How Music Affects Films

Films aren’t just made by good actors and a well-written script alone. It’s made by its score, its music!

When you think of film scores, these 5 probably come to mind:

  1. Star Wars Main Theme — John Williams
  2. Interstellar Main Theme — Hanz Zimmer
  3. James Bond Theme — Monty Norman
  4. Titanic — James Horner

Even if you didn’t think of these specific scores, you are more likely than not, to at least know about these scores. But why? Where are they so memorable decades after being debuted in their respective films? The answer is easy.

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Setting the Mood and Eliciting Emotions

From the very first moments of a film, the power of music is apparent. It envelops the audience and sets the tone for the unfolding story.

Whether it’s the ominous melody of a thriller, the rousing score of an action-packed scene, or the poignant tunes of a heartwarming drama, music serves as the emotional compass of the film. It guides viewers through highs and lows, mirroring the characters’ emotions and effectively immersing the audience in the narrative.

Music’s ability to evoke emotions is unparalleled. A carefully crafted soundtrack can intensify joy, sorrow, fear, or hope, drawing the audience deeper into the film’s world. As viewers empathize with the characters’ experiences, the emotional connection fostered by the music amplifies their investment in the story, making the film a truly unforgettable experience.

Character Leitmotifs

The main theme of Star Wars invokes a feeling of wonder and adventure in a galaxy far, far away. The theme of Interstellar, coupled with the gorgeous scenes of Gargantua and the tesseract, makes you feel the raw brutality of what is the gorgeous expanse of space. The music is a tool to anchor the audience to the what the film is trying to portray.

Even character leitmotifs draw a clearer picture for the viewer of where the story is headed. Making you feel dread, happy, sad, etc.

A perfect example of an iconic character leitmotif is the main theme of Jaws. The theme focuses on the shark and is just two notes back and forth, over and over - It’s ominous but simple. Whenever these notes play in the film, we know the shark is nearby.

The anxiety of knowing that the great beast lurking beneath the depths keeps us on the edge of our seats. Gripping tightly onto our seats. It was crucial to the movie, because a large part of the film, the shark wasn’t even seen. So, John Williams uses his iconic theme to tell the audience that the great white is present, lurking and hunting for its next victim; further building the tension behind each escalating attack.

Story Through Music

Music just doesn’t elevate the consequence or focal point of a scene. It is used to tell the story, be it the overarching story of the film or a character story.

The movie UP is a perfect example of this. The emotional leitmotif is incredibly heartbreaking.

In the first 5 minutes of the film, it tells a story of Carl and Ellie through a montage of their life. By the end of the montage, the audience begins to associate the beautiful melody with Carl’s history of love with his wife Ellie. When the melody reemerges again throughout the film, the audience becomes more and more aware of Carl’s emotional state, his struggle and who he is as a person.

No words were spoken during the montage but the music itself told a heart wrenching story of love, dreams and the bittersweet pill that is life.

The theme remains the same but the tempo changes, the orchestral instruments disappear. From a waltz that represented their youth and dreams, the melody transforms into the slow and lonely tune of a piano. From that point, we start to see Carl’s emotional catharsis coming to forefront.

Michael Giacchino’s poignant score takes us on a heartrending journey of love, loss, and adventure with Carl Fredricksen. The music serves as the emotional anchor, enabling us to connect with Carl’s grief, joy, and determination, forging a lasting bond with the character.

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Conveying the Unspoken

In certain moments, film scores take on the role of unspoken dialogue, expressing emotions and intentions that may be challenging to convey through words alone like in UP.

For instance, in the horror genre, the eerie and suspenseful music warns us of impending danger and sends shivers down our spines, heightening the fear factor.

Consider the iconic theme of Halloween, composed by John Carpenter, which has become synonymous with the chilling presence of Michael Myers, invoking fear even without showing the villain on screen.

Most recently, the film Oppenheimer, has a musical piece called “Can You Hear the Music?”, composed by Ludwig Goransson. As the music builds from the slow tempo of violins of unknown potential and swells into this chaotic mixture of synth beats, horns and quickening violin strokes. We are taken into a journey through the chaos of Oppenheimer’s thoughts.

The music being coupled with beautiful glows of orange and blue. Atoms, fissions and close-ups Oppenheimer’s face, we see where he is. Where his thoughts lie, and the fear induced by it. No words, just music and a montage of shots depicting Oppenheimer and his mind.

At the end of the film, the score reemerges. However, it is different tonally. While similar in its melody, the sounds of the violins are dragged into an eerie motif. No longer at the foreground, the synth beats take over in a conquering fashion.

No more wonder, just an overwhelming evoking feeling of dread, regret and doom. As Oppenheimer realizes the chain reaction of his greatest achievement. Again, the whole scene is left unspoken. Instead, the audience is left with a doom filled musical piece accompanied with horrifying imagery of what the future may behold.

Enhancing Atmosphere and Immersion

The musical score of a film is crucial in dragging the audience into the depths of the world. It guides through a series of complex notes coupled with swaying orchestral pieces or through simple notes and motifs. Showing the audience what they’re in for.

However, if done incorrectly, it can very much throw the audience off completely from what the story intends.

In the enchanting world of Harry Potter, John Williams’ “Hedwig’s Theme” beautifully captures the magical essence of the wizarding realm, transporting viewers into the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Now imagine the intro theme to Star Wars being Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria”. It is hilarious to imagine, but it will undoubtedly throw the audience off the track. Instead of filling them with wonder and adventure of a galactic space opera, it’s instead filled with an odd sense of reverence and almost religious undertones. It just doesn’t fit.

Meanwhile, the thrilling and adventurous score of Indiana Jones composed by John Williams takes audiences on a rollercoaster ride of action and discovery, heightening the sense of adventure and adrenaline rush.

It’s Impact

Film scores stand as a testament to the incredible power of music to evoke emotions and enrich the cinematic experience. From the mesmerizing melodies that sweep us into fantastical worlds to the heart-wrenching compositions that leave us in tears, film scores have the ability to connect us deeply with the stories, characters, and moments portrayed on screen.

Music became an integral part of the storytelling process, heightening the emotional impact and guiding us through the intricate labyrinth of emotions depicted in the film.

The emotional resonance is a testament to the artistry of both composers and filmmakers. Their collaborative efforts give rise to transcendent moments, where music becomes the heart and soul of the film, guiding our emotions and leaving a lasting imprint on our memories.

Without these talented composers, the movies we all love today will lack the depth and emotional consequence that makes these movies so memorable to begin with.

To honour some of these amazing composers, here are 10 amazing musical pieces and composers for you to explore:

  1. Can You Hear the Music Ludwig Goransson
  2. Emma Rachel Portman
  3. Merry-Go-Round of Life Joe Hisaishi
  4. Latika’s ThemeAR Rahman
  5. From Russia with LoveJohn Barry
  6. Forrest Gump ThemeAlan Silvestri
  7. Tears in RainHanz Zimmer
  8. Mr. Fox in the FieldsAlexandre Desplat
  9. Schindler’s List ThemeJohn Williams
  10. The Godfather WaltzNino Rota