From Psycho to Star Wars: The Power of Movie Music - Why You Love Music: From Mozart to Metallica-The Emotional Power of Beautiful Sounds - John Powell

Why You Love Music: From Mozart to Metallica-The Emotional Power of Beautiful Sounds - John Powell (2016)

Chapter 7. From Psycho to Star Wars: The Power of Movie Music


Jealousy is not a pleasant trait—but I have to admit to being jealous of my namesake, John Powell. For the half dozen or so of you who haven’t heard of him, he’s the guy who wrote the music for the Bourne trilogy, How to Train Your Dragon, and lots of other excellent stuff.* I’ve always thought that being a film composer must be a great life—hanging out with the rich and famous, being one of the rich and famous. There is one downside to the job, however, and that’s the amount of work involved. Movie music is usually written to tight deadlines and needs to be carefully coordinated to the action, as well as being generally unobtrusive. It also needs to be beautiful in its own right if you want to start collecting Oscars. This is a pretty tough confluence of requirements—so, John, if you’re reading this and need a couple of days off, no problem, just give me a call and I’ll come over and fill in for you. I wouldn’t be able to do any of the difficult, talented stuff, but I could have a go at a “man gets into taxi at airport” scene or “woman looks in handbag for door keys” or something.

Back to reality…

In the days of silent films a pianist would accompany the movie, and some of the fancier cinemas even employed a small orchestra. Initially the music was there only to mask the clatter of the projector, but it was soon realized that music could help the story along as well.1 This led to the development of anthologies of sheet music designed to accompany different sorts of action: desperate running, villainous creeping about, passionate kissing, and so on. This sort of “mood music” became so important to silent films that it was even played during filming, to get the actors into the right frame of mind.2 When the first talkies were made, the directors assumed that the action and words would be enough, and that music would be irrelevant. Audience responses soon proved them wrong, and since then a musical sound track has been produced for nearly every film.

Music can enhance our enjoyment of a film in many ways. If the action on the screen is ambiguous, the music gives us clues as to what’s going on, which is particularly useful right at the beginning of the film, when we are, for example, just watching someone walking down the street. If the music is dramatic and driving, we can guess that we’re about to see some action; if the music is happy and daydreamy, then the situation will usually be cheerful—although composers do sometimes give you pleasant music just before a disaster, to increase the shock you experience. Psychological tests in this area have shown that music helps you understand what’s going on and makes it easier for you to forecast what sort of thing is going to happen next.3 Music that evokes associations also has the power to draw your attention to certain visual details. For example, a soldier walking through a crowd of civilians is more easily picked out by the viewer if a solo military trumpet is involved in the music.

Some movie sound tracks become hit albums, which means that the music was consciously enjoyed by the audience. This is particularly true of the music played during the opening or closing credits of the film (think of all those James Bond songs). Most movie music, however, is designed to be a subconscious influence, and people don’t usually notice it. If they are asked to watch a film sequence and discuss it, the audience members almost always think they have drawn their conclusions from purely visual information—even though music may have been doing half the work.4

In one experiment, viewers were presented with a five-minute clip from the Hitchcock film Vertigo. The clip was shown to different groups of people together with one of three sound tracks: no music, emotional music (Barber’s Adagio for Strings), or harsh, unfriendly music (part of Tangerine Dream’s Rubycon). The clip showed a man (Jimmy Stewart) following a woman (Kim Novak), and the viewers were asked what they thought about the man. When no music was playing, the audience had the opinion that the man was an intelligent, analytical private investigator. With the emotional music playing, they described him as a sensitive, infatuated lover, but the harsh electronic music made him come across as a cold, lonely hit man.5 These widely different readings of the visual action show just how persuasive music can be.

As we saw earlier, music on its own isn’t very good at communicating a story—but when it’s used together with film, it can be highly effective. For example:

The film Witness is about an Amish boy who witnesses a murder. In one of the early scenes in the film, the boy is taken down to the police station to look through a photo book of possible suspects. When he is left alone for a moment, he spots a framed photo of a police officer and it dawns on him that the officer is the murderer he saw. At this point the background noises of the police station are replaced by the otherworldly music of Maurice Jarre. Thanks to the music and the absence of background noise, we are (subconsciously) alerted to the fact that the photo is significant. The music is doing an important job here because the rest of the plot depends on this identification scene.

Psychologist Annabel Cohen and her colleagues used this clip in a test to find out just how effective the music was.6 Participants were shown the minute-long clip of the scene at the police station with one of five sound tracks: silence; speech only; sound effects (typing, etc.) only; a combination of speech, sound effects, and music; or the original “music only” version. They were then asked to rate their sense of absorption in the clip—how much they were drawn into it. The results clearly demonstrated the power of the music to engage people with the film. The viewers found that the music alone was more effective even than dialogue in getting the desired message across.

Besides giving us hints as to what’s happening, music can provide clues to when and where the action is taking place. For example, a flashback to the 1930s might be accompanied by jazz—played on a suitably dated, crackly radio. Even the choice of instrument can give us clues as to what is going on.7 If Doris Day is parking her car to the sound of a bluesy sax, she’s about to meet her lover, but if the music is all soaring violins and piano, then she’s meeting her husband. If she’s parking to the jolly sound of banjos, her husband is a hillbilly, and accordions would, of course, mean that she’s parking in Paris. (If she’s just about to marry her hillbilly lover in Paris, then the orchestration is going to get a little complicated.)

Many of these clues are culture-specific. Brass instruments in Hollywood films often indicate bravery, but in a Hindi film they mean that villainy is afoot.8 And if you’re not Indian, you’ll probably have missed out on the fact that the title music for Monsoon Wedding is based on the traditional Indian music for the groom’s procession at a marriage ceremony.

In the UK TV series Doctor Who, the main character is a highly intelligent time-traveling hero. Since the program first came out, the writers have had to rely on the fact that the Doctor has an assistant who is quite often baffled by what’s going on at any particular moment. The assistant has three main jobs as far as the plot is concerned: (1) to be rescued by the Doctor, (2) to rescue the Doctor, and most important, (3) to ask the Doctor dumb questions about what’s going on so that the TV audience can benefit from the information.

Assistant: What’s happening, Doctor?

Doctor: If I can’t get this Hyperdrive transgrigulator negatively confabulated in the next forty seconds the whole galaxy will turn to ice.

The only real message here is “What I’m doing is URGENT!” The occasional implication of urgency is extremely important to most film plots, and the storyline can’t always provide a spoken explanation or a view of a ticking bomb.

Music is an excellent way of indicating the level of urgency in a situation, and it’s more enjoyable than over-explanatory dialogue. Composers use driving rhythms and variations in loudness to keep us on the edge of our seats—before delivering the relaxing chords after the crisis has passed. One method of increasing the tension in a film is to gradually increase the loudness of the music.9 If we hear any noise getting louder, we automatically go on the alert, because an increase in volume generally means that something is getting nearer. As a survival reflex, our brain subconsciously assumes a worst-case scenario (“Something is going to attack!”) and organizes the release of adrenaline so we can deal with the danger. As I mentioned in chapter four, this response can’t be switched off, even if the increasing loudness is just a movie sound track and not a stampede of elephants. Pumping up the volume also creates the impression that things on the screen are happening faster, though interestingly this effect doesn’t work in reverse: music that gets gradually quieter does not slow the action down.10

An important point here is that it is much easier to distance yourself from a visual image than from a sound.11 Music helps us to forget about the screen and become immersed in the film. If you want to make a moviegoer jump with fear, it is far easier to do so with a sudden sound (musical or otherwise) than a sudden image—and of course the two together work best. If you’d like to test how effective movie music is in keeping you on the edge of your seat, just try watching a creepy (no dialogue) scene from any horror movie with the sound turned off. (The 1922 vampire movie Nosferatu is pretty frightening with the spooky music and pretty comical without it.)

One of the main jobs of movie music is to give certain passages continuity or, alternatively, to divide a film up into segments. Films often present us with a sequence of images that are not obviously connected, and music can help to glue everything together. For example, a sequence of different views of what the main characters are up to at lunchtime in various parts of a city will be held together by the regular pulse of the music. At the same time, the music will smooth over the fact that each of these short scenes would normally need to have completely different background sounds (one person driving in traffic, another in a busy restaurant, a third walking through a quiet park).

Flashbacks are another case in which music can hold everything together, but it can also be useful in separating the flashback from the main time frame of the film. You can even use the music to identify the era of the flashback. The main thing here is to play music from the appropriate decade, but directors can also degrade the quality of the sound to make it feel older—replicating, for example, the tinny quality of a 1930s record player. Another common application of music is as a background during slow-motion sequences. In this case the director requires music because the alternatives would be silence, or slowed-down sounds and speech—which is effective in only a very limited number of cases, such as “D… o… n’… t t… o… u… c… h t… h… a… t s… w… i… t… c… h.”

One way psychologists can tell how engaged you were in a film clip is simply to ask you how much of it you remember. A team of researchers led by psychologist Marilyn Boltz studied people’s response to various film clips in which a sad or happy event was either accompanied or preceded by happy or sad music, and then checked to see how well the participants remembered each clip. The results were quite clear: if music accompanied the action, the “correct mood” music (e.g., happy music with a happy event) helped people become engaged with the film clip and remember it in more detail. Surprisingly, if the music was heard only in the seconds leading up to the event, the “wrong” music was more effective: a happy event seems more moving if it’s preceded by worrying or sad music, and the emotional effect is even stronger if things turn out badly after we’ve had our hopes built up by happy music. This result clearly demonstrates that we use music in film to build up expectations—and if those expectations turn out to be wrong, we often experience a bigger emotional effect than if our forecast had been correct.12 Surprise amplifies the emotion involved.

Movies take us on emotional journeys, so much so that the psychologist E. S. Tan calls film “an emotion machine.”13 Unlike moods, emotions require a trigger, and films give us plenty of emotional triggers: joy at the reunion of a mother and child, fear during a chase, relief after an escape. One way of looking at the combination of film and music is that the film provides a sequence of events to get emotional about, and the music deepens your emotional experience. Even when the action on the screen has no emotional content, music can be used to trigger an emotional response. One study scanned the brains of a group of viewers as they watched an emotionally neutral film clip and found that if fearful or joyful music accompanied the clip, the appropriate emotion centers of the brain were triggered, but there was a minimal emotional response to the film without the music, or to the music without the film.14 This is very useful to filmmakers, since life (and therefore any film) is full of periods when the visual action is emotionally neutral. By using the right type of music, the director can tip us off that this walk to the shops is going to end tragically or romantically.

Film composers sometimes use a trick that was a favorite of the opera composer Wagner. The idea is that the major characters in the story have their own little signature tune, called a leitmotif. So, for example, in the 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood, King Richard has a rather regal-sounding tune, Robin’s tune is brave and dashing, and Maid Marian’s is pretty and innocent-sounding. The baddy—Guy of Gisbourne—is, as you might have guessed by now, accompanied by a menacing, dissonant theme.15 In the heyday of Hollywood the composer was often given as little as three weeks to produce a big orchestral score, so leitmotifs became popular among composers because they automatically give structure to the sound track. Having written a collection of leitmotifs, the composer can then change the harmony, pace, and orchestration of the tunes to match the mood and rhythm of each situation. Leitmotifs are still used in some films because they help to bring coherence to a wide-ranging plot. You’re probably familiar, for example, with the pompous military tune that accompanies the Empire forces in the Star Wars films, and leitmotifs played an important role in the music for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, from the gentle Gaelic-influenced Shire theme to the drama of the Rohan tune.

Whether or not the composer uses the leitmotif technique, there will be one or two main themes used throughout the film, and these will need to be adjusted to fit various moods as the story unfolds. Even in a remorselessly upbeat film called something like Timmy Has a Lovely Time, there will be moments of unhappiness or tension as we watch little Timmy burying his goldfish, or getting arrested for selling drugs at school. At this point in the action the happy main theme will need to be altered to make it a little less smug.

One of the commonest methods of turning a happy tune into an unhappy or tense one is to rewrite it in a minor key. This involves adjusting the jumps between certain notes—but the tune is still generally recognizable because it has the same rhythm and almost the same contour of up-and-down movement as we move from one note to the next. This technique was used to good effect in the 1942 film Casablanca. The composer, Max Steiner, incorporates the French and German national anthems into the score, and, like most national anthems, both of these tunes were originally written in a major key. But in order to reinforce our negative view of the Nazis, Steiner transposed the German national anthem into a minor key and provided a discordant accompaniment, giving the tune a menacing, oppressive feel.16

In some movies the characters in the film can also hear the music that we, the audience, can hear. The actors might be listening to their car radio or attending a concert, and in some cases this “in film” music (the technical term is diegetic music) can be used as a springboard for ordinary movie music. For example, a pianist playing in the film might stand to dance with his girlfriend and the music keeps playing, now with an orchestral accompaniment.

One of the cleverest uses of “in film” music happens in Hitchcock’s 1956 film The Man Who Knew Too Much.17 Our hero, Jimmy Stewart, knows that there will be an assassination attempt on a statesman during a concert. At the beginning of the climactic scene, we see the concert begin and watch the orchestra playing Arthur Benjamin’s Storm Clouds Cantata. Cut to loveable, brave Jimmy as he rushes into the concert hall to look for the would-be assassin, with the music still playing in the background. There is no dialogue during this portion of the film, and besides matching the hero’s anxiety, the music is synchronized with the action, calming a little as the hero meets his wife, and taking off again when he leaves her to continue his hunt for the bad guy. A minute later the assassin draws his gun and at the same time the percussionist picks up his cymbals, and from then on you know that the gunman intends to use the cymbal clash to cover the noise of the shot. It’s particularly gripping when the percussionist prepares for his big moment by raising the cymbals to shoulder height and… but I won’t spoil it all by telling you what happens next.

We usually experience “in film” music differently from normal movie music. In our daily life our brain is forever trying to work out what’s going on around us, and one way we do this is by combining what we are seeing and what we are hearing together into a single stream of information. If we are walking into town, the sight and sound of a violin player on the street become fused into a single thought: “There’s a busker over there. What a happy tune.” If we are watching a film with “in film” music and we see and hear a busker playing a similar tune, we will come up with exactly the same thought. But if we are watching a film with a normal sound track that consists of that same happy violin music played over a clip of our hero walking down an empty street, we think, “Our hero’s in a good mood.” Because we are unable to link the music to a “real” source in the film, we focus on its emotional content, which we then superimpose onto the visual action.

Film directors have differing levels of interest in the music side of their films. Some directors—including Charlie Chaplin and Clint Eastwood—have even composed music for their own films. It’s quite common for directors to team up with a favorite composer, as Hitchcock did with Bernard Herrmann, the composer who, taking his inspiration from the sound of human screaming, wrote the famously terrifying “eee! eee! eee!” music for the shower scene in Psycho. Although the two men usually worked very well together, they completely disagreed about what was needed for this scene. According to Herrmann, Hitchcock’s instructions to him were “Well, do what you like, but one thing I ask of you: please write nothing for the murder in the shower.”18 Luckily for us Herrmann ignored the maestro, and a masterpiece was born. Since then composers have often conveyed terror in much the same way—with no melody, jerky rhythms, and high, dissonant harmonies. In fact, the shower scene music has become so iconic in its own right that it’s used as a standard terror signal.19 For example, the animated Pixar film Finding Nemo uses the shower scene music as a leitmotif for Darla—the little girl that all the fish are (justifiably) terrified of.

We can be thankful that, in this case, Hitchcock eventually agreed that Herrmann’s ideas about music for the scene were better than his own, but things don’t always work out so well for the composer. Movie music is usually completed after the filming ends, which means that it’s not available when the director is editing the movie. In order for the film to sound more like a finished product, and to help the composer get a feel for the type of music the director wants, the director often records a “temp track” of suitable music to accompany various parts of the movie. The temp track is frequently a collection of classical pieces that match the moods of the various scenes. Working day after day on the film edit, the director can get used to the temp track and, in some cases, will prefer it to the newly composed stuff written especially for the film. Two famous cases of this are the films 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Graduate. The director of The Graduate, Mike Nichols, was a big Simon and Garfunkel fan and wanted them to write a collection of new songs for the film, but in the meantime he made a temp track of existing songs. Ultimately the sound track combined some of the new stuff (“Mrs. Robinson”) with some of the original temp track (“The Sound of Silence”). In the case of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick decided to use his temp track of classical pieces for the finished film. This must have been extremely irritating for Alex North, the composer who had written and recorded a complete original sound track—especially as he only found out that his score had been dropped when he attended the opening night of the film! Kubrick also managed to irritate another composer, György Ligeti, by using two of his pieces in the film without getting his permission or giving him any acknowledgment.20

We humans are extremely prone to making up stories about whatever we see going on around us. Even when we are watching leaves floating down a stream, we sometimes look for types of behavior and might use human motives (e.g., competitiveness) and personality stereotypes (e.g., confident or shy) to fit a story to the situation. The fact that we ascribe motives to inanimate objects was proved fairly conclusively by a silent film that psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel made in 1944. The film, which is only one and a half minutes long, follows the adventures of two triangles and a circle as they move in and around a hollow square. Ever since the film was made, viewers have been automatically giving the three shapes personalities and motives and building up stories about what’s going on. The big triangle is widely regarded as a bully, and the other two shapes attract varying amounts of sympathy. You can watch the film on YouTube if you search for “Heider and Simmel.” I just did so, and I can confirm that the big triangle is indeed a bad-tempered swine who deserves a good thrashing. Mind you, that small triangle was asking for trouble.

Years after the film was made, another pair of psychologists, Sandra Marshall and Annabel Cohen, were looking for short movies for their experiments into the effect of music on our perception of what’s going on in a film. The Heider and Simmel film seemed like a good choice. In 1988 they played the film to three separate audiences: one group watched the film in silence, and for the others it was accompanied by either “weak” or “strong” music.*The psychologists initially thought that music would affect the viewer’s attitude toward the film in general—that strong music might make all the characters in the film seem more active, or more evil, while the weak music might have the opposite effect. The actual results were therefore a little surprising.

When the audience watched the film in silence, or with the weak music playing, they perceived the big triangle as being more active than the small one. When the strong music was played, however, the small triangle came across as the more active of the two (although it was still being bullied by the bigger one). The music was having different effects on the different “characters” rather than affecting the film as a whole.21 Marshall and Cohen looked into what was happening and came up with an intriguing theory that has gained a lot of influence in the intervening years.* It seems that our brain is involved in a two-stage process. First of all, our attention is drawn to an object whose movement has something in common (or nearly in common) with the rhythm of the music playing. If the music is fast, we focus our attention on whatever object is moving around quickly. Once we are focused on the object in question, our brain projects onto it the characteristics of the music—happy, fearful, sad, etc.22 In this case, the rhythm of the strong music fit best with the actions of the small triangle, so it came across as being very active. The actions of the large triangle didn’t fit with the strong music, so it didn’t grab the attention of the viewers, and the fact that it actually does move more than the small triangle was ignored.

Film directors and composers often use this trick of drawing attention to something or someone on the screen by making some aspect of the music synch with the movement of the object or person in question. This can be done purely rhythmically—as when Rocky (in Rocky II) runs to the beat of the music through the streets of Philadelphia and up the art museum steps.23 The on-screen action can also be mirrored in the contour of the melody, as in the rowing scene in Ben-Hur, where the melody follows the up-and-down movement of the oars.24 Rocky isn’t always exactly in time with the music, but we are quite forgiving of minor flaws in synchronization. An action and its accompanying sound can be out of synch by nearly a quarter of a second* before we find it noticeably peculiar.25

This is probably because we’re used to some lag time between what we see and what we hear. In real life, if we see a man one hundred yards away hit a fencepost with a hammer, the sound reaches our ears about a quarter of a second after the visual information reaches our eyes, because sound travels much slower than light. On top of that, we don’t process aural and visual information at the same rate. Audible and visual information go through different biochemical processes before they get transformed into electrical messages that whizz off to the brain. Our hearing system is faster at passing information to the brain than our vision system: visual signals take about a twentieth of a second longer to process than sounds.26

So, taking into account the different speeds of the sound and light as they travel toward your head, and the different processing speeds for the two types of information, the only time your brain gets exactly simultaneous eye and ear information is if the bloke hitting the fencepost is about fifty feet away.27 At every other distance the brain has to ignore the fact that there is a slight difference in timing between the sound event and the visual action. The sound information arrives at our brain a little late if the action is farther than fifty feet away, and a little early if the action is nearer than that. So the fact that sounds and actions don’t quite match up in films doesn’t bother us too much because we have an automatic tendency to mentally synchronize what we see and what we hear.

Which brings us to something very peculiar—and an experiment you can all do at home.

Put on a film, any film, and turn the sound off.

Now pick some music, any music, and play it as the sound track to the film.

In the words of psychologist Herbert Zettl, “you will be amazed how often the video and audio seem to match.”28 This is because there is generally a lot going on in any film and we tend to focus on actions that coincide with the beats, phrases, and climaxes of the music we’re hearing.

Obviously some combinations will disappoint even the most hopeful watcher, but you’ll be surprised how often things seem to synchronize very well. Oddly, you don’t need to start the music at any exact point in the film. Actions will appear to become synchronized quickly wherever you start the music. But how can that work?

Say you are watching a film of a tennis match to the sound of a random pop song. The music may, after a few seconds, synch with some of the foot movements of the players. After several seconds the music-foot movement synchronization will be lost, but now the music is in time with the impact of the ball and the racquet, and a few seconds later the beat fits the timing of the ball hitting the ground… Spooky…

Actually it isn’t spooky at all. Some feature of the action is likely to be approximately in time with the music at any point. Our brain likes things to be simple, and it requires less mental effort to combine a certain visual action with a sound rather than having to process them separately.29

If you want to see just how uncannily a random sound track can synch with a film, try taking the advice of Professor Scott Lipscomb from the University of Minnesota.30 Put on the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz and, at the beginning of the MGM lion’s third roar, press “play” on Pink Floyd’s 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon. Now sit back to be enthralled.