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 room 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!)