When Emmy Award winning composer and educator Richard Bellis talks about a common error of new composers, he cautions that they should not score their impression of a scene, as this is redundant. Rather, the music should say what the scene isn’t saying or cannot say. This impressionistic tendency is also something which inexperienced filmmakers request. If you have a sad scene, and you simply throw in sad music, or a funny scene and you have funny music aping the action, the result will often be very amateurish and unsophisticated, because the music is not fulfilling a necessary purpose. If music can be thought of as another character in a film, imagine an off-screen actor parroting the on-screen actor’s lines verbatim. What use is that? Does that further the objectives of the work?
Let’s go back, waaay back… ok, not that far…
One way to begin thinking about the sometimes complex and subtle function of film music is to consider it’s functional history. Again, I have to credit Bellis for this concise way of looking at it.
The first role of music was fairly utilitarian – to cover up the noise coming from the projector in the theater. Any music would do, and was performed by a pianist at the front of the theatre. It had no relation to the action on screen.
Once projector was moved to the booth, music started to be used in silent films to fill in for sound and dialogue, and began to relate to on-screen action, though most of the music was either standard classical repertoire or even improvised on the spot.
When the “talkies” arrived, music provided color and scope for black and white films. Once technicolor arrived, music stood in for all the sex and special effects that could not be shown, due to censorship or technical limitations.
Now that we can show sex scenes in living color while talking CGI dinosaurs stomp through the ruins of a city with no projector noise to ruin the fun, the role of music has become very subtle.
Play it against, Sam…
I like to think of music as being an emotional alchemical substance. It’s the medium that can translate emotion and also turn it to gold – something bigger than the mundane; profound and powerful. It can also be whispering the secret lives of the story and the characters.
I recently had a great conversation with a filmmaker after a panel on music in film. She wanted my advice on what kind of music to have to support a specific scene in her film. The character had just undergone a hugely traumatic incident, and suddenly runs out of the apartment and into the streets, as if to escape events, even life itself. She imagined a very powerful drumming, something huge and driving to underscore the events. I wondered if this was the best approach – wasn’t that simply a re-statement of what was already on-screen? I argued instead that the music should speak to what the audience cannot see or hear – that this is a very personal, emotional moment, but that to one person, it will feel like the biggest thing that has ever happened. The music might then, instead, be intimate and tragic. This would contrast against the violent physicality of running away, and connect the audience to the emotional story of what is happening.
I like this example because it shows how music can change the way a visceral scene is perceived by the audience by playing against the action, and getting to the ‘heart’ of the story.
Whatchoo talkin’ bout, Bruce Willis?
The question that is asked, in order to really understand the problem, is: “Who or what is the scene really about?”. Again, if music is another character in the film, then the spotting session is like a table read for the actors. You are finding the motivation. It’s thematic, story and character driven. In a chase scene, you don’t tell the actor “Ok, this is the chase, so act like you are being chased!”. No – the director and actor determine the reason they are running away and that’s what drives the action of the chase. Music does the same; while you see the actor running, the music (for example) might give the audience a look into their mind, motivation, emotions.
In the next installment, I’ll explore ‘the moment’ – when and how music can successfuly get in and out of a scene.