Not just white noise: soundtracks and scores that elevate film


When we anticipate a fight, our minds play the western whistle. When we feel a terrible event approaching, we hear that low hum of da-dum da-dum. And when we imagine a scene of absolute terror, that infamous soul-scraping violin screech plays.

While these sounds stick with us, many of us do not know their origin and simply associate them with cliché movie scenes. Without Ennio Morricone’s composition of The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly theme, John Williams’ composition of the Jaws theme, or Bernard Herrmann’s composition of the Psycho score, our minds would play out these moments in a deafening silence. In other words, the music makes the scenes.

Philip Ball, author of The Music Instinct, says, “Our response to certain kinds of noise is something so profound… we can’t switch it off. Film composers know that.” Sounds and songs offer the audience a much more vivid experience than they would have without them.

In 2011, Canada’s McGill University studied music’s effects on the brain and discovered a link between brain activity and music–the same type of activity as with stimuli like food, sex, and drugs.

While music may seem like a tiny factor contributing to the mix of movies, by hearing the music, viewers feel the characters, colors, and plot rather than simply viewing them.  Musicians compose the score specifically for each film to set a specific tone. The score plays behind the scenes, creeping into viewers’ ears and steering them in the correct emotional direction.

Christopher Crespo, journalist for The Examiner, says that “film themes and scores have burrowed their way into the collective subconscious, but in a much more subtle and less obvious way. And many of the best film scores usually go unnoticed and unheralded, just another tool to bring a film to life. But when you really think about it, sometimes a film score is so much more than just a tool.”

Likewise, scores typically exist as the undercurrent taking us away in the storm. “Sometimes it’s an enhancement to the point of salvation – the right music can make a bad movie good and a good movie great. And sometimes the right score will change a movie to the point of subversion – just when the movie is going to zig, the music kicks in and it zags,” adds Crespo.

The score says almost as much about the movie as the plot. Because of its effects, creative directors put an immense amount of work into finding the perfect sound to get the correct tone across to their audience. This often involves bringing in other musicians to assist in setting the mood for the audience. Some directors crave a specific sound so much that they have one single artist or band compose the entire score, as opposed to many parties collaborating.

“Even popular musicians are getting in on the gig, as Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead composed the scores for PT Anderson’s last two movies (each of which were great) and Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails won an Oscar for his work on The Social Network. This art remains strong for a reason. The ability to get music custom made to fit a scene or character allows directors to get the exact effect they want when creating a film,” says Austin Wellens, journalist for University of Wisconsin’s The Daily Cardinal.

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