The Chemistry of Music and Film

Films come in many genres, ranging from major categories such as romance and horror, to subgenera such as historical and cult. Films speak a thousand pictures a minute, each worth a thousand words; behind them is music that is doing as much talking as its visual counterparts. Not only is music an effective way of communicating, but is also one of the most important mediums through which the degree of emotions is heightened. Sometimes, when the visuals fail to impress or influence the audience, cleverly-used music can push the same audience in the right direction. Coming together with simple motifs, music shapes the characters and paints the theme of the film, making it much more sophisticated than the same film without any music. The pace of the soundtrack is usually directly proportional to that of the film’s plot, thrill involving faster-paced music whereas, sadness involving slower, more evocative music. In the film industry, there are Academy Awards, more commonly known as the Oscars, that acknowledge excellence in cinematic achievements. The Oscar award for Music shows that music is considered to have an equal standing with the visual components. Though it cannot be proven which aspects of film, are more important than the next, music is a potent tool in establishing cinematic experiences. There is an irresistible immediacy that comes from the innate visceral power of music that audiences manage to tap into. Music has the ability to reach audiences in a way that visual components just cannot. It sets the atmosphere, intensity, and becomes the conduit of the conflict itself. From a psychological standpoint, the human psyche is invested and shifts throughout the emotions while the music accompanies the pictures, bewitching, hypnotizing the audience, making them feel more connected. All in all, music is a very special part of cinematography and its contributions should not be underestimated.

The two main functions of music in film are to push the emotional and atmospheric effects beyond the actors’ abilities, and to better depict the theme. Emotional, being that audiences can not only empathize, but also sympathize with the characters on screen. Empathy is when one identifies and understands another person’s situation and feelings perhaps due to similar events happening to oneself before. Sympathy, however, is one feeling of sorrow and pity for another’s situation, even though that specific plight does not necessarily have to befall upon oneself. In order for a film to be successful, the audience has to either empathize or sympathize with the characters. The atmosphere of a film sets the tone and intensity. The general rhythm and pace of the soundtrack foretells how a film will play out, pairing with the genre of the film. The music helps filmmakers establish the tempo, which is especially evident in films such as Schindler’s List, Taxi DriverPsycho and Jaws. To simplify this, horror films employ eerie-sounding music whilst action films tend to have a fast-paced soundtrack playing in the background. Lastly, the lyrics in some film songs tell the story, so that the audience can infer better.

Spielberg’s Schindler’s List remains a classic till this day for its touching portrayal of humanity, even in the darkest moments. Oskar Schindler, played by Liam Neeson, is a pragmatic businessman with desires to reap the fortunes of manufacturing for the Nazis during World War II. He hires over a thousand Jews in his factory in Krakow as a means to protect them from the SS persecutors. The song, titled “Schindler’s List”, is a well-known and emotionally entrancing melody. To form such a tragic piece, two elements combine to bring tears to its audience’s eyes. The song is a repetition of chords, repeating around five times but spreading out two downward intervals. While repetition provides the rhythm of the melody, the spread-out range of chords pulls at the heartstrings. A two bar difference between the chords gives a tense feel to it, known in the classical community as appoggiaturas, a powerful effector of emotional response. This makes the audience prone to whatever is shown on screen, and since Schindler’s List is a war film, the audience’s moral compass would rightly feel more sympathetic towards the cruelty shown towards the Jews. Music illicits emotions through various techniques, and appoggiaturas is one of them.

In Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro, is a Vietnam veteran who was discharged from service. He becomes a New York cabbie and drives around nightly, his only companion being insomnia and depression, along with the dream of cleansing the filthy streets of New York. Upon meeting Betsy, a campaigner, Travis becomes obsessed with the idea of saving the world, planning the assassination of a presidential candidate and rescuing a twelve year old prostitute named Iris. The abundant saxophones and jazzy ambience show off the cliche New York nightlife, giving audiences a sense of calmness. However, the passionate love music contradicts Travis’ lack of intimacy and failure to connect with other humans, making the nightly drives and the audiences themselves somber and weary. That continues until ominous drums and dark cymbal crashes, combined with the sight of illegal activities, perforate the ambience to remind the audiences why Travis thinks of New York as a filth-infested city that needs cleansing. His tolerance is tested to the limit as he tries to repress the urge to gun his way through the tumours, the music constantly changing between control and insanity. The saxophone represents hope, joy, and improved mental health, which is then replaced by the throbbing drumming and cymbals. The brass almost feels aggressive, a result of Travis’ constant aggravations, until the pitch escalation marks his plummet to uncontrollable “cleanses”. Music foretells a story through various instrumental touches.

Hitchcock’s Psycho features Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh, escaping as a fugitive following the theft of $40,000 from her employer. During her escape, fatigue overcomes her as she is forced to spend the night at Bates Motel, where she meets the charismatic Norman Bates. He tricks her into believing him to be of good will, but ends up stabbing her to death while she is in the shower, hence birthing the famous shower-kill scene. The shower scene in Psycho is a perfect example of the psychology of music and film. In this scene, Marion gets stabbed to death in the shower and this scene features one of the most effective film scores in history. The screeching sound of the violin mimics sounds humans biologically associate with stress and danger. The sound mimics the cry for help. Nonlinear alarm sounds give a set of emotional responses that instinctively unsettles human psyche. Hermann, the composer of Psycho’s soundtrack, purposefully constructed the film score to mimic these unsettling noises and the effect makes this scene significantly scarier. Hitchcock himself revealed that one third of the film’s success was not due to his own directorial genius, but thanks to Hermann’s bone-scratching music. To further prove the significance of music in this scene, watching Norman stab a screaming Marion without the music in the background would not cause as much alarm to audiences. Music takes advantage of human vulnerability to increase the magnitude of psychological effects on its audience.

In Jaws, a shark attack on the beach of Amity Island brings police officer Martin Brody to the beach. Financial reasons force the beach to remain open despite clear dangers so Brody, along with his partners, has to kill the shark. The anticipation of the danger is what makes each scene so frightening. The fact that humans know something bad is about to happen and the characters in the film do not, also known as dramatic irony, adds suspense to the scene. Audiences are warned of the dangers through the music score and have no choice but to watch the horror unfold. As the music slowly speeds up, so does the camera and audiences feel psychological terror from the disorder of the music and the anticipation of the inevitable danger. A particular scene that greatly stirs the audience is the shark attack on Brody. The beat of the music reflects the approaching danger coming Brody’s way. To build further tension, the music crescendos during the actual attack, then slows down when the shark leaves the scene, and also leaves the still-alive Brody. By now, audiences feel like they are part of the film and going through the same ordeal as Brody, only that they had dodged the shark attack. An abrupt change in pitch and the music reaching forte shatter both Brody and the audience’s temporary relief, injecting a stronger fear factor than the initial attack does.

Different films have different themes. Whatever it may be, these themes carry the central idea in the film, aided by its distinct soundtrack. Music helps by emphasizing the important moments in films. Filmmakers usually have the appropriate music playing in the background when something important is happening on screen to reverberate its significance. Though actors earn more accolades and recognition for their cinematic brilliance, music composers such as Clint Mansell and Hans Zimmer have revolutionized musical involvement. The cinematographies of Requiem For a DreamInterstellar and The Dark Knight were strong, but their respective soundtracks made them stronger.

Clint Mansell’s best work is arguably “Lux Aeterna” from Requiem For a Dream. An Aronofsky film, Requiem For a Dream deals with addiction, and the alienation of self-control. A clever script and brilliant acting from Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly, the urgency of need and the obsession of consumption take shape before the audiences’ eyes. Through drugs, each of the four main characters hopes to achieve something more. Sarah Goldfarb uses amphetamines to slim down her waist to achieve her desired looks, while her son Harry and his pal, Tyrone, attempt to build a career out of selling heroin. Harry’s girlfriend, Marion, builds her own career in fashion, before succumbing to the lure of addiction. Their endings are bleak; Sarah and Harry end up overdosing, leading to an electric shock therapy and limb amputation respectively, Tyrone is jailed after being caught selling heroin and Marion deteriorates to prostitution to fulfil her cravings. “Lux Aeterna” employs a through-composed style, continuous and non-repetitive. It is the opposite of the aforementioned appoggiaturas and sets a dark mood for the film’s plot. Unlike Schindler’s List, this style does not aim to evoke sympathy, but rather, to give the feeling of an inevitable dreadful ending. It is like a ticking bomb for the audience, knowing that the characters’ temporary joy will only end horribly. The music hints at the upcoming climax by increasing the volume. Heavy beats, choir vocals and snare drums are combined with the soft melody to show intensity and play up the impact of the climaxes. Mansell uses counterpoints throughout “Lux Aeterna”, where chords compliment each other despite being different in rhythm and contour.

Out of Cristopher Nolan’s numerous award-winning films, Nolan’s films Interstellar and The Dark Knight push the limits of what cinematic soundtracks can do. The soundtracks are epic and compliment both films. There is an ethereal connection between sound and story, till audiences find themselves snapping their fingers to the beat.

Interstellar tells the story of a futuristic Earth, rendered uninhabitable by crop shortage and dust sedimentation. Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey, creates a plan to transport Earth’s entire population to another habitable planet through a wormhole. The wormhole leads to a galaxy of planets, where the scientists of NASA and Cooper’s team work together to determine the most suitable planet. The gripping action sequences are perfectly paired with the piece “No Time For Caution” to highlight the tense scenes. Despite the involvement of NASA and scientific language in the film, Interstellar is more than just another science-fiction film. At its heart, Interstellar tells the story of a father and his daughter. Their specific theme song emphasizes that the film is more about familial love than it is scientific. There are many other contributing pieces such as the focus on the gorgeous complexity of the galaxy, which Zimmer separates from the action and love. Near the end of the film, a medley of all the previous pieces brings together the film by drawing emotional links between various events, character motivations and visual spectacles that might otherwise seem disconnected. Thus, the soundtrack for Interstellar communicates the emotional crux of the film.

The sequel to Batman BeginsThe Dark Knight continues Bruce Wayne’s crime-fighting path. Batman, played by Christian Bale, is able to keep control of the crime density in Gotham with the help of Harvey Dent and commissioner Jim Gordon. All is routine until a new criminal by the name of Joker, enters the crime world and descends the city into chaos, forcing Bruce Wayne to have to separate vigilantism from heroism. There is a theme and a theme song associated with each character in the film, but the two most prominent themes are shown through the two main villains, Joker and Two Face. Because of their distinct personalities, both the Joker and Two Face are given their own musical identity. Joker’s theme is harsh, erratic, and irksome. The handmade scratchings, wailings and razor blades shearing off the violin strings are meant to bother the audience. Just like Joker’s anarchy theme, there is neither a traceable beat nor a recognizable instrument playing. Once renowned as the white knight of Gotham, Harvey Dent falls prey to the Joker’s insanity and loses his own mind, becoming Two Face, a monster who gambles innocent lives using the sides of a coin. Like Joker’s theme, it is hard to comprehend, though there is a notable melody to it. Similar to Taxi Driver, it begins with a positive note, then the negative follows. Two Face’s theme mirrors his downfall, from the prince of Gotham to the very epitome of evil, reminding audiences of the duality lying within them.

La La Land is another film in a long line of musicals to enchant the box office. It revolves around two main characters, Sebastian and Mia, who come together in a clash of Los Angeleno dreams. Each with their own set of career aspirations, they engage in a heartwarming romance until reality forces them apart, but the journey to that end is definitely something worth reliving over and over. Mia is an aspiring actress who performs the choreographed Someone in the Crowd with her three friends during a night out. Stripping away the colourful cinematography and editing, there is an underlying theme for this vocal piece. The lyrics of the song convey the struggles Mia has to go through, by “making the right impression” because a certain someone in the crowd could be the one to take her all the way. This “someone” could be a casting agent or director, and nevertheless, this unknown person would be the stepping stone needed to launch Mia’s acting career. The song Start a Fire is different enough from the main thrust of the music to make it clear that Sebastian is being diverted from the path of his musical dream, yet sophisticated enough for him to feel it worth his time. It changes Sebastian and forces him to rethink his beliefs. Since the beginning of La La Land, Sebastian struggles to ensure that his music remains jazz at its purest form. It is stated throughout the first half of the film that Shane despises how jazz was evolving and losing its originality. This continues until Sebastian meets an old friend, Keith, and they start their own band. A noteworthy part of the song is when Keith sings about “not knowing”. It acts as the black swan of the film, to show the contrast between the two Sebastians, how he lost his track and is now “not knowing”. Someone in the Crowd and Start a Fire are but two of the songs in the powerful La La Land soundtrack, which blended well with the story.

Music is an important contributor in film. Its use spans across many different genres, doing especially well in the horror and psychological department. It improves many aspects in film, be it pushing the emotional boundaries of the picture, promoting the atmospheric influence on the audience and giving more thematic meaning to the film. Repetition tells the story of humanity and inevitability in Schindler’s List and Requiem For a Dream respectively. Psycho and Jaws take advantage of human vulnerability to musical influences, namely the high pitch stabbings and the approaching shark crescendos. Taxi Driver and The Dark Knight use highly dramatic theme songs for their characters to parallel their personalities. The Joker’s theme song is the most commendable, using erratic and harsh sounds to depict the Joker himself. Interstellar combines all the previous songs in the soundtrack to create a medley, linking all the previous events together to amp up the climax and ending. Finally, La La Land retells the story through the chorus so that the message is firmly imparted. The various musical techniques heighten the film’s effect on the audience, making them feel part of the film itself. There is no telling which component of film is more important, acting, plot, or music, though the noteworthiness of music is definitely not to be underestimated.

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