When you see on-screen action (fighting, running etc…) the music tends to follow along in some way. It might hit some of the action or play along with some cool action music.
But when do you not follow the action?
I am currently scoring the feature film “Comforting Skin”, and there is a moment where a short fight occurs that did not need musical emphasis.
Without giving away too much, I can describe the scene this way: the protagonist has just revealed something important to her friend. This is a climactic moment in the film, an important part of the story’s arc, and the music is a part of it.
Then a secondary character attacks the friend from behind and a short and violent struggle ensues. (Only about 4 seconds of screen time.)
I initially tried music that followed along the short fight, a short burst of musical violence, but it was immediately clear that it didn’t work.
So I thought about it for a minute and asked myself some questions:
Q: This climactic moment is about who? What is important? What is this scene about? (All variations of the same question.)
A: The scene is about that climactic revelation between the two main characters who have the central relationship in the film. This moment is an important one in the arc of their relationship. It is not about that secondary character fighting.
Q: How does this fight relate to this moment?
A: It ties up that secondary character’s role in the story as she gets almost knocked unconscious, but does not affect the core of that scene.
With that in mind I wrote a cue which responded to the climactic reveal; light, ethereal, surreal music. And I played right through the short fight, completely ignoring it, and it worked wonderfully- because it made dramatic sense!
If music hit the action it would emphasize what was not important to that scene and would take away from the important story element.
So, what is the answer to: When should you not hit the action?
The answer is: When it is not driving the story.
In the DVD featurette about the music of Spider Man 1, Tobey McGuire says that Danny Elfman’s music is good because it is “not noticed” and that this is the best compliment you can give the composer of a film score.
I forget which great golden age composer it was who said something like “if music is not meant to be noticed, then why do we bother writing it?”
What I think Tobey meant was this; film music is great when it fits the film so perfectly that it feels completely natural.
This is a very important distinction.
When music is the perfect fit for a scene it becomes part of the whole film experience, which is there to support the story. Just like the sets, set dressing, costumes, lighting and acting.
None of these other elements “disappear” or are not “seen” by the audience. Actually if they are not seen or relegated too much to the background, then they cannot serve their purpose, which is to support the story!
The danger with Tobey’s statement is to think that a good score should not be noticed, and to take that at face value, which can negatively influence the presence of the score in the mix.
The bottom line is this; in order for film music to be effective and support the story, it should be noticed!!!