Previously my boys and I counted how many times the themes appeared in the first act of the first Harry Potter film.
Yesterday, we did the same thing for Jurassic Park, but this time, we did it on a micro-scale: we counted how many times the main theme comes in during the helicopter’s flight over the island.
In the few minutes it takes for them to fly over the island, buckle their seat belts and descend, we hear the theme a total of…
…wait for it…
It starts off with the theme in full. Then comes the B section and then we get the theme again, five times separated by little interjections to follow the action and lead to the returns of the theme.
Five times in a few minutes.
This is how the professionals do it, folks. This is how the master of themes, John Williams does it. Pay attention.
One of the important uses of music in film is to provide tension and momentum. 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.