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!
You can learn a lot about the power of music in film by looking at the smallest, most seemingly inconsequential scenes in a film.
For my first Scene Analysis I will look at a short scene in E.T.
But before I begin, I would like you to read this fabulous quote from Hugo Friedhofer, golden age composer, taken from the book “Music Scoring for TV & Motion Pictures” by M. Skiles.
“The idea of a score, the way I look at it, is to point out or to make the audience aware of the things that can neither be photographed nor said — the interior motivation, in other words.
If the man runs, why is he running? Not the mere manifestation of speed.”
Now, here we go. I encourage you to pop in your E.T. DVD and watch it.
The short scene we’ll be looking begins at about 15:04, after E.T. goes running off through the garbage cans, leaving them to roll down the steps as Elliot looks on in wonder.
SCENE: Eliot is looking up at the steps drenched in red light, the door still swinging from E.T.’s hasty departure. His eyes are filled with a sense of wonder after his encounter with E.T.
MUSIC: The music comes in gently, the high strings playing a soft, dreamy chord. The music carries over the cut to the shot of Eliot getting on his bike.
NOTES: Elliot’s expression shows he is not scared, but curious, with a child’s sense of wonder. He is making the decision to go find E.T. and that takes us over the cut and into the next scene. The music links over the cut as well by starting on that look and leading to him on the bike. The music has a dreamy, floating quality that works perfectly well with Elliot’s intent.
SCENE: Eliot sits on his bike for a second then starts to slowly pedal away from his house.
MUSIC: Muted brass play an adventure-like theme, subdued but still with a sense of forward motion.
NOTES: This is the start of Elliot’s adventure! But all we see is him sitting on his bike, thinking for a moment then almost hesitantly leaving. Not very dynamic, but dramatically adequate. I suspect that Spielberg knew that these visuals would play with music that showed Elliot’s “interior motivation” as Hugo put it.
SCENE: Eliot goes down the hill, disappearing from view for a moment. This symbolic imagery shows his departure into the unknown, it is also his first time away from home in the film.
MUSIC: The music here becomes big, using thick and percussive string chords.This has a very decisive and serious feel to it, almost martial in character.
NOTE: This could be seen as a strange scoring choice from John Williams perhaps, but these are visuals that could easily be perceived as “a leisurely stroll on bike” then it’s easy to see how important the music is, but also we must consider that this particular shot, with Elliot disappearing down the hill, is really about him facing possible danger, then the musical choice here explains itself.
SCENE: Elliot going down a large, sandy hill.
MUSIC: The music returns here to the initial muted brass adventure theme.
NOTE: Not much to say here that has not been said.
15: 23 etc…
SCENE: Close UP of Elliot’s hand starting the spread the Reese’s Pieces.
MUSIC: One of E.T.s main musical themes comes in and carries us for the next little while.
NOTE: The shots of Elliot on his bike served as an introduction to this sequence, and the music also followed this structure, which is an important aspect of film scoring – to highlight form and structure.
When working with a composer, musical decisions like these come from a full understanding on the composer’s part of the director’s intent. If you watch these shots of Elliot on his bike without the music you will see it might not be readily apparent what the intent is.
Sure, upon further scrutiny it might become apparent, but deadlines do not always permit further scrutiny! So make sure that all these wonderfully insightful and creatively stimulating details are clear to the composer before he begins work. You can do that during the spotting session or with a morning phone call.