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Importance of Music in Movies

Rohini Mohan
Although subtle, film scores are an integral part of movies. From the very beginning of motion pictures, music has been used to evoke emotions and maintain the pace of the movie.

Did You Know?

Titanic: Music from the Motion Picture, composed by James Horner, sold over 30 million copies globally and became the highest-selling film score of all time.
It is hard to imagine people sitting through a silent film without any live music to accompany the scenes. From the very inception of motion pictures, the relevance of music has been clearly established. Music has always been recognized for its ability to invoke emotions among the audience and set the mood for specific scenes in movies.
Silent movies always featured live music, and it was first employed by the Lumière Brothers for backing their first projected motion picture, Sortie des Usines Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory) on December 28, 1895.
By 1910, theaters had begun permanently employing complete musical ensembles which, in turn, was replaced by the theatre organ. The period between 1910 - 1930 also relied heavily on photoplay music, which was written music meant specifically for silent films. This Entertainism article discusses the importance of music in movies in further detail.

Historic Film Score Examples

Max Steiner's film score for the 1933 monster movie, 'King Kong' is ranked as the thirteenth greatest film score in the history of American cinema by the American Film Institute.
From the spine-chilling quality of the drums that is played while a native girl is about to be given as ritualistic sacrifice to King Kong to the heavy orchestral music that follows while King Kong breaks free and wreaks havoc on the streets of Manhattan.
The music in the movie had deeply impacted the way the audience reacted to every scene, the actors, and the movie in itself. Without the background music, King Kong would not have turned out to be the epic it is today.
The film score for Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 psychoanalytical thriller, 'Psycho' was composed by Bernard Herrmann. This film score scared the jeepers creepers out of the audience and was unlike anything heard before!
The music that accompanied the famous shower curtain scene, when Marion Crane is taking a shower and is stabbed to death by Norman Bates, is perhaps one of the scariest film scores ever written!
The film score by John Williams for the 1977 movie 'Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope' is still sung by his fans and that, in itself, is a major feat for any musician! The blood-curdling music for the 1975 shark movie 'Jaws' by John Williams won him an Academy Award and was ranked as the sixth greatest film score of all time by the American Film Institute.

Music Conveys Emotions

Apart from conveying the feelings through actions, dialogs, and facial expressions, the emotions of a character are also conveyed through musical cues. The music playing in the background can express feelings of anger, fear, joy, and sorrow, depending on the scene being presented and the emotions being enacted by the actors.
Such cues help the audience connect with the actors and empathize with their emotions. For example, the music played at the end of 'The Godfather Part III' expresses deep feelings of regret, sorrow, and lost love as Michael Corleone thinks about his deceased daughter (Mary) and wives (Apollonia and Kay).
For instance, a scene in which the bride-to-be is walking up the aisle to be finally wed to the love of her life, would usually be accompanied by Wagner's "Bridal Chorus", also known as "Here Comes the Bride", which would give the audience a clue that the female protagonist of the movie is about to get married to the man of her dreams!

Establishes the Theme and Mood

The genre and tempo of the music being played as background music can tell a lot about the theme of the movie. The music produced for the fantasy film 'Lord of the Rings' by Howard Shore, uses many types of woodwinds, brass, fiddle instruments, and Celtic music and is, by far, one of the most legendary movie scores ever to have been written.
Similarly, the sound of heavy drums and horns in a film score can easily let the audience know that the theme of the scene is based on war. Something peppy and light would lead the audience to expect something funny and youthful. The sound of critters and hollow bass would prepare the audience for something more sinister.
The sound of the Chinese mandolin (Liuqin) or Buddhist chants along with music would make the audience to believe that the theme of the movie is somehow connected with the Asian culture.

Evoke Era or Time Period

The type of musical instruments used and the genre chosen by the music composer can help recreate the sound of an ancient era or time period. For instance, in the 1963 'Cleopatra' movie, the music score by Alex North comprised many Egyptian tunes, which immediately transcends the audience into an ancient and mystical land of mummies, Pharaohs, and pyramids.
Merely listening to the music in movies, creates a visual picture and feel of such an era in the mind of the viewer. Another wonderful example of music that was successful in transporting viewers to its intended era was the 1997 film 'Titanic'.

Supports Association with Leitmotif

A certain tune that is connected to a specific incidence or character in the movie, may be repeated as often as necessary in the movie so that the audience may be able to correlate and connect with the leitmotif and its intention.
For example, the theme song "Gonna Fly Now" is featured in the 1977 movie 'Rocky' and is played in the background, as Rocky Balboa increases his stamina and manages to climb the steps leading to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a.k.a. 'Rocky Steps'. This theme song continues to inspire people to this day!

Provides Backing to Musical Films

Music is an integral part of musical films and acts as a medium that not only adds emotions to the film, but also maintains the pace and rhythm of the movie.
The best-known musicals in the world, such as 'The Fiddler on the Roof', 'The Sound of Music', 'The Wizard of Oz', and 'Grease' would not be as famous if it wasn't for the excellent background music accompanying the scenes and songs.
There is no denying the fact that the Dropkick Murphys track "I'm Shipping Up to Boston" from the 2006 movie 'The Departed' aced in gripping the attention of the audience to the extent that everyone knew that the climax of the movie had begun!