The Unseen Hero in Every Movie
What’s there but you’re not supposed to notice.
I watch a lot of movies. In fact, within the past 2 years, I’ve averaged over a film every four days, ranging from blockbusters such as Captain Marvel, to classics such as Laura, or Jaws. I’ve seen anything from thriller to rom-coms, from action to drama. I’ve seen terrible movies but mostly great ones, and with almost every movie that I’ve seen, and certainly every single modern-day production, there is one hidden hero. Music.
Music has been around since way before the beginning of film — even in the silent era, with the inception of film in 1895 when the Lumière brothers showed the first public film, a pianist was present to provide background music. Through the rest of the silent era, pianists and orchestras were present in theatres to accompany the film. Originally, they served two purposes: to cover up the noise of the loud motors that ran the film tapes, and to provide entertainment for audience members when film would jam. Music along with movies wasn’t really incorporated in association with the content of the film itself and because of this, the music experienced from theatre to theatre was different. In 1909, the Edison Company sent out cue sheets along with the film tapes as the first attempt to standardize the music played during the showing of film, and these sheets contained general scene-by-scene suggestions to fit the overall mood of what was happening on-screen.
In 1926, the movie Don Juan was released, using a system that the Warners Brothers invented, known as Vitaphone. These were special records that would be played and manually synchronized to the film being shown, and Don Juan was the first major movie that incorporated both music and film together, even though they were run on separate motors. The other technique of this era, which slowly overtook the Vitaphone system, was known as sound-on-film, where both audio and video were present together and run by the same motor — this allowed for better synchronization and over time, the quality improved.
Music was seen as essential to film from here on out, with notable film composer Max Steiner blazing the trail for writing music in film. However, within the approximate time period of 1929 to 1931, film music disappears from Hollywood — it was believed that background music would “confuse” the audience and take away from the suspension of disbelief. The suspension of disbelief can be thought of as an agreement between the viewer and the film producer, where the viewer willingly sets aside his/her critical and realistic world-based perspective on the film and instead buys the narrative that the film attempts to convey, regardless of how unrealistic it may seem. During this period, the only music present in films was when the source of the music was clearly seen in the film itself, such as a radio or a band playing, or in a scene where music was clearly heard by the characters. Enter Cimarron (1931), where Steiner brilliantly uses a scene containing a dance and transitions the music smoothly into background music. The head of production at the studio noticed and was impressed, giving Steiner more projects with the ability to place music wherever he wanted — this paved the way for Hollywood to become open to music in film once again.
Perhaps one of the most important works of early film to bring music into the light was with Cooper and Schoedsack’s King Kong (1933). Steiner was the one who scored the film, introducing the idea of themes for characters, known as leitmotifs. This was a technique borrowed from Viennese operas and the theme would undergo transformations as the character experienced different environments, emotions, and states of being. Steiner also transformed operatic conventions into film ones — he used large low brass instruments with a simple three-note theme to symbolize the simplistic, primal and brute nature of King Kong. These traditions have been present in the film industry ever since.
In 1968, a film that is widely recognized as one of the greatest and most influential pieces of popular media was released — Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. This three-hour sci-fi epic placed a major emphasis on music in film, with essentially no dialogue whenever music is present to emphasize the importance and the aesthetic effect that music adds onto the film. Using classic works ranging from Strauss to Ligeti, 2001 was designed with music at the forefront of the creation process — everything yields to the music, which carries the utmost importance.
1975’s Jaws saw similar importance placed on music. John Williams, carrying the traditions of Steiner decades later, uses a simple two-note low-tone leitmotif for the shark, giving an indication to the shark’s activity even when it is not seen. The pop scoring of 500 Days of Summer (2009) plays such an integral role in the narrative, with each song giving a particular indication as to the mood, emotion, or “temperature” of the scene being conveyed. It is without a doubt that music is recognized as one of the things that make film so great and captivating — but why?
The simple answer is that music plays with our emotion. It directs us how to feel toward a particular scene and sets the mood for what we see. When we think of what sort of music would accompany an epic battle sequence, we typically think of a loud, full orchestra, thundering drums, and aggressive, fast violin passages. When we think of a love scene, we imagine slow, beautiful swelling strings with a rounded feel. We have a general sense of how things should be and what sort of music pairs with what emotion.
The reason why music has an effect on our emotional state and how we interpret things is because of how it has been ingrained into human civilization through millennia. Through years and years of operatic traditions, stemming from the association of playing music along with emotionally stimulating visual storytelling through operas, human society has learned to associate specific sounds with certain emotions. In fact, a 2009 study published in Neuroscience Journals investigated the effect of listening to different pieces of music before looking at a series of faces carrying different expressions. The participants were then asked to rate the faces on a 7-point scale, from sad to happy, and it was noticed that after listening to typically “sad” music, they would rate neutral expression faces a lower score than had they not listened to sad music. The same result was found with traditionally “happy” music — the neutral faces were rated with relatively higher scores. This demonstrates a clear influence on the music we hear and the emotional perception of visual stimuli.
Why does this matter? Well, the music we hear in movies is what directions us to feel a certain way about a scene. It’s used to manipulate our interpretation of what we see and how we feel about it. Imagine this scene: a dark alleyway, with a woman walking through it, away from the camera. With tense, high strings and an eerie undertone, you might think she’s a psychopath or murderer. With a quieter score, perhaps a few notes played with low strings here and there and a tense atmosphere, it may lead you to believe that she’s about to be attacked. Music drives the thought process of the viewer and guides them to feel a certain way about the scene or leads them to expect a particular sequence of actions. It sets up a routine — this sound makes us feel a certain way and that sound makes us feel something else. Leitmotifs can do the exact same thing. In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho, the creepy character Norman is introduced with a simple two-semitone leitmotif, which is played in a variety of ranges. Later on in the movie, an unseen murderer kills a woman in the shower and although the viewer is unable to clearly see who the culprit is, a version of Norman’s two-note leitmotif plays. The audience is able to consciously deduce that the murder is Norman if they were paying attention to the music but even otherwise, the music sets them up for the moment of realization at the very end of the film when the murderer is revealed.
However, the very pattern of music leading us into expectation can be subverted, as John Williams does in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Every time the shark is present, it arrives with the now-famous “duh dun” theme. When there’s a fake shark attack, the theme simply isn’t present. This set up allowed the viewer to fall into a subconscious (or perhaps conscious) awareness of when the shark was going to attack. If there was the theme, then there was the shark…until the shark attacked without the theme playing beforehand. Subverting the viewer’s expectations was incredibly powerful in establishing a jump scare, taking the audience by surprise. The lack of music with this encounter of the shark takes place on the open water, the shark’s own territory. This is a clear example of the effectiveness of silence as well as music — to be able to balance the two and to play with both silence and sound is effective in manipulating the viewer’s experience to create the effect you want.
So the next time you watch a film, pay a little bit of attention to the soundtrack. Listen to the background music and how it’s making you feel. Listen to the patterns of playing — maybe the strings sound cold during a high tension scene, maybe during a romantic dinner there’s a full orchestra swelling with major tones. Listen to the music that follows each character, which might just give you an indication of what’s going to happen and giving you a jump on figuring out the plot twists. Or don’t. Simply watch the film the way you usually watch films and let the music carry you through naturally. After all, the music is designed to complement the visuals, not overtake them. It’s the hero that you’re not supposed to notice.
- Wood, Simon. “MUSIC 246 — Soundtracks: Music in Film,” University of Waterloo. Winter 2019
- Hickman, Roger. Reel Music: Exploring 100 Years of Film Music. W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.
- N. Logeswaran & J. Bhattacharya, Crossmodal transfer of emotion by music, Neuroscience Letters, Volume 455, Issue 2, 2009, Pages 129–133, ISSN 0304–3940, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neulet.2009.03.044.
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