Using Music in Film

Films come in all forms and composing for the endless varieties can be quite challenging. But often the most challenging aspect is overcoming preconceptions about music before the composition even begins. Some directors have a clear idea as to what they are saying in the film, but no real concept as to what role the music should play. These directors tend to see their films as silent (in terms of music) and providing music in scenes that need it can be an endless struggle. Other directors have a preconception as to what the music should be (typically something they have heard on the radio) and expect composers to recreate the exact song (sometimes including the lyrics as well) as that’s what they’ve conceived for their piece. What strikes me as most odd is that none of the film schools (based on the students from these schools that I’ve worked with) seem to give any thought as to the role of music in film.

Music in a film can

    1. smooth out transitions
    2. intensify or clarify emotions
    3. prelude what is to come
    4. add or release tension
    5. extend the dialog with lyrics

When a scene has lots of shots, jumping from one view to another, the effect on the audience is jarring. Often times this jarring effect is desired. However, by putting music with the scene that doesn’t jump with the shot changes, a greater sense of flow can be achieved. The mind pulls the images together into thread, even if the images don’t have a great deal in common.
For example: if one shot is dark an in a warehouse and another shot is outside in bright daylight. The bouncing between these can seem disorienting, particularly if there is more than one location in or out of the warehouse. With music over this scene, the images are then perceived to be related and so the action is tied together.

The reverse is also possible. With one scene of a persons face, but taken from different angles, jarring music, shifting from one type to another (one serene, another agitated) can give the idea there are warring thoughts going on inside the character’s head, without any real change in the actors face.

Leitmotifs have been used since Wagner, and John Williams used them with great effect in Star Wars. Williams established the Vadar theme and even when Vadar was a young boy, the hint of the theme let us know what was to come. Sometimes we may not want to let the audience know what to expect or at other times (in say an Agatha Christy film) these illusions to what may be coming can be misleading and help to obfuscate the end.

Tension and release is one of the prime factors in music. Since the classical period and the establishment of the perfect cadence, music has all been about building tension and then releasing it. The same process can be brought to film, only with all the new ways music can build tension (and then let it go) the intricate interweaving of the music with the images can create waves of this process over and over again. Music is in large part why horror films work.

While some may argue that lyrics aren’t really music, I think most lyricist would disagree as good lyrics can make a song. Good lyrics can also add words to a film when the actors can not include them in the dialog. However, there are thousands of ways to say the same thing, so don’t get locked into one set of lyrics. If, when creating a film, you get set on one song because the lyrics are perfect and then you can get the rights to use that song, your film is in real trouble. If your film is a student project or low budget, using a hit song is financially impossible, so it’s best to look to your composer for alternatives. Your composer, like me, may not be the best lyricist, but they will know lyricists whom they work well with. I’m fortunate enough to be married to one.

So, for all those budding film makers out there, don’t forget the music. It can add a great deal to your film, highlighting what it is you want your film to say. In the same instance, don’t get locked into one piece as the only thing that works for your film. Your composer should be able to come up with a variety of ideas that can work. If you have music that you think works, great! That will help your composer sense what type of music you’re hoping to hear – but, if you then be flexible with what your composer responds with, you’ll end up with a better film.


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