Using Music to Heighten Emotion of a Film


For the average movie-goer, a film’s music comes and goes, raising little- if any- cause for discussion. But as any good filmmaker knows, the score is an integral part of the finished product. Hiring the right composer is an important decisions a director will make. Music can help to give a sense of time and place, can tell the audience more about the characters and can give the film an identity through easily recognisable themes and motifs. But as well as constructing memorable melodies, a talented composer will use music more subtly to intensify the emotion of each scene as well as heightening tension and conflict in the developing story. While of course using music in creative and powerful ways remains the job of the composer, directors can also benefit from learning exactly how the score can be used to heighten the audience’s emotions. Similarly, it is also important to consider the times when music is best left out.

It is often said that the best film scores are the ones you don’t notice at all. They highlight the onscreen action perfectly, yet do so without drawing any attention to themselves. All audiences feel is a heightened sense of emotion without ever really realising what caused it. Take the music out of a film however and you’ll instantly notice something missing. Think of how flat a rough cut is before the soundtrack is added. Of course, there are a few memorable films that are completely devoid of music- Hitchcock’s The Birds and The Blair Witch Project are notable examples- but these are highly stylised films in which the music has been omitted to achieve a specific effect.

As a music therapist will tell you, the human body is programmed to respond in certain ways to different sounds. Music has the ability to affect almost every aspect of the body including heart rate, respiration, muscle tension and even the immune system. Music can enhance our ability to focus, increase productivity, heighten feelings of romance and sexuality and create feelings of safety or unease. A growing collection of evidence also supports the healing power of music among sufferers of conditions including Alzheimer’s, autism, Tourette’s and Parkinson’s disease. It is little wonder music is such an important weapon in the film director’s arsenal!

Interestingly, research has demonstrated that it is not those beautiful sweeping melodies that affect our emotions the most, but rather the tempo of the music. Numerous scientific studies have shown that the heart rate and accompanying feelings of anxiety rise and fall depending on the speed of the music. Composers armed with this knowledge will create sudden changes in tempo to spark apprehension and fear among audiences. Slowing the speed of the music will of course have the opposite effect and can be used to lull audiences into a sense of security.

The use of complex and unresolved harmonies is another technique used by composers to heighten tension or conflict within a scene. Humans naturally become unnerved when hearing dissonant or ‘clashing’ harmonies, whilst consonant sounds that ‘work’ together are generally much more calming. Using a progression of chords that does not resolve, or sound finished, is another way of keeping the audience on edge. (An old folk tale jokes that Mozart’s wife would play an unresolved chord progression on the piano to get her husband out of bed. The great composer would be so unsettled by the incomplete sound that he would be forced to get up and play the last chord to complete the progression!) Many composers will refrain from ending their cues on the tonic (‘home’ note) as this creates a ‘finished’ sound unsuitable for use in a film that has not yet reached its end. Similarly unnerving high and low pitches are also often used to manipulate the audience’s emotions. Countless horror films are scored with rumbling timpani, double basses and high, screeching violins.

Sometimes, however, when it comes to scoring a film, less is more. Too much music can often lose its power. A great example of music being omitted is a pivotal scene in M. Night Shyamalan’s thriller The Sixth Sense. Young Haley Joel Osment reveals to his mother that he can talk to the dead and that there are in fact ghosts surrounding them as they speak. This is a key moment in the film and a scene full of tension, yet there is not a bar of music to heighten the emotion. Why? Because the scene functions so perfectly without it. Sure, some unsettling chords or a heart-wrenching melody would have worked fine, but the actors’ performances deliver all the unease and tension the scene requires.

The absence of music can also be very powerful when a scene contains a particularly frightening or beautiful soundscape. A fantastic example of this can be found amongst James Horner’s Oscar winning score for Titanic. As the film builds to its climax, the soundtrack brims with orchestral music and a complex sound design. Audiences follow the ship’s captain inside the water-filled bridge, where he stands awaiting his death. For a few precious moments, the music disappears, leaving only the sparse sounds of the creaking ship, dripping water and the character’s heavy breathing. By hearing the sounds exactly as the doomed captain would have heard them, the scene becomes much more personal and emotive. When the music returns a few seconds later, accompanying the crashing of the sea through the bridge windows, it is all the more powerful for its absence.

Both of the above examples should be kept in mind by both the director and composer when considering where and how to score a film. Music should never be placed in a scene ‘just for the sake of it’, but should always have a distinct purpose for being there.

By keeping these techniques in mind, the director and composer can work together to create a soundtrack that heightens their audience’s emotions and intensifies the movie-going experience.


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