films like “Laura”, “Doctor Zhivago”, “The Magnificent Seven”, “Lawrence of Arabia”, “Love Story”, “The Pink Panther”, “James Bond”, “Star Wars”, “Indiana Jones”, “Harry Potter” and all these great films with great melodies that stick with us, and I began to realize that, perhaps, these melodies were more important to everyone’s film going experience than I had first thought.
So, what conclusions can we reach from this? I am sure you can think of many. Here are some of mine.
People take home the melodies and it reminds them of the film the same way songs remind you of a person, an event or a place. It’s natural, human nature, make use of it.
A great melody that people like will make people like the film better. So do not be afraid of melody. too many film makers ask for “texture only, please”, afraid that a melody will detract from the actions or dialogue on screen. Trust me, it’s not true.
Memorable melodies are important! And trust me, writing a great tune like Mancini did and to do it on demand requires talent and training. Choose you composers wisely. Gear does not the composer make.
No temp tracks. Let the story, actingÂ and images inspire the music and don’t lock it into being an imitation of music from another film. This is your film, right? A temp track can hinder the music from finding its own voice, its own flow.
And my last thought: if a picture is worth a thousand words, then make it a moving image and add some music, and then words can’t describe it! That is the magic of film! So leave room for those moments.
So thank you Lucas and Scooby Doo for this little insight on the psychology of the audience.
There are three tools a filmmaker can use to engage his audience: Suspense, Mystery, and Dramatic Irony.
Suspense is where the audience knows as much information as the protagonist; mystery is where the audience knows less than the protagonist; and dramatic irony is where the audience knows more than the protagonist.
Foreshadowing in story and in the musical score is a part of dramatic irony, where the filmmaker privileges the audience.
Foreshadowing can be done with visual clues and hints in the story. It can also be done by simply telling the audience what is going to happen, like in “American Beauty”, where we know the main character is going to die but don’t know how and why. This deeply affects how we view the entire film.
Foreshadowing thus affects our perception, simple scenes are completely transformed. Because we know the Titanic is going to sink, James Cameron was able to have simple scenes of people walking on the deck of the doomed ship which would have normally been extremely boring, but because they are on the Titanic, it becomes a poignant scene.
Dramatic Irony was the favourite tool of the great Thriller/Suspense director Alfred Hitchcock. He knew that if you SAW a character place a bomb in the roomÂ it would be much more effective than not having the audience see it being placed because they would be on the edge of their seats waiting for it to go off.
Music works like all of those examples above: it can give you hints about what is going to happen but it can’t tell you exactly, making it the wonderful foreshadowing tool!
The musical score can only give the audience a sense that something will happen (good or bad) but cannot communicate what that will be, and this is a wonderful way to engage the audience.
The typical example of musical foreshadowing is the scary music before someone gets attacked. This is a simple device, but it works.
Why does it work? A scene with someone walking is boring and trite, making the scene appear like filler, but add a dash of eerie music and suddenly the audience gets involved, sit on the edge of their seats and primed for the upcoming surprise.
Jaws is the perfect example of this, of course. In Jaws, the clever two-note motif lets us know the shark is coming, even when we don’t see it, heightening the sense of dread. Spielberg and Williams never fool the audience however, they only present this music when the shark is actually coming. It never becomes a red herring.
But foreshadowing is not just for building suspense in scary movies, it can presage anything the film is about.
The big, sweeping main titles of “Laurence of Arabia” tell you that this will be an epic story. Similarly, the magical main titles of “A Night at the Museum” foreshadowed the magic to come, which carried us through the decidedly non-magical first act setting up the father’s motivations: his personal and financial problems.
Music can highlight foreshadowing elements on screen, both visual or story-based, making them more obvious and feel more important.
We could go on and on, so I’ll just close by saying that foreshadowing is an important storytelling device, and music is a natural for it. It can be brash and obvious and extremely subtle, it can be suspenseful or heroic, or anything the story is about. Using it wisely is part of creating a more cohesive, propulsive and engaging experience for your audience.
Perhaps musical foreshadowing should be part of screenwriting?
(Many thanks to director/writer Kevin Bottomley for proof-reading this article, the first two paragraphs and that bit about Hitchcock. Thanks Kevin!)