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Diversions: Musical Expression in film

Some would maintain that music has no inherant ability to convey feelings or emotions and that such effects are primarily arbitrary associations placed on the music by its audience. We look at the development of music for film and how composers have dealt with this problem.

Various strategies are used by composers when they attempt to express feelings and emotions in their music; the varied use of key colour, timbre, note intervals, tempo, instrumentation, style etc., combine for differing effect. Minor keys are considered to have a "sadder" sound than major keys. Some would suggest that each key possesses characteristics which make it more suitable for expressing particular feelings or emotions; e.g. the key of C major is bold and vigorous, E flat major dignified, while C sharp major is tragic. Humour might be suggested by using unusual intervals in the melody, while using a restless agitated rhythm within a minor key might suggest grief.(1) Such interpretations however are likely to be subjective and culturally based.(2) The funeral music of Mongolia for example, might sound unintentionally funny to the western ear, while a Mongolian audience might find more artistic merit and emotional content in an orchestra tuning up, than in actual performance.(3)

One means by which music can assume meaning is by imposing apon the listener an association between a particular musical figure and an external event. This principle along with the use of mimentic devices has played an important part in the development of music for film.

European composers such as Steiner, Korngold, Tiomkin, Waxman and Rosza, largely dominated the scoring of early Hollywood sound films. Their approach was heavily influenced by European operatic traditions and in particular the ideas of Richard Wagner, whose concept of the Gesamptkunstwerk involved the fusion of music narrative and action into one organic whole. An important device for achieving this was the leitmotif. The leitmotif becomes associated with a character, mood action or some other aspect and is restated on subsequent occasions (where appropriate and sometimes with variations) and serves as a musical cue back to the original concept. This can be a useful device in situations where a mood or idea needs to be suggested which is not being made explicit by the images on the screen or the dialogue.(4) In the movie "Jaws" for example you are always aware of the lurking menace, even if you can't see it, by virtue of it's association with a particular motif.(5)

Bernard Herrmann who came to Hollywood in 1940 inspired further development in the film music genre. While not discarding the leitmotif entirely he favoured the use of very small cellular units of music which were open to considerable development and variation as dictated by the developments in the film narrative. In Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960), which Herrmann scored, motivic transformations provide valuable structural links throughout the film.(6) Much of the music is descriptive or mimetic of the action on the screen (murder scene, mopping up, pizzicato strings associated with Marion's theft), Norman's state of mind (dissonances, multi-voicing), the bird imagery and symbolism in which the film abounds. Motivic structures are transformed and transferred between characters. The motif associated with Marion is later transferred to her sister Lila, suggestive of shared characteristics. The "madness" motif initially associated with Marion (theft and flight) is consequently transferred to Norman, albeit somewhat distorted, in this case outlining their similarities as well as indicating their differences - Norman, the deranged psychopath as compared to Marion's momentary madness in her desperate "theft" of the money; the mirror-like relationship of their names; the private traps that each of them has become ensnared in. The motif undergoes further changes after Marion's death, symbolic of Norman's continued slide into madness.

Herrmann's scoring for Psycho imparts a good deal of information and insight within the context of the film, as well as emphasizing action on the screen. Out of context the music would probably have little to say, however the music was not designed to be listened to in such a way but rather as an integral organic component of the whole.

It would seem then that much of what music is seen to express is based on subjective interpretations, mimetic or imitative qualities, and associations which are (sometimes arbitrarily) juxtaposed. Emotions, feelings, states of mind etc., are perhaps implied or suggested rather than expressed, particularly in the case of film music. Nevertheless, good use of music in film may serve to impart notions or ideas which the images and dialogue are incapable of doing effectively.

Despite these assumptions, it may yet be worth considering the semantic relationship that exists between music and language in some cultures, notably in parts of black Africa where tonal or pitch based languages are spoken. Furthermore one might expect that as music plays such an intricate part in human behaviour, that universalities exist regarding the effect of music on the human psyche. An interesting topic for further research perhaps.


15 Jan 2007

The influence of Wagner's Tristan and Isolte on old love film scores is so strong, at times I think they just plagiarise him outright. Debussy's "Fetes" from "Trois Nocturnes" has served as the basis for Danny Elfman's action movie themes and chase etc. music, in the Batmans movies, Darkman, and I think I've heard others - Maybe somewhere in Edward Scissorhands. Great piece of orchestral arrangement.

George D. Henderson, Dunedin, New Zealand



1. Palmer, King: Teach Yourself to Compose Music
     Hodder and Stoughton (1947) U.K.

2. This may turn out to be an unsuitable argument. If interpretation of music is culturally based then one would expect interpretations within a particular paradigm to be relatively constant. See below, ch1 p13:

Bruce, Graham: Bernard Herrmann, Film Music and Narrative
      U.M.I. Research Press (1985) Michegan

3. Yeah Baby!!!

4. Nettl, B: Folk and Traditional Music of the Western Continents p125-155
      (1965/r1973) New Jersey

5. Jaws: (1975) dir. Steven Spielberg

6. Psycho: (1960) dir. Alfred Hitchcock, mus. Bernard Herrmann

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