The Influence of Film Music on an Audience

If music be the food of love, play on.” William Shakespeare opens his comedy Twelfth Night with this statement, spoken to musicians playing music on the stage. Since Shakespeare’s day, music has been an integral part of the way in which people live their lives. Music accompanies the best and worst experiences in life. This is why directors of theatrical productions since the time of Shakespeare have added music to their productions to enhance the audience’s enjoyment and understanding of their work.

“Music enriches a theater experience immeasurably,” says Dr. David Skeele, a theater professor at Slippery Rock University. Music is a very emotional device. On its own, it brings out feelings in people like no other device can. Dr. Skeele goes on to say that “it (music) signals to the audience that what they are watching is not real,” but at the same time involves them emotionally and helps them to relate better to what they are witness to. “It makes the audience feel more comfortable, because it makes them feel like they are watching a film.”

Since the development of the moving picture, the concept of “film” has been the trend in cultures all over the world. Not only used for entertainment, film has become one of the most highly acclaimed mediums in the art world, with many festivals held to award the best of them with medals, trophies, and critical acclaim. The Academy Awards, the Sundance Film Festival, and the Cannes Film Festivals are all world-renowned for rewarding the best directors, producers, actors, musicians, and technicians in the field of cinema. In the hearts of Americans especially, film has become the new theater experience. Originally used to cover up the sound of the projector and to compensate for the flatness of the screen itself, music has accompanied film since the medium originated. First employing live musicians, then switching to recorded sound, it provided a rhythmic beat to complement the rhythm of the editing on the screen (Gorbman, 53).

Music has a great influence on the way in which an audience responds to a film. The choice of music, or the complete lack of music greatly affects how an audience will feel about specific moments in the film. When a director wants an audience to cry, an upbeat song would not serve his or her purpose as well as a slow, tragic sounding dirge. This emotional manipulation may seem cruel to some, but others will realize it is a large part of the filmmaking process.

Music has thus played an important role in the world domination of film. Every film produced since the first silent picture has used music to underscore and enhance the messages and visual understanding the director wants to portray. Music provides continuity and emotional support for the images being depicted on the screen (Kolker 104). The music used varies depending on the film’s genre, mise-en-scene (the look of the film), character development, and director’s objective overall. Depending on these factors, the music can accentuate the audience’s reaction to the film in a number of ways. It can cause a strong man to cry, or an antagonized youth to feel accepted. The films we hold so close to our hearts would not seem as moving to us without the music that accompanies them. To make this clear, I will first outline the different ways in which music can be used in a film, exemplify how this music creates a specific emotional response, and give an in-depth look at a few films in each category as examples of this response.

The most obvious category for music in film is the idea of the movie musical, made especially famous by men and women like Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, who starred in one of the most influential of this type of film, Singin’ in the Rain. This type of film is often criticized because of its extreme detachment from reality, due to the “walk down the street and burst into song” feeling that comes with musicals. However, this type of film was extremely popular during the time it was made, because it allowed viewers to escape from the war driven society they saw around them. The film, with its campy dance, singing numbers, and slapstick humor removed the audience, for the two hours it lasted, from their immediate surroundings. Music occurring within the action of a film this way is called realistic music (Manvell and Huntley 40). In such films, this music is used to allow the viewer to escape from their ordinary lives and enter a fictitious world in which, for the majority of the time, songs, not dialogue, express the feelings and development of the characters as well as advances the plot. The careful articulation of music, song lyrics, gesture and pantomime, and dance and tap ensures the success of the film (Wollen 28).

A more current example of this type of music usage is the 2002 adaptation of Kander and Ebb’s musical Chicago, which won several Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The film opens by zooming in on a woman’s eye, while jazz music begins. The eyes leads into a jazz club, bringing the audience straight into 1920s Chicago, at the heart of prohibition and the speak-easy generation. This is the only song that takes place within the real-time action of the film. The rest of the musical numbers take place as though on a cabaret stage inside the imagination of the leading lady, Roxy Hart. Although the editing also plays a part in showing that what she is thinking and what is actually happening are two completely different worlds, the music makes this a tangible concept. Instead of showing a vague idea that what she sees is separate from what she experiences, the cabaret-style atmosphere and music solidify this fact. When her lawyer searches desperately for a way to talk her out of a situation they did not expect, an emcee announces in Roxy’s mind, “A tap dance.” The scene then cuts from the courtroom to tap dancing feet on a dance floor seamlessly, showing the audience what Roxy is seeing and what is really transpiring.

Another way directors use music as a tool to extract a response from the audience is to commission a composer to write a score, which is also known as mood music. The score for most films is not a part of the physical action of the film, known as non-realistic music (Manvell and Huntley 40). The characters do not sing, and they do not know that there is music playing behind them. Most directors use this music in key moments, such as during a character’s emotional peak or plummet, to signal danger or conflict in the plot, or any other moment in the action that the director feels requires a higher emotional reaction from their audience. Some directors choose to use sparse, minimalistic music in this sense, as Sam Raimi chose to do in the 1981 cult classic The Evil Dead. Other directors rely on heavy scoring to continually elicit emotion, such as George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg, who work with composer John Williams, whose music in itself is extremely descriptive. Listening to the soundtrack to Star Wars or Indiana Jones, one can almost see the action because of the detailed expressiveness of the music.

An example of this type of music use is seen in the Academy award winning French film, Le Fabuleux Destin d’ Amélie Poulain, known in the United States simply as Amélie. The music changes depending on the mood of the character. When the narrator explains a traumatic or exceptionally beautiful event, the underscoring is mainly just simple, beautiful melodies played on a piano. When an event is more driven, such as when Amélie is angered about something, traditional French folk sounding music, played on accordion, is used. The different instrumentation accentuates the feeling the director wants to give the audience during a particular moment, but it does not tell the story itself. It highlights the action without overpowering it.

A third way directors use music is to use rockor popular music from different artists, depending on the era and the target audience the director wants to reach. Films such as Empire Records and Clerks would not work as effectively on an audience who do not like popular music of the 1990s, just as films such as Dazed and Confused and Detroit Rock City would not be of any interest to an audience who has never heard or dislikes popular music from the 1970s. When this type of music is used, lyrics become as important as dialogue. A song that may not sound particularly profound on its own may find new listeners in an audience touched by its context in a film.

Such an idea is seen in the use of Leslie Gore’s You Don’t Own Me in the 1996 film The First Wives Club. On its own, this song only describes an abstract, the idea that some random boy does not own the female voice who sings the song. Once an audience has seen Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn, and Diane Keaton singing this song together after exacting revenge on their ex-husbands, it takes on an entirely new meaning, and creates a solidified idea of what the song means. This type of usage is where the idea of a soundtrack is most popular, because not only are they relevant to the film, but the songs are also a part of pop culture, and stand on their own.

The most subtle way of using music to manipulate an audience’s reaction is most expressly seen in films about war. War is a touchy subject for most people, and films about war elicit an emotional response without even being directed to do so. Because the content itself is so emotional, the music used in such films must be chosen extremely wisely to turn the initial, instinctive audience response into the specific response the director expects. “Music depends upon its ability to link itself effortlessly to emotional response,” says Robert Kolker, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Kolker 29). Music cannot describe a picture, but it often suggests an image. The music itself is not the image in musical form, but a poetic expression by the artist, using musical notation to convey his or her feelings about the image they choose to describe (Bazelon 75). Many directors do this by heavily scoring the film: light, happy music when the hero or “good side” is shown, swelling music when a soldier dies, dark tones when the specified enemy is shown on screen. This scoring is usually used when the director wants to depict a clear cut between good and evil; showing the good as triumphant and solely right, and the enemy as wholly evil. Films like this include Pearl Harbor, The Grand Illusion (French), and Saving Private Ryan.

Another way directors use music to present their stand on war is by using the music that topped the popular charts at the time of the war. This angle began mainly in the 60’s by American film directors, and is usually used in films against war, especially in films about the Vietnam War, because of the potency of the music of that era (Kolker 153). Some directors use both scoring and popular music to make their point, such as Barry Levinson’s Good Morning, Vietnam, and Robert Zimeckis’ Forrest Gump. In each of these, incidental music to express emotion is used alongside of rock and roll, sometimes within the actual action of the film.

Many war documentaries employ the same devices, but though they are depicting non-fiction, they still have an objective. We were taught in film school at Ithaca College that “there is no such thing as an objective documentary.” Every director sees events through his or her own ideals and prejudices, and therefore none of them can claim total objectivity. Many of these use scoring, popular music, or both to produce the right reaction. A documentary about the protests of the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle of 1999 opened with Rage Against the Machine’sGuerilla Radio,” obviously looking for an angry response from its young, liberal audience.

Stanley Kubrick chose a different route when he added music to one of the most well-known anti-war films in film history, Full Metal Jacket. There is no original scoring for this film, only popular music. The film opens with Johnny Wright’s Goodbye My Darling, Hello Vietnam, to show the attitude of the men going to boot camp to train for combat in Vietnam. The film ends with the soldiers singing the Mickey Mouse theme as they run from a decimated town in Vietnam; depicting their complete lack of emotion by the end of the conflict. The Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black solidifies this image as the credits flash across the screen, and the audience can’t help but wonder, if any of this was true, what was the war even fought for? This was Kubrick’s plan. His statement is anti-war, but his point was to make the audience see that even those pro-war were unsure of what actually happened.

This is the power of music in film. It makes a concrete emotion out of what might have been an abstract idea. People live their lives based on music. Couples claim “they’re playing our song,” based on the first song they hear when they are first together. Some teenagers refuse to listen to the music of their parents’ generation in fear of becoming like them, or listen to what the radio says they should so that they will be accepted. People of all ages use music to categorize themselves and feel they are a part of a group. Says Dr. Skeele, “The audience responds to the variety of things they have to respond to. Music becomes a main character.” Music is indeed the universal language, and when used in a film, it can evoke an emotional response to the film’s message that, without it, may have just been another picture flickering across a collective memory.

Work Cited

Bazelon, Irwin. Knowing the Score: Notes on Film Music. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1975.

Huntley, John, and Roger Manvell. The Technique of Film Music. New York: Hastings House, 1957.

Gorbman, Claudia. Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.

Kolker, Robert. Film, Form, and Culture. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1999.

Skeele, David. Personal Interview. 26 March 2003.

Wollen, Peter. Singin’ in the Rain. London: British Film Institute, 1992.

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