Imagine a horror film in which the main character is hiding in a wardrobe of an abandoned house. We see a close up of the character’s face. The sound of soft, furtive footsteps and floorboards creaking echoes down the hallway. We hear ragged breathing and the rumble of distant thunder. As the scene progresses, orchestral music becomes more and more intense until the closet door finally swings open.
This is a great example of how sound effects can contribute to storytelling and audience engagement.
Whatever film you’re studying, it’s important to remember that all of the sounds you can hear – including sound effects, music and dialogue – has been carefully selected and mixed into the soundtrack.
Many people hardly notice the orchestral score for a film or recognise its important contribution to their emotional engagement with the narrative.
In narratives, orchestral music performs a number of functions. It can establish setting. In the opening shot of Braveheart, the camera soars over the Scottish highlands and James Horner’s score, which makes extensive use of bagpipes commences. In conjunction with the visuals, the music helps to establish the setting of the film within seconds.
Film scores also contribute to audience engagement. They heighten suspense and pluck at the heartstrings.
The man behind the music for Doctor Who, Murray Gold is responsible for much of the program’s emotional impact, writing a number of leit motifs for a character that is continually evolving, from the haunting Doctor’s Theme which was used with Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant to the heroic Doctor’s Theme Series 4, I Am the Doctor and The Majestic Tale (Of a Madman in a Box). (Photograph: Richard Ecclestone)
If you’ve watched a movie trailer in the last decade, you’ve probably heard the music of Clint Mansell. Mansell’s Lux Aeterna, which was written for the film Requiem for a Dream, has been re-orchestrated and used in the trailers for films including Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Sunshine. Mansell also wrote several tracks for the video game Mass Effect 3, including the emotive and minimalist Leaving Earth.
Famous for his collaboration with filmmakers like Sam Mendes and Frank Darabont, Thomas Newman has written the scores for a number of critically acclaimed and high grossing films, including The Shawshank Redemption and American Beauty. Some of his notable pieces include End Title and Any Other Name.
Although his early work included lighthearted comedies like Pretty Woman and Three Men and a Little Lady, Newton Howard went on to write scores for films like The Sixth Sense, Blood Diamond and The Dark Knight. Although these are remarkable scores, I’ve always been a big fan of his atmospheric work on the thriller Michael Clayton.
Although he is best known for his flawless work on The Lord of the Rings – The King of the Golden Hall, Samwise the Brave and The Steward of Gondor are all worth listening to – he also wrote some terrifically suspenseful scores for smaller films like The Silence of the Lambs and Panic Room.
Hans Zimmer is responsible for some of the most powerful action scores ever written. One of his early standouts was the music for the submarine thriller Crimson Tide. His long list of memorable scores include Inception, Gladiator, Sherlock Holmes, The Dark Knight and Backdraft.
Popular music can also make a significant contribution to narratives. When the T-800 travels back through time in James Cameron’s Terminator 2, he arrives in the present day completely naked, finds the nearest seedy bar and demands the clothes, boots and motorcycle of one of its patrons. He emerges from the bar clad completely in black to George Thorogood’s ‘Bad to the Bone’.
Although music is frequently used in to complement a scene like this, filmmakers often use music in an ironic or unexpected context.