The Functions of Film Music
by Yair Oppenheim
One of the essential elements needed in the production of a film is the composition of film music. Unfortunately, the majority of people who frequently visit their local theater don’t know what a film score is, let alone what its functions are, which is strange, as a score is often noted by its strong definition of the film.
Concerning the effect of the film score on a film, Caryl Flinn writes:
Picture and track, to a certain degree, have a composition of their own but when combined they form a new entity. Thus the track becomes not only a harmonious complement but an integral inseperable part of the picture as well. Picture and track are so closely fused together that each one functions through the other. There is no separation of I see in the image and I hear on the track. Instead, there is the I feel, I experience, through the grand total of picture and track combined. (Flinn, 46)
The most common misconception concerning film scores is that they are songs used in a film. Such songs are really known as the film’s soundtrack, while the orchestral music composed or used in a film is a film score, whether it was originally composed for the film or used in another context previously. The focus of this paper will be on the film score, rather than the film soundtrack.
A film score can have a variety of functions in a film. The functions that a particular score will have in the film is dictated by the film’s director. A score can use one or sometimes all of those functions. (This can actually be done, since in a proper breakdown of scenes, every scene can technically be scored with a different function in mind.) These functions range from providing necessary music to the film (to be explained further in the paper), defining the ethnicity, location, and period of the film, paralleling the action of the film, commenting on the film and adding to scenes, providing emotional focus, and even having other functions outside of the film. All film scores provide their respective films with one of these functions; even the worst scores, since, though they do not perfectly support the film, they are still scored with the intention of providing at least one of those functions.
One of the most important functions of a score is to provide the film with necessary film music. The first kind of necessary film music is called “source music”, which is music that plays a key part in a scene of a film, usually being physically inserted into a scene, making the characters of the scene aware of it. The music can be heard or played by one of the characters.
George Burt, author of The Art of Film Music, sums up the idea of source music. He writes:
Source music is introduced into a scene either visually or by reference. We see a dance band playing in a dance hall, or we see (and hear) a radio or television. If a person is playing an instrument, singing, or whistling, we see and hear the performer. These sounds are visually initiated. In other instances, the source of the sound is not shown on screen. A disco system may not be seen, but we can expect to hear one. (Burt, 69-70)
A soundtrack consisting of various songs can assist in providing a simple form of source music, by the inclusion of random songs into the film at appropriate times, such as those mentioned in the quote. This process of inclusion can get more complex. A song can properly describe a scene with its lyrics. The most complex type of source music, though, is orchestral music that is composed for the film itself, and is many times an integral part of the story. An example in which source music can be essential can be found in the 1996 film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. In the film, Marianne Dashwood, has to play a piece of music on the piano, since in the film, her sister Elinor comments that it is her father’s favorite piece of music. What is she playing? Why, what composer Patrick Doyle composed for her, of course!
The highest form of complexity to be used by a film score is a score upon which the entire film is based. This is very rare, though. An example of this is the 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, scored by John Williams. Close Encounters of the Third Kind utilizes a musical motive more overtly in its plot. The five note code by which contact is made with the extraterrestrials constitutes the major theme of the film (Darby, 534). The music is the crux of the film, so without it the film cannot stand. In making contact with the aliens in the film, certain variations of the code are used to try to make a certain message. These variations were created by the composer, who used different orchestrations for the code. This use of different instruments, along with a change of octaves which altered the pitch of the notes, assisted in the creation of this musical code. Though it was only a five note motif, those notes had to be believable as a code, and it was the composer’s job to arrange the music accordingly.
Other forms of necessary music are the opening credits and character themes of a film. These pieces of music must parallel the action on the screen well, because those sections of film and music are to represent what the story is about and who the characters are. Star Wars (1977) obviously couldn’t use silence for its opening credits. It needed a grand opening title to match the large-sized introduction that glided across the screen, and needed to establish an atmosphere of adventure. This need for matching music with the visuals applies to the musical themes written for the characters as well. Not all films need them, but when the characters are true icons of good and evil, as they are in Star Wars, emphasis is necessary, as it presents another level of identification for those characters.
A function of scoring which provides a touch of realism for the action on the screen is the score’s identification of the ethnicity, location, and period of the situation or characters on the screen. The easy way out of this difficult task of matching a particular style is simply to take an existing piece of music that correctly represents or defines that period or location. This would properly solve all problems and the composer wouldn’t have to lift a finger. The opposite, and clearly more difficult case, would have the composer create original music that retain the style of those similar existing pieces of music. Composing original music that must adapt to a certain style requires learning or being trained in that particular style of music. This includes the use of proper instruments. One film that demonstrates this precise function of music is Braveheart (1995), a film about a Scottish freedom fighter, which was scored by James Horner, who used bagpipes correctly in order to clearly identify the location and ethnicity of the characters of the film. In The Age of Innocence (1993), Elmer Bernstein composed dances for a great ball, a scene essential to the film’s plot. The music reflected the time period, which was the late nineteenth century, and thus the style of the dances was appropriate.
One of the most common functions of a score is to parallel the action of the film, also known as underscoring. Instead of the composer taking the general route of composing a suite of music that would represent the mood of an entire scene, he/she would maintain a frame by frame musical match to the visuals. Not all current composers are well trained in music theory, so they take advantage of the fact that paralleling the visuals is a weak function in that musically, it gives the viewer what is already known by watching. Its only job is to tell a viewer what he already sees; development of commentary on the scene is unnecessary. The fact that a musical parallel is a weak function sometimes leads to the creation of a weak score. An example of underscoring and its flaws can be clearly understood with the example of The Rock, a 1996 typical action film that was so overly scored that scenes were musically indistinguishable from one another. Doug Adams, a writer for Film Score Monthly writes, concerning The Rock:
The Rock was like a 1980s action score on steroids. Everything was the Big Moment. The Rock’s score affected every scene this way. There was so much music-and such slushy, overly emotional music-that it eventually canceled itself out. Which scenes are really important to the plot? It should be obvious, but the music keeps telling us that everything is absolutely crucial. (Adams, p.15)
Since this film was scored only for the purpose of underscoring the action, there was nothing else for the composer to tell us about the film’s situations and characters, thus the score resolved itself by providing the same output for every scene. In this case, it didn’t work. It is literally impossible to distinguish the scenes of the story such as victory or death because all the scenes have been scored in the same bombastic manner.
Certain composers frequently go out of their way to underscore a scene meticulously, cue by cue. This often calls for quick, fluctuating rhythms that usually result in a tradeoff, in which case it is at the expense of the possible themes which could be included, as well as any type of structure within the pieces of music. The type of music through which this is accomplished is atonal, also known as twelve tone music. An example of this can be found in Jerry Goldsmith’s score to Planet of the Apes, concerning which, Mark Evans wrote:
Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Planet of the Apes (1968), notably avant-garde for Hollywood, consists entirely of sound effects produced by orchestral instruments, with no melodies in the traditional sense. Instead, the composer uses clusters of dissonant chords, complex nonmelodic rhythmic passages, and percussive atonality. (Evans, p.173)
Another way of underscoring is to simply include a character’s theme throughout a scene, which provides the simple underscoring function of showing who’s on the screen. There would be a particular melody composed that would represent and accompany the said character throughout the film, and would have necessary variations needed for the different scenes.
The most intelligent of functions for a score is that which comments on a scene, or provides that viewer with additional information or insight into the situation or characters. This reflects the composer’s intelligence as well as his comprehension of the scene. There are numerous ways in which this is accomplished. The first is through an overture. An overture, according to general music theory, is supposed to include all of the major themes of a piece of music. In the context of a film, the overture’s function does not change much. It provides a musical introduction and summary to a film, and is placed at the beginning of the film. If a snippet of a love theme is heard, for example, the viewer gains additional information about the plot, this specific case being that two of the characters fall in love. Some films which act as good examples for this idea are Much Ado About Nothing (1993), and Superman (1978). Both scores offer an overture at the start of the film, and include a march and a love theme, thus telling the viewer about the story. In Superman, the march included within the overture hints that Superman is the hero and will do battle with his enemies. In Much Ado About Nothing, the love theme in the overture alludes to the romance that Claudio and Hero will have. Both of the aforementioned films have a love theme in their overtures, and thus alert the viewer to upcoming plot changes. What would Jaws be like without its two note motif that acts as foreshadowing of the coming shark?
Another example of commentary through a score is the score’s ability to describe a location. This commentary is needed, since certain scenes, usually landscape shots, aren’t descriptive in terms of the story’s mood or plot, since, in those scenes, there are no characters present. An easy example is 1994’s Legends of the Fall, whose score was composed by James Horner. The opening scene in which there is a panning shot of the landscape clearly shows the location’s stunning beauty. Were it to be a silent shot, there could have been some doubt about the beauty, which would lead to a misinterpretation that the scene expressed loneliness. Thanks to the sweet melodies provided by the strings, the viewer can be sure that the scene represents beauty.
Another example can be found in The Phantom (1996):
One of my favorite musical moments in the film is a transition shot of 1930s New York which is scored with a lengthy burst of jungle-drum primitivism, clearly indicating that the urban landscape is the real jungle here. It’s amazing that this sort of commentary would make it into a simple adventure film. (Bond, p.22)
This type of commentary, without a doubt, proves that the musical score can be complex and intelligent, not just due to well thought out orchestrations, but through its social messages as well. Mark Evans writes about this similarly that “Composers place great value upon these opportunities to add an extra dimension to a scene. It is a challenge that is exclusively theirs” (Evans, p.221).
Character development can be shown not only on the screen, but through the music as well; it is another example of a score’s ability to comment on a film. In Star Wars (1977), John Williams scored the theme for Luke Skywalker, an inexperienced young adult, by using vigorous orchestrations (to reflect upon Luke’s youth) with particular emphasis on the strings to give the theme a sense of hope and innocence. By the film’s end, when Luke overcomes the odds against him and becomes the hero, his theme is orchestrated with trumpets and presented as a march. This expresses his maturity, newly found confidence, and strength. It was a clear that the score John Williams composed with conveyed this new dimension of development by correctly following the plot.
Another strong function of a film score is its ability to generate an emotional response from the viewer while he/she is watching a film. It assists in intensifying or relaxing the pace of the film. This is such a influential function, that some critics believe it to be the only one. These critics believe that the emotional response that a score generates from a viewer is also able to provide the film with other musical functions as well, since all music, whatever its other functions are, inherently presents emotion, because that is its nature. This view is acceptable, since many of the other functions, when used in the film, do indirectly produce a vast scale of emotion from the viewer. Earle Hagen comments on this idea, stating: “The sole purpose of it being there is that you feel the necessity of heightening the emotional stakes” (Hagen, 173). This is most effectively done through a variety of specific orchestrations. Strings emphasize romance and tragedy, brass instruments emphasize power and sorrow (when used in solos), and percussion heightens the suspense.
Film music has functions outside of the film as well. Scores are frequently created by composers in the form of concert suites, so that they can be listened to privately at home, or in a concert itself. Soundtracks, on the other hand, are a million dollar industry. Certain popular singers are hired for the specific purpose of writing “top of the chart hits” in order to make large album sales.
Film producers, though previously naive about the possible financial success of a soundtrack album were quick to catch on. Roy Prendergast illustrates this historical occurrence with a fine example: “The impact of the success of Tiomkin’s song to High Noon on a financially strapped film industry was immediate. Producers saw in the success of ‘Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling’ a means of making additional money from their films” (Prendergast, p.103).
Executives were soon pleased with the results of the following years, as the idea of a song for a film pleased music fans. One can easily understand the course this idea took, being that when a concept catches on with the public, it is always exploited by Hollywood executives. Roy Prendergast explains this Hollywood concept that “more is better” in the following paragraph:
Matters became worse in 1968 with the success of the film The Graduate, which contained a string of Simon and Garfunkel pop tunes. Now, it seemed, not one pop tune was enough; there must be a collection of pop tunes which, incidentally, create a nice record album. (Prendergast, 148)
The film score’s various functions in supporting a film do not necessarily save a bad film from harsh criticism regarding poor acting and a horrible script; they can’t. This fact establishes the fine line which separates a score from being an integral part of the film, or a supporting factor. Though it varies with each film, this idea shows that a score cannot quantitatively have the same influence on a film as other major factors of production can, such as an actor or a screenplay. A film score can be composed perfectly, since “form is dictated, more often than not, by the taste and musical imagination of a work’s creator” (Evans, 211). Nevertheless, the director often has the final say in how he wants the score to be done. This sometimes ruins a score. The right directors, those that have some musical background or at least a vision of some sort, can make a film score perform perfectly with its film, emotion and all.
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