Imagine watching a scene where a man and a woman are having a conversation in a cafe. What are they talking about? What is going to happen next? Perhaps the man is attracted to the woman, and wants to ask for her number. Maybe the man is actually a secret spy and he is assigned to poison her with a drink. The only way for viewers to hypothesize what happens next is through the music present in the film. However, music was not always utilized in films to influence people’s mindsets. The concept of using music in films has advanced over time and now plays a big role in today’s media.
Music first made its appearance at the movie theaters because film producers believed music would set the mood, and provide comfort for viewers at theaters. Not only would it mask the sound of the early film projectors, but it would “softly rock the cradle in the darkness of the theatre through quiet interludes, violent action, or intimate moments.” Theaters believed the silence would be unbearable during a film, and decided to find something soothing that would replace the uncomfortable silence: music.
Musicians were sought out and hired specifically to play their famous compositions during the movie. Sometimes, complete orchestras would be invited to play live on the spot during movie screenings. Interpretations of the same film varied from city to city due to different musicians and different musical pieces played during the film. Famous theater musicians, such as Rosa Rio, would play the organ during films, usually without ever watching the film beforehand. In an appearance on NPR, Rosa Rio said, “Well, in the old days, I didn't have a chance to see it in advance. We had the new film; we ran it always on Monday mornings, generally a one o'clock show. And I faked it through. Then I would run out and get my music, or get ideas that I'd write down as I played. And then the next show, I did a good job.”
After watching the first show, Rio would come up with her own music score, and improve bit by bit after every show in an effort to synchronize with the scenarios in the movie. Eventually, music and film intertwined to the point where people felt an emptiness when the music was taken away. This was the turning point in which psychologists and musicians alike began to notice a direct correlation between music and visual images. Music was more than just a soothing feature; it was a powerful form of narration.
As the silent film era continued to progress and evolve into the sound era, music became mandatory as it effectively portrayed the characters’ personalities while also setting the mood for future scenes. Often times in films, different types of music are played while certain characters are performing some sort of action. The different types of music help the viewers to better understand every character’s personality in a film as well as why a character may be performing a certain action. For example, by playing lively music during a character’s entrance, it can well be assumed that the character may have a bubbly and upbeat personality.
Film score composer George Burt once wrote in his book that, “Film music can connect either with individual characters or with groups of people. In so doing, the music responds to the meanings behind various actions and interactions. On occasion, it is important for music to connect with meanings of a symbolic nature that transcend the surface meaning of dialogue and action.”
According to Burt, music is selected carefully and chosen in correspondence to the meaning behind why a character is acting a certain way or why a character is performing an action. This development in film music allows for viewers to clearly recognize a character’s personality and the reasoning behind a character’s specific actions. Aside from music acting as an accompaniment to every character’s roles, music also helps the audience understand more unrealistic concepts such as time travel and flashbacks between the past and the present.
Movies like "Interstellar" and "Cloud Atlas" make good use of music to add onto the dramatic effect of the situation. In "Interstellar," the movie takes place with the main character gaining the ability to transcend time and find another dimension in space. The dramatic usage of music adds onto the suspense and emotional distress that the audience may feel in response to the intense scenes throughout the movie. In "Cloud Atlas," the movie shifts between several time periods and several storylines. The use of music helps define every storyline and make it clear to the audience which storyline they are currently watching. With the support of a musical soundtrack, the film’s characters become much more familiar to the viewers and the film’s intense scenes have the ability to captivate the audience into the storyline.
As media changed over time to suit people’s tastes, psychologists began to delve more into studies about music and came to the conclusion that people felt a connection with music partially due to the process of association. People associate more negative music with negative scenarios such as murder or revenge, while they associate positive music with more cheerful scenarios such as weddings, parties, or romantic dates. Similarly, people also associate certain types of music with certain images. In the "Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film," film studies professor Barry Keith Grant commented:
"For example, brass instrumentation, because of its association with the military, is linked to heroism and became a staple of Hollywood scoring in historical epics, especially swash-bucklers. When John Williams (b. 1932) relies on the brasses in his score for Star Wars (1977) rather than electronic instrumentation or futuristic musical sounds, he underscores the heroic arc of the film and connects the narrative, not to the genre of science fiction, but to the great swashbucklers of the classical Hollywood era."
As Professor Grant says, when people think of a certain subject and associate a type of sound or musical tune with it, they will subconsciously think of it when they hear a similar tune. Similarly, John Williams relied on this method of association in order to create his musical score for "Star Wars," in which the main musical tunes feature brass instruments that emphasize more of a heroic feeling due to the viewer’s original association of brass music with the military.
On the other hand, producers sometimes like when viewers experience a more disturbing feeling while watching a certain scene in a film. For example, in the film "Citizen Kane,' Bernard Herrmann chose to pair the scene of a crumbling marriage, a catastrophic event, to that of a waltz, a mellow and lovely form of music. This unconventional pairing of a waltz with a crumbling marriage creates a dramatic emphasis of the scene in the movie. Researchers conducted studies on participants in order to determine how important music selection is and how it correlates with the interpretation of the film.
Bullerjahn and Güldenring, current professors in music and media psychology, conducted an experiment in 1994 in which they created an original ten minute film of different cuts between an elderly man taking the subway and a young couple having breakfast. They then found five different musical soundtracks that represented different film genres ranging from crime to romance. The participants who watched the film with the criminal soundtrack often foreshadowed that the elderly man might have been plotting for revenge or murder on the young couple. This study shows the eminent importance of a musical soundtrack in a film. With just one change in the music, a film can be interpreted in a whole new direction.
Throughout time, society's outlook on music has changed dramatically as music proved itself to be a prominent role in media. With every new melody comes a new association, and with every new musical score, another film becomes a new adventure to the audience. Music is an irreplaceable entity that is intertwined into every living moment. The dynamics of every soundtrack remind the audience of their own feelings and emotions as they watch a scene unfold on the screen, while the positive and negative vibes affect the audience's anticipation and predictions of the following scenes. By incorporating music into movies and television shows, the theater experience becomes a much more enjoyable and cherishable moment for everyone.