September 19th, 2009
When was the last time you saw a film and thought, ‘wow, great music’. When did you last even notice the music, as in most films these days, particularly Hollywood blockbusters, the music kinda blends in with the sound effects. Often it’s even placed with little purpose in mind, other than to smooth the journey.
Psychologists who study film music know this to be part of the affect of it being there, it covers the joins, or as Woody Allen said, “Let’s just say it covers a multitude of sins”
But that certainly wasn’t the purpose of the music for Hitchcock’s most memorable Psycho. Now that was truly chilling, probably more so than any horror music to this day and interestingly, Hitch had intended to play the whole shower scene without any music at all. Its composer, Bernard Herrman, scored most of Hitchcock’s films but their partnership hit the rocks when Herrman refused to compose a more modern score, for his 1966 Torn Curtain. Interestingly, the scary, shark prowling theme from Jaws, has certain similarities to that of Psycho’s shower scene in its rhythm and build-up.
Both start quiet and slow, pre-empting the horror to come, what those who study film music call, ‘setting up anticipations and prolonging their resolution’. What Hitchcock, from a visual POV, would call, ‘trigger, release’, you put tension on the trigger, then release – without firing the gun. To you and me, it’s the build-up.
The way and why, film music works, is studied and investigated way more than you’d imagine, by psychologists, composers and musicians alike. Though the latter are more likely to go with their instinct more than any kind of formula, though composers do have their own style, a kind of formula if you like.
The very early film music, over the silents, isn’t thought to have had any form of design, other than a rudimentary association with the mood of the scene on the screen. Quick music for the chase, sad music for the sad bits and a rousing crescendo for the end. The main purpose of this music being to cover the sound of the projector and fill the silence of the room. In those days, no sounds of popcorn rustling to do that. But then, even this basic playing of music with film was seen to be emotional, which likely led to what we have today.
The emotional response to film music is thought to work in a number of ways. Rhythm and intonation being important as in Jaws and Psycho, and also the changes in tempo. These are thought to stimulate the recall of events and moods specific and familiar to a culture and, for us in the generally western culture, subconscious reminders of the western harmonic system. Changes in tempo kinda jolt our expectations, creating uneasiness, for example. It’s also thought that musical phrasing and attack can be similar to speech and when music is used over dialogue, it can oppose or align with what is being said.
The undoubted emotional effect of music and images is thought to be created by a combination of things, simultaneously personal, neurological, cultural and universal. The effect is very powerful, and can affect your physical and emotional state, it can make you cry, grab the arms of your seat with tension, or look away in horror. As they say, it can make you laugh or cry. Indeed, experiments have shown a measurable emotional response to music stimuli creating, happiness, anger, fear and sadness.
Film composers become known and hired for their particular style. You’d quickly recognise the fantasy, playful music of Danny Elfman, long time collaborator with Tim Burton and you can see why they work so well together. Whereas the work of Hans Zimmer, the fav of Jerry Bruickheimer, has blockbuster appeal. This year’s Oscar went to a less well known, AR Rahmen for Slumdog Millionaire. Exuberant music which transcends culture.
Some films, have little or no music, Hitchcock’s, The Birds had just bird sounds, though they were designed and placed by Bernard Herrman, he just can’t keep away from a good thriller and I wonder if they’ll be brave enough to go that way with Martin Campbell’s sequel. And Alien, largely full of spooky silence, even in the tense bits.
I guess the psychologists are still working on what makes movies without music scary.