Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Effectiveness of Music in Movies

A little over a month ago, I attended an interesting show. It was something I've never experienced, and even trying to explain it isn't going to do it any justice at all. But basically, the show was run by a group known as Emo Night Brooklyn, where they go on stage and just play a bunch of pop-punk songs from the 2000s and dance around on stage singing along to them. And they get the crowd involved throughout, lowering the volume during choruses so that the audience can scream the lyrics back to the stage, before going back to resume just running around and singing and dancing along with the music. It's not quite karaoke, as they don't sing into a mic or anything, they just sorta scream the lyrics out to the audience, who sings right back to them, like they were attending an actual concert by one of the various bands playing.

I bring this up, because on this night, they mentioned they wanted to do this as a way to bring back memories from their youth and revel in the nostalgia of the music. And, well, as certain songs came on, I found myself very much being transported to a different period in my life, a younger period, when this music was still new and fresh, and the place that I was in my life at that time. And thinking about the power that music has to really transport us to various points in our lives made me think of how the music in movies can have this same effect, and help elevate the material on the screen, and how it can help form a closer bond between you and the movie itself.

For an example of what I'm talking about, there are a number of popular songs that have long since become associated with the movies they're featured in, even if that's not where these songs originated from. For instance, who doesn't instantly think back to the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs whenever "Stuck in the Middle With You" comes on? Or more recently, every single time a single track from Guardians of the Galaxy plays, I'm instantly brought back to the scene in that movie where that track was played.

This isn't a trick that'll work with just any soundtrack, mind you. There's a reason that these tracks take us back to these movies, while other times popular tracks featured in other movies won't have the same effect. And it all comes down to how these tracks are actually incorporated into the movies themselves. I've touched on this a number of times in the past now, but I'm about to reiterate this point again. It takes more than just merely featuring a piece of music in a movie for it to really connect with the viewer. What these movies do differently, though, is that they're not just playing songs for the viewer. These songs are actually being actively heard by the characters in the scenes themselves. The songs are active participants in the movies, not merely background noise.

When Mr. Blonde dances around and cuts the cop's ear off in Reservoir Dogs, he's actually listening to and dancing to "Stuck in the Middle With You". And as Star Lord goes about his various adventures in Guardians of the Galaxy, he's doing so while listening to his Awesome Mix cassette tape, which is essentially a character in and of itself. And as such, the use of these songs forge a stronger, more intimate connection between us and the characters on the screen, because it's something that we actively share with them in these moments. And so, these moments stick with us on a deeper level, to where, when these songs may play on the radio, we're taken back to these scenes in the movie, sorta like how the music from that show I attended took my back to the various points in my own life.

But that's also why this same thing doesn't work when talking about soundtracks that don't actively participate in the story itself. Because it's just noise, it's just accompaniment. But it's not actually a part of the scene, and therefore, doesn't stick with us as part of that moment in time. That's why a movie like Suicide Squad completely blundered with its use of music, while trying to imitate what Guardians of the Galaxy incorporated so seamlessly. They failed to understand why the soundtrack of Guardians worked, instead just focusing on the fact that the movie, indeed, incorporated a handful of classic tunes, but never stopping to actually ask how they made these incorporations.

But it doesn't just have to be soundtracks that give us a deeper connection to a movie. The movie's score can work just as effectively in this regard as well. And, for the most part, I tend to have a similar mindset, in that movie scores in which the music is an active participant in the movie tend to stand out as some of the stronger examples of music in film, for the same reasons.

For examples of this, take a look at movies such as Inception, in which the film's score can be heard by the characters throughout, and also acts as an internal alarm for them at that, and makes us feel like we're right there with our cast as they explore this cerebral world. Or speaking of getting into a character's head, Swiss Army Man features a score in which all of the music is literally just the main character humming to himself and singing in his head, and instantly connects us to him on a more personal level. Or even a movie like Mad Max: Fury Road, in which the bombastic score is actually being performed by a guy playing a flaming guitar and drummers riding on the back of a car, where not only does their music take part in the action, but the musicians themselves become active participants at points as well.

This use of music in such a way where both the characters and the audience are hearing the same thing at the same time acts as somewhat of a conduit between audience and film, and really immerses the viewer in a way that makes us feel like we're just as much a part of the action at that moment as well. And that stronger connection can help elevate movies in a way that makes them feel more personal to us, like we just shared an experience with the characters on the screen, and their experiences are now a piece of our own experiences in those moments, and can as such make these movies stick with us for far longer, while other films go forgotten.

Now, there's an argument that I've heard over the years that says that a movie's score should go relatively unnoticed while watching, and that it should merely compliment a scene, and that its contributions should end there. And this takes me to my next point in my discussion on the effectiveness of music in film, as even if the music isn't an active participant in a movie, that doesn't necessarily mean that it should suddenly go unnoticed as a result. After all, music is very much a powerful and important element in most films, just as a movie's use of sound, lighting, acting, editing, and whatever else have you may be. It's not just any one of these elements, but rather, all of these elements pulled together that makes a film truly tick. So to disregard its use entirely I find to be a bit foolish, and is doing a disservice to a very important ingredient in what can really make or break a film's overall effectiveness.

For instance, one of my favorite films in recent years is Interstellar. And on top of being a tremendous film in and of itself, part of what's kept that movie consistently in mind for me is that movie's music, and just how well it not only compliments a scene, but elevates it to a level of greatness that the movie might not otherwise be able to fully achieve without it. Don't get me wrong, the movie would still be great without it, but the inclusion of such epic musical accompaniment really completes these scenes. And I think that director Christopher Nolan knew this about the film, hence him raising the volume on the music a little higher than you'd typically hear in most other films.

Or for another example, let's take a look at the movies Let the Right One In, and its American remake, Let Me In. There are a number of scenes in Let the Right One In that just sorta let the scene play out in relative silence, as we only hear the sounds in the environment itself, but no musical accompaniment. And sure, I suppose this was to try and put us in those scenes as they actually would be, and feel and hear what the characters would actually be feeling and hearing in these moments. But for me at least, these scenes just sorta came across as empty, like they were missing a crucial element, and left me really feeling nothing.

Cut to Let Me In, in which these same scenes (or their equivalents) chose to include the film's score to accompany them. And they used this score in a way that was noticeable, to help raise the tension, to really play with our feelings and drive home the intended emotion of the scene. It didn't merely stand idly by and just create complimentary background noise, they wanted us to take notice of it, and let it grab hold of us in that moment. And as a result, I feel like this use of music not only complimented the scene, but really pulled me into the movie even more and left me sharing in the same tense emotions that our characters must have been experiencing in those moments.

I personally felt that this was an effective use of music to really help bridge an emotional connection between the audience and the scene, though there can admittedly be times when a movie can overdo it in this regard, and come across as manipulative as such. So it's certainly a fine balance that one has to walk in order to really succeed in generating the intended reaction in a way that feels both natural and earned, but when it's done right, it can take a scene that in and of itself may just be good, and turn it into something truly great.

And so that's basically it. Music has the power to connect, and for movies, hearing a familiar song can help bring a movie back to mind in a positive light, or a movie's score can either help immerse us in the movie itself, or play with our emotions in just the right way that really helps elevate the scene playing out. So music definitely has its place in movies, but it needs to be used correctly in order to truly be effective, as opposed to just being present, or worse yet, distracting. But to disregard music in movies is to disregard a very powerful element in what makes movies such a great form of media, part of the greater whole. And oftentimes, a movie can feel hollow without it, like it's missing a very vital piece of the puzzle. Just like a piece of music on the radio can take us back to a certain point in time in our lives, music in movies can have the same power to transport us back to these amazing stories captured on film. It's just gotta be used correctly is all.

Now, I had mentioned in a previous post how I intended to use the movie La La Land for a lot of my examples in this discussion, but I've decided to hold off and save my discussion on that movie for its own post, as I go down the line and take a look at each piece of music in that movie, and what its inclusion really brings to the whole in terms of its effectiveness, so stick around for that to come soon enough!


  1. Thank you for explaining this! You've managed to put into words what I have tried and failed to do. There are certain songs that will instantly take my mind to the movie they were in, even the specific scene, with a much stronger connection than simply 'oh I think this was in 'XYZ' movie'

    1. Thanks, Allie. Yeah, I've gone over this a number of times in specific movie reviews, but figured it was finally worth discussing in its own post. Glad we're on the same page. :)