The Underlying Power of Music in Film

Preface: written for a research paper course at Portland State University for Winter term 2014.

Walter Murch, one of the great film editors said “Despite all appearances, we do not see and hear a film, we see/hear it.” Audio and video are unified to create a film, yet spectators state that they are “watching” a movie rather than “listening” to one, or “seeing/hearing” a film. Focusing solely on our vision and disregarding our hearing allows audio to affect an audience in subtle and unconscious ways. Music within a film is able to sway an audience to cry, to feel hope, or to feel scared without the audience being aware of the affect. It can alter the mood within a scene, or indicated an experience to the audience. The “ba-dum, ba-dum” theme of Jaws (1975) creates a nervous tension even though the shark is rarely seen; there is an uneasiness set up by those two low notes and the unsuspecting nature of the shark. The combination of the audio and the video creates the feeling of fear and without one or the other those scenes in Jaws would feel lacking. Music within a film has the power not only to change an audience’s perception of a film’s content but gives substance to the emotions of a film that may not be recognized if an audience was relying purely on visual information.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries when film was being developed as a medium, sound for film was often provided by an accompanying musician (or group of musicians). Sound technology would not become prevalent until the 1920s. Not all films had sound produced by a band or musician before sound-on-film and sound-on-disc was invented, some films were purely silent. A spectator was more willing to accept a film as taking place in the “present” when accompanied with sound, as opposed to the static photographic character of a truly silent film (Larsen 190). Music was, and still is, a way of bridging the divide between reality and fiction for audiences. During the “silent film” era, music was used either as a way to link multiple shots together to form a cohesive sequence, or to reinforce the fictive time within a film. Kurt London wrote that good film music would remain “unnoticed”, not because it is unimportant, but because music is inattentively listened to – unless, of course, the music clashes with the image in which case the spectator would take notice (Larsen 191). Music has the ability to bind a film together; to link disjointed parts into a consistent and logical whole. As film continued to develop in the 20th century, the music evolved from popular songs accompanying a film (that shared a similar title) to music deliberately scored to complement a film.

Audiences are drawn to films; one reason perhaps is that films are comparable to dreams. We are suspending disbelief when we close our eyes at night and the same must be done with open eyes in order to become immersed into a film. “Dreams are sensory experiences: we dream in images and sounds. One major difference between films and dreams is that in dreams emotion comes with the territory…but in viewing a film the audience must bring emotion to the screen” (McGinn 106). Fischoff describes films not as dreams but as fantasies “and fantasies by definition defy logic and reality” (1). Like fantasies and dreams, films conspire with our imaginations while music incites and engages our minds through each and every path we are led down.

“Dreams, as everyone knows, are emotionally charged; they are also sensory in character – particularly, visual and auditory. But these two components of the dream are not independent of each other: they are fused together into a seamless whole. One might almost say that a dream image is a pictorial emotion – an emotion in sensory clothes. Nothing about the sensory content of a dream seems emotionally redundant, and each motion in it has a sensory expression. The dream images have clearly been designed to convey – better, embody – a specific emotion” (McGinn 103).

The role that the visual footage plays with the soundtrack is commensurate with dreams. The synchronous video and audio mimic the linked sensory components of our dreams and combined they suspend our waking thoughts for images on a screen and surround sound.

Music plays with our emotions, it works upon our unconscious minds, which Larsen states “is therefore heard with the greatest intensity, ‘because everything that is apprehended by the subconscious self is much more deeply impressed on a man than conscious experience’”(193). It also directs our attention to important elements. Alternatively, music can communicate to an audience what to feel and then compel the audience to feel that emotion. It can be very subtle; filling the silence with an underscore that goes unnoticed. Or it can be a powerful emotional tool; one that sways an entire audience to feel anxiousness then sorrow then jubilation. “… emotions experienced in response to fiction elicit facial expressions very close to those one might have outside the movie theater. In the movies and in life, sadness and sentiment may well lead to tears, joy and happiness to smiles, fear to tenseness and the characteristic pursed lip, and relief to an expulsion of air in the form of a sigh and relaxation” (Plantinga 62). Film music is versatile, lending itself to emotional rises and falls while at the same time weaving around them. The underscore might reveal familiar character traits while the emotional melodic rise divulges the character’s feelings and in turn this new information may influence how the audience feels about the character (Hoeckner 150). The music within films has been carefully designed to complement the narrative and the unconscious intake of emotional cues could be due to an understated or indistinct score. Plantinga states that:

“Our ability to exercise conscious, intentional control over our behavior and responses is limited. Much of our behavior and many responses occur as a result of unconscious mental processes. In other words, they are automatic and not mediated by deliberate consideration” (51).

A spectator’s reaction to a film is much like her reaction to real-life situations: automatic behavioral responses. An audience member that loses herself into the film’s story and feels empathy for the characters of that world may also feel a stronger connection to the emotions that arise. Aside from manipulating viewers’ emotions, music can augment or exaggerate the mood already present within a scene.

“Furthermore, since film genres have become associated with particular moods, music that activates genre schemata may predispose viewers toward certain affective meanings in the visuals they accompany. Romantic music may lead viewers to recognize affective qualities such as warmth, tenderness, or passion. Horror may elicit judgments of fear, terror, and anxiety, etc” (Fischoff 24).

Music is a malleable device that can evoke an assortment of emotions and reactions, as well as being able to signify a specific mood or emotion within a scene. It can create continuity from discontinuous shots or sequences. Music can also reveal or disguise information. It can be a supporting element, or it can carry the narrative.

Two minute trailers summarize the narrative of a film in an attempt to intrigue potential spectators; quotes are taken out of context and the flashiest shots are combined in an attempt to create a sensational-looking story. If the narrative is poorly constructed then the film cannot stand: the explosions, sex, and special FX are fantastical walls to a house with no foundation. “A well-made film succeeds in weaving together the affective and the sensory, so that every image on the screen evokes the emotion that fits the narrative” (McGinn 104). Music’s ability to move an audience, to influence the personal emotional responses towards a film makes it a highly beneficial filmic element. Not only does music assist in creating the mood or influencing spectators’ participation in the world of the film, but it also has multiple narrative functions. In addition to pursuing an emotive narrative, music promotes an informative, descriptive, guiding, and temporal narrative. These five narrative functions occur simultaneously however their level of importance fluctuates depending on which narrative function is most pertinent and appropriate with regards to the film (Wingstedt 205).

The level for descriptive narrative would peak when the music represents the image on screen. For example, in Jaws, the “ba-dum” leitmotif utilizes a low register which could represent both a large object (large objects produce deep bass tones) and the location deep under the surface of the ocean. The two notes rhythmically repeating could represent the shark’s tail moving from one side to the other (Wingstedt 199). The descriptive narrative describes musically what is seen (or not seen in Jaws). Narrative music is increasingly becoming a part of our daily musical experiences. As the influence of emotional music on an audience goes largely unnoticed, “…this kind of music tends to be transparent and is often processed by the audience on an unreflecting level, it seems to actively contribute to how we make meaning from a multi-modally told story” (Wingstedt 194).

In addition to establishing emotional tones, implying moods, reinforcing narrative unity, and providing a sense of narrative continuity, film music has a multitude of purposes. It can communicate the film setting, hint at characters’ psyches, and be used as a character signifier. Film music can describe the elements of a setting just by selecting or creating music that is appropriate to the era, location, social/political/cultural environment, atmosphere, climate, or even weather (Fischoff 23). A film set in modern-day Brazil will have a drastically different soundtrack than one set in18th century Ireland. In some films the music is used to highlight the psychological states of the characters. A person who suffers from paranoia may be accompanied by erratic and high-pitched music, while a sociopath may be accompanied by eerily calm classical music. In other films, characters are highlighted through the use of a leitmotif (a recurring musical theme) which is used for character identification as opposed to a character’s internal stasis. John Williams composed leitmotifs for Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, and Princess Leia in Star Wars (1977). The siblings have similar gentle leitmotifs while the evil father has a contrasting bold march. In addition to these film music functions, there are two views on how music should be viewed in a film. It can be considered as “a necessity: it counterbalances a lack in the film” or “a possibility, an aesthetic effort, an added bonus” (Larsen, 184). Music has the power to carry an audience from the beginning of a film to the end, or it can be used a creative accessory that spotlights specific parts of a film.

Film music shares audio with sound effects, dialogue and environment noise, just as video shares with graphics, special visual effects, and titles. While music has its effect primarily on the spectators, the other audio elements interact with the characters in a film.

“In the examples discussed so far the music is used non-diegetically. Thus, there is no narratively implied demand to account for its sound source. This is facilitated by music’s generally high degree of representational abstraction….Music’s seemingly endless ability to combine and blend with image and other forms of expression builds on its highly abstract affordances, which in film is also what allows for its high extent of non-diegetic usage. A relatively abstract level of expression makes more room for the listener’s creative meaning- making activity, providing a higher potential for narrative immersion….Source music will typically be used in similar ways as ambient sound effects, to contribute aural atmosphere or realism to a setting or situation in the story – such as a radio playing music in the background or a band playing dance-music at a party” (Wingstedt 206).

Diegetic sound occurs infrequently when it comes to music in films. Now and again a radio is “on” or a vinyl is placed on a record player, but for a large majority, the source of the music is rarely addressed leaving the music uncommonly easy to overlook. Larsen reflects that spectators are interpreting and assessing auditory and visual information; however when the music functions as a part of the narrative setting rather than the center of the narrative, the music fades from our focus (200). It is almost as if moviegoers view the film’s music as an unnecessary accessory when there is no device on the screen playing the music that we hear. In pushing the imperceptible music from the conscious mind, a spectator leaves the unconscious mind susceptible to the power of music.

Costabile and Terman were interested to discover what impact there would be on narrative persuasion if the music was altered from its original state for two drastically different short films. They conducted two experiments. In the first experiment the participants were divided into two groups. The first group watched the short film with its original soundtrack while the second group of participants watched the film with the soundtrack muted. The results were as Costabile and Terman had predicted; the participants that watched the film with the soundtrack had felt more favorable of the protagonist (317). In the second experiment the participants were divided into three groups and the film used had no soundtrack to begin with. The first group viewed the film in its original format (with dialogue). The second group watched the film with congruent music added, and the third group viewed the film with incongruent music. Again, as Costabile and Terman had predicted; the participants who felt a greater transportation into the film, as well as felt the highest favorability towards the protagonist were the participants that viewed the short film with congruent music. The participants that viewed the film in its original form felt more of a transportation into the film than the participants that viewed the film with incongruent music. The original film viewers also felt a high favorability towards the protagonist, however not as much as the first group (321). Film music that fits the mood of the narrative encouraged psychological transportation into the film; spectators were able to suspend their belief more readily when the music was congruent.

Hoeckner conducted a similar experiment but instead sought to demonstrate that the musical schemas from films influence a viewer’s opinion of a character and how confident that viewer felt about the character’s thoughts. He combined 38 clips of a character with a neutral reaction shot with different film music genres. Hoeckner observed that “mood music” was not used simply to depict the atmosphere of a scene or portray a character’s feelings, but also to make a spectator experience the atmosphere and feelings (150). There are a few film genres synonymous with a specific mood or tone which influence’s a viewer’s opinions of the characters and content.

Hoeckner, Costabile, and Terman conducted tests to demonstrate and discover just a few of the affects that film music has over an audience. All of the test results verified that film music, when it is congruent with the style and content of the narrative, improved the protagonist’s favorability with the audience and felt more of a psychological transportation into the film.

“Spectator responses to movements, sounds, colors, textures, and manifestations of space are in large part automatic and pre-reflective. The human brain did not evolve to interact with the visual media, or indeed with representations of any sort, but adapted itself to the more immediate environmental data to which we must daily respond for our survival and flourishing” (Plantinga 117).

The capacity for a human to stare at a screen that is flashing images made of lights, take in visual and auditory information while interpreting, comparing, assessing, understanding the content of the film, relating to it, and enjoying himself is rather impressive. The audience becomes unaware of the non-diegetic music rather quickly, focusing instead on what can be seen on the film screen. Non-diegetic film music, whether an audience is aware of it or not has more emotional impact, character information, and narrative direction in that one element than much of the rest of the film. The diegetic sound within a scene aids in perpetuating a “realistic” quality; the sound of feet walking on the floor, a phone ringing inside the house, the wind rustling the trees, without these natural sounds the film wouldn’t be believable.

Music has a plethora of functions and purposes within a film. Not only does music speak to the audience and influence their emotions, it reinforces the mood within a film, and it can direct attention within a scene. Music can describe, it can direct, and it can create a whole from fragments. Music is a language that can speak to anyone, and it does. The gradual upgrade to sound-film in the 1920s led to a medium that can create visual stories from not just our imaginations, but our dreams and our fantasies as well. And like our dreams and fantasies, film is a sensory-filled, emotionally-charged experience where belief can be suspended and a spectator can become immersed into another world, if only for a short time.

Annotated Bibliography

Barry, Ann Marie. Visual Intelligence: Perception, Image, and Manipulation in Visual Communication. Albany: State University of New York Press. 1997. Book.

Visual intelligence covers a wide array of topics but Barry has focused more on the subject with regards to our perception of images both static and moving, the power these images hold, and the different ways in which we see images (advertising, political, media and violence). Barry also discusses the logic and rhetoric of film as well as the effects of montage in film and the two primary montage styles: linkage and dialectical.

Costabile, Kristi A., and Amanda W. Terman. “Effects of Film Music on Psychological Transportation and Narrative Persuasion.” Taylor & Francis, 24 May 2013. Web. 27 Jan. 2014.

The authors of this article created two experiments in order to examine the effects of film music on narrative persuasion. The article has explained the experimental method, materials used, soundtrack, results and discussions, and the analyses of these experiments. To support its experimental data, the article also provides tables of the mean results.

Fischoff, Stuart. “The Evolution of Music in Film and Its Psychology Impact on Audiences.” California State University, 24 June 2005. Web. 27 Jan. 2014.

This article asks why there is music in film and what the rules of music for film are as well as attempts to answer these questions. Fischoff describes eight ways in which music is used in film, from building a sense of continuity to creating a mood. This article also briefly touches on music and memory and the history of music in film.

Gomery, Douglas. The Coming of Sound. New York: Routledge, 2005. Book.

This book revisits the history of early cinema and the silent film era. It discusses the business of sound with regards to the companies that were involved in its innovation, as well as the formation of the studio system.

Hoeckner, Berthold, et al. “Film Music Influences How Viewers Relate to Movie Characters”. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. 5:2 (2011): 146-153. OVID. Web. 27 Jan. 2014.

This article describes an experiment meant to determine how film music influences or contributes to the audience’s understanding of a movie character. Using undergraduate students and providing them with 38 clips from different films the test studied how changing the music in the clips made the audience perceive the emotion of the short scene.

Larsen, Peter. Film Music. London: Reaktion Books, 2007. Book.

Larsen has focused solely on the music in film, as the title suggests, from its beginning as a live band playing during a “silent” film to the fully sound film created in the 1920s with music and sound linked as one. The book examines the music from films including The Big Sleep (1946), North by Northwest (1959), and Star Wars (1977). The score, leitmotifs, and point of audition are described and discussed within the context of more popular films such as the ones above. There is a chapter devoted to the psychology of film music followed by a chapter on musical functions within a film.

McGinn, Colin. The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact. New York: Pantheon Books, 2005. Book.

This author has sought to find the reason/s for why movies are alluring to an audience and if it is directly related to our own dreaming minds. McGinn notes that film has a power over viewers both as individuals and as a collective audience. One of the seven chapters is devoted to examining our perception of visual information – how we see a moving image on a screen. The second half of this book delves into dreams, dream scenes, and what it takes to make a dream on film.

Mitry, Jean. The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema. Trans. Indiana University Press. 1997. Book.

This book, although published initially more than 50 years ago, what it discusses is still relevant with film today. Mitry begins with a chapter on film origins and film auteurs from the late 19th century. The book then discusses the structure of the film image from shots, angles, and depth-of-field to the structure and psychology of montage. The structure of drama, content, and form is also examined, as well as the importance of the subject matter.

Packer, Sharon. Movies and the Modern Psyche. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2007. Book.

Packer argues that cinema and psychoanalysis have grown up at the same time – the early 20th century. The first few chapters of the book discuss Freud, hypnosis, psychoanalysis, and dreams. The book then reveals differing film styles and their psychology-related subjects: thrillers combined with serial killer madness and westerns that have Freudian influences. The second half of the book considers alcohol, drugs, PTSD, and how the psyche can assume a physical form.

Plantinga, Carl. Moving Viewers: American Film and the Spectator’s Experience. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. Book.

This book details the effects of movies and their relationship to fantasies and dreams – that there are positive, negative, sympathetic, and apathetic reactions towards a film. This book also takes careful notice of an audience’s engagement with a character in a film and the effects of the engagement on their emotions. Moviegoers emotional experiences with a film are focused on with a chapter taken to discuss the hearing and seeing of a film – and how they combine to create a full experience.

Révész, Geza. Introduction to the Psychology of Music. Norman: The University of Oklahoma Press, 1954. Book.

This book discusses the relationship between the human perception of music and sound with the physical properties of hearing. It examines questions concerning musical talent, the elements of musical tone as well as the concept of creativity with regards to music.

Sonnenschein, David. Sound Design: The Expressive Power of Music, Voice, and Sound Effects in Cinema. Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions, 2001.

As the title suggests, this book is primarily about designing the sound for films. While it does emphasize on sound design as it relates to a script, this book also examines the components of creativity as well as how sound and image combine to create meaning. This book discusses the structure of music, sound perception, and the relationship between the human voice, narrative, and emotions.

Tan, Siu-Lan, Peter Pfordresher, and Rom Harré. Psychology of Music: From Sound to Significance. New York: Psychology Press, 2010.

This book is separated into four parts. Part I describes the acoustics of music, the difference parts of sound (timbre, pitch, duration, volume), and the auditory pathways of the brain. Part II discusses the perception of melodies, musical time, and the analysis of musical structure. Part III covers infant and child development with regards to music, the effects and approaches of practicing music, and the psychology of performing music. Part IV considers the meaning and significance of music relationships between audience and performers, how music and emotion are related (psychologically and physiologically) as well as the relationship between cultures and their music.

Wingstedt, Johnny, et al. “Narrative Music, Visuals and Meaning in Film.” Visual Communications 9:2 (2010): 193-208. SAGE. Web. 27 Jan. 2014.

This article looks at the functions of narrative music and how meaning is created by combining sound and image. The authors categorize narrative musical functions into six categories including emotive and temporal. Using the film Jaws (1975) as an example, the authors examine the dramatic underscore and the affects it has on an audience as well as what the tonal qualities used imply. From ideational to interpersonal aspects to textual aspects, the music in Jaws is dissected. It is also briefly discussed the differences between diegetic and non-diegetic music in a film.