Incidental music is the subtle, when it’s done well, track in the background, behind the dialogue and sound effects in a television program, a radio show or, my primary focus here, a movie. Ideally it should barely be noticeable, punctuate important moments in the story, and provide a slight cue for the emotional reaction of the audience. Of the many ways that modern directors (or editors) ruin movies, overplaying incidental music is among the most obscene.
Incidental music is one of the clearest insights we have into what the makers of the film want us to think and feel in reaction to what's happening on the screen. Sometimes the director wants to feel something we don’t want to feel. Often when this happens, they'll turn up the volume on the strings in the background. Most often this happens at the end of the film, when the hero has done something allegedly noble and pseudo-wise, and the movie wants us to think: wow, what a stud, wouldn't it be nice if I was him.
Notice the incidental music! When you’re watching a lame movie, in particular look out for action films (especially summer blockbusters) and stupid comedies, take a moment to notice when the score decides to get loud, often when characters are hugging or kissing or looking deeply in one another's eyes, or shaking hands or acknowledging common ground, or cursing their fate or plummeting to their doom or leaving the burning building, or evacuating the leaky submarine or evading the approaching space armada or firing a black arrow at a dragon, or escaping Jason or escaping Freddie or escaping Pinhead or escaping Adam Sandler, or doing any one of those thousand movie things we're expected to consider to be kick-ass, or admirable, or funny, or tragic, or cruel. Here’s a hint! They aren't, always.
Don't think what you’re expected to think! Rebelling against incidental music is the first step towards becoming movie savvy. I've noticed that my own attitudes towards movies began to change around the time I started hearing the incidental music. Once you notice how badly they want you to weep, applaud, cringe, whatever, you'll start to lose your respect for bad cinema. You'll start to appreciate good cinema. You'll begin to see the difference between them.
Art should not act upon you, it should interact with you. Fight the music! It doesn’t work if you can hear it.