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The Use Of Music Within Film And its Effects Upon The Viewer

Copyright: Andrew Hussey

Long before the first public projection of silent movies in 1895, which saw pianists create a live score alongside moving pictures/ imagery with music has always played a vital role in society. In this short essay we will be examining the connection between music and film, more specifically, how the human mind associates music with imagery. We will begin by discussing a piece of film and the music used along side it and the psychological connections experienced. We will then explore the ways in which we interpret sound for visual memory with an in depth look at how the brain understands music; More over, why music has an ability to affect us emotionally. In Frank Darabont's adaptation of Stephen Kings novella ‘Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption’ (1982) there is a particularly poignant scene where wrongly convicted prisoner Andy Dufresne locks himself inside the prison wardens office Dufresne proceeds to play a piece of music over the prisons tannoy system, Mozart’s ‘Donato Di Stefano – Le Nozze Di Figaro’. As the music is heard echoing throughout the prison Dufresne sits back in the wardens chair. The other inmates stop what they are doing and look towards the direction of the music’s source, At this point the voice of the narrator is heard to say “I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don't want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I'd like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can't be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it” The narrator in this case is Dufresne’s friend in jail, a voice the viewer is already familiar with and has already created an emotional connection.

It is important for us to be aware that this scene wasn’t written into King’s original Novella, it was a creation of Darabont. The piece of music was specifically chosen for its ability to affect the viewer’s emotional state. But why this piece of music and what is it that creates an emotional response? It all comes down to the context in which we relate particular sounds to emotional responses. If the music were something else, 90s pop duo Alisha’s Attic for example, The music wouldn’t directly change the plot, the narrative of Red would still fit, so why wouldn’t it have the same effect? The repetitive drum lines and upbeat tempos of pop music are recognised by our brain as a generally happy sound and we have the appropriate emotional response to go with it, much like speech. If we heard a voice speaking to us in an angry tone, even in a foreign language, our brain recognises it as a bad thing and emotions kick in; Put that with hand gestures and expressions on that persons face we know through experience that we have done something wrong. In choosing this particular piece of music Darabont has shown a conscious understanding of the effect music has on human emotion. In this instance, the director had to find a pre-existing piece of classical music that would work in harmony with the scene and use it to trigger the desired response. By bringing all these elements together (the plotline, Andy’s rebellion, the prisoners standing awestruck at the sound emanating from the tannoy, and the narration of his friend Ellis Redding) a connection is made in our brain that eventually overwhelms the viewer’s emotions. “Film music is designed to reinforce our emotional reactions to film scenes. We as an audience have very few interpretive choices: the film we watch arrives fully formed, fully determined” [Russel Lack, Twenty four frames under, Pg 69]

It is said that music doesn’t bring anything new but plays on fore-understood meanings and connections. When we hear particular types of music our brain starts to access memories, bringing up images and emotions that we have connected to this music in the past. “It cannot evoke a picture of a house or describe a political system,….Music is a subjective art form with its own language and way of communicating.” [George Burt, The art of film Music, pp. 9-10]

What does this mean for the viewer and how will it affect a film? It is conceivable to think that a person hearing The Marriage of Figaro for the first time along with this piece of film would forever know the piece of music not as Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” but rather “that song from the Shawshank Redemption”, and in the future when hearing the music again would feel the same emotions felt when they first saw the film, this is known as Episodic memory. “Episodic memory of musical information involves the ability to recall the former context associated with a musical excerpt” [Platel, H., Baron, J-C, Et-al. Semantic and episodic memory of music are subserved bydistinct neural networks. NeuroImage, pp 244-256. 2003]

One way in which episodic memory is utilised is similar to the way an overture is used to set the musical themes throughout a theatrical play. Film directors require certain pieces of music to play when a particular character is on screen or as the viewer is shown a particular place of important reference. This is one way to help the viewer track identities and set emotional tones within film.

Particular genres of music have different effects. What we hear evokes memories and emotions from our episodic memories and our own horizons of knowledge. It’s these merging of horizons (the visual and audible) that have a subconscious effect triggered from our own life experiences. “The language of music expresses only musical aesthetics… its pure and absolute state music does not describe anything….the images it seems to conjure up in the listeners minds eye are not implicit in its pure sound environment. These responses are daydreams, programmatically triggered by an individual’s own range of personal experience, by undirected or lazy listening habits, and perhaps by associations deep-rooted in childhood.” [Irwin Bazelon: Hearing Film, p16]

The idea that a movie’s score triggers our episodic memory also works in reverse. As discussed earlier one might hear Mozart’s ‘Marriage of Figaro’ and connect it to the movie ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ but our episodic memory is also used as an audible reference towards a particular idea. For example, in picturing a romanticised version of Americas Wild West with its wide-open plains, dusty trails, and towns full of cowboy filled saloons, one would typically associate theme tunes from films such as the ‘Magnificent Seven’ or ‘The Good, The Bad and the Ugly’ this is because we have no other context in which to relate to this period. Being born into a modern society after the days of cowboys and Indians and with no specific knowledge of the kind music from that period along the fact that America itself was too young to have its own specific cultural soundtrack, the only references to be had are those given to us. In the same way the images produced by our imagination of the old west were created in a Hollywood studio some forty years ago. It is likely that the majority have never seen this particular genre of 60s spaghetti westerns, but this sound is now so routed into society that it is as realistic as Scotland being associated with bagpipes and Jamaica being stereotyped with steel drums. It is plausible to think that when asked to envision a scenario for a movie, (a scene where long lost lovers where reunited after many years for example) a person with

even the most basic of musical knowledge would be able to select a piece of preexisting music that would best represent this scene through their understanding of this scenario. However, if a person were asked to describe a piece of music of their own making they would be completely unable to create a musical score without relying on previous experiences. This is where the genius of the composer takes over. The films composer has the task of seeing the film and understanding the emotions that need to be expressed. They must then produce a musical score that the viewer will understand through their inherited understanding of music. This can only be done through a composer’s skill and training, their understanding of human nature and the context in which we relate to particular sounds. Composer Igor Stravinsky states, “…I consider that music is by it’s very nature, powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality”. [Igor Stazinsky, Hearing Film pp.38-19, 1936]

To create soundscapes* in these extreme situations composers organise the music’s tempo using sounds primitively hard wired into human consciousness, sounds that are immediately identifiable. “The power of rhythm has frequently been traced to primitive origins, music ‘borrowing’ from human physiological processes-heartbeat, pulse, breathing-their rhythmic construction” [Kathryn Kalinak, The language of music: Vertigo pp17-18] * The term soundscape was coined by Canadian composer and environmentalist, R. Murray Schafer. The term refers to an audio recording or performance of sounds that create the sensation of experiencing a particular acoustic environment.

A seemingly impossible task for a composer is to create a reference to something that has never had any kind of audible sound associated with it a sunrise, the passing of time or space for example. The universe in which we exist have no sounds that can be heard by the human ear alone, it is up to the composer to ‘create’ a score that inevitably becomes the audible reference we subconsciously apply to it. Theodor Adorna describes music in introduction to the sociology of music as “a language without concepts”. Language is a system used to express ideas, so by regarding music as a language it is possible to apply sound to visuals that become descriptive. The idea of music as being a language helps us to understand the fundamental processes’ that are happening when we ‘picture’ a particular sound. An example of this would be a crash of symbols being used to represent waves smashing against cliffs. In the case of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the opening score is often recognised as the definitive audio reference to Space which has been parodied though the years in T.V, film and radio as the epitome of Space. The irony here is that the piece used in the title sequence (‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’) by Richard Strauss wasn’t originally composed for the film but a piece written some seventy two years previous. In fact, Kubrick commissioned composer Alex North to create an original score but decided not to use it. North was tasked to create and entirely new soundscape for something that had no natural or cultural sound to emulate. On hearing North’s original score film scholar Gene Phillips argued that Kubricks choice was the right one but composer Kevin Mulhall stated "there is no doubt that 2001 would have been better if Kubrick had used North's music. Even if one likes some of the choices Kubrick made for certain individual scenes, the eclectic group of classical composers employed by the director... resulted in a disturbing mélange of sounds and styles overall” [Kevin Mulhill, 1993]

It is difficult to see who was right, the timeless effect of Kubriks choice will undoubtedly cause bias opinion. However, North’s attempt at creating a new sound for space could have been an amazing achievement, having no cultural references to rely on and no primitive fore-understanding to relate to it. It becomes apparent through this short essay that the human mind treats music as a language, connecting it with emotional responses and imagery, there are parts of the brain dedicated to creating episodic memories which allow us to recall feelings and memories on a subconscious level and this process has been widely understood and relied up in the film. This isn’t always the way directors work, Tarrantino for example admits to writing a scene around a piece of music but even these scenes could inevitably be traced back to past experiences in some form or another. Creating music or choosing a piece of music to work in harmony with film comes down to years of training as a composer and requires an understanding of culture, society, history as well as a profound understanding of the human psyche.


Books Burt, G. The Art of Film Music, NorthEastern University Press 1994 Lack, R. Twenty Four Frames Under, Quartet Books 2002 Kassabian A. Hearing film, Routledge 2001 Kathryn K. Movie Music The Film Reader: The language of music, Routledge 2003

Other Texts Mulhill, Kevin, Alex North's 2001: The Legendary Original Score CD insert booklet. Varèse Sarabande Records 1993 Platel, H, Baron, J-C, Desgranges, B, Bernard, F, & Eustache, F. Semantic and episodic memory of music are subserved by distinct neural networks. NeuroImage, 1993

Videos Cited The Good The Bad and The Ugly (1966, USA) directed by Sergio Leone, Music by Ennio Morricone, United Artists The Shawshank Redemption (1994,USA) directed by Frank Darabont, music by Thomas Newman, Castle Rock Entertainment 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, USA) directed by Stanley Kubrick, Music by MetroGoldwyn-Mayer  

The use of music within film  

A discussion into the the use of music witin film and the affects it has upon the viewer

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