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Music Makes Movies

Since the very first silent films, music has been essential to the storytelling process.

by Jaclyn Bell / $"MMMM d, yyyy", $!cms.content.startDate)

Since the very first silent films, music has been essential to the storytelling process. In fact, even films created devoid of music, such as All is Quiet on the Western Front, had music added to it for one reason and one reason alone:  the audience.

Music can create a convincing atmosphere for your setting, help tell your story and strike an emotional cord, all of which are elements that will have your audience wanting more. Whether you are a filmmaker or an educator, taking the time to discuss the importance of music in the movies can turn a good film into a great one.

Music impacts the audience

Could you imagine your favorite epic film without a rousing musical score? I doubt it would be nearly as exciting and inspiring without the drums and orchestrated energy. Or have you ever turned down the volume on your television while watching a horror movie? If you have, then you realize that the fear factor is almost completely eliminated.

Incorporating music into your own films can not only make your final cut more interesting, but it also allows the audience the ability to connect emotionally to your characters and their situation, and you, the filmmaker, to reinforce your story and/or message. For example, a scene of a happy couple exiting the church after having just been married would probably include an inserted love song to match what the characters were feeling at that moment. Meanwhile, our favorite horror movies would take a different approach: using music to create suspense and impending fear of what lies around the corner.

The added music changes the audience's mood entirely and provokes strong emotions from them, or at least in a horror movie it lets us know when we should cover our eyes! Just remember that the music and the picture should relate to one another in order to inspire the desired effect upon the audience.

Think this sounds like a hard thing to do? You are right. Using music to connect with your audience on a higher level is a tricky thing because choosing the right piece of music could make or break a film. The trick is, don't over think your decision and experiment.

Directors pay painstaking attention to the music they use and often try out their musical scenes on test audiences to gauge their reactions. Steven Spielberg only needed three notes in his suspenseful Jaws theme, composed by John Williams, (link to a scene comparison with and without music), to work up his audience: Da-Dum ... Da-Dum ... Da-Dum Da-Dum Da-Dum Da-Dum ...DA DA DUM! Don't be fearful of trial and error, and don't be afraid to keep your music simple.

Setting the scene

Music can also create a more convincing atmosphere of time and place for your film as well. The sound of bagpipes might conjure up ideas of Scotland and misty green fields, or the strings of a sitar invoke images of the far East. Muted bass notes might denote something sinister whereas rock music might suggest something youthful.

Consider the setting of your film and how music can enhance the ambiance. Without even realizing it, your audience will relate to the sounds and get pulled into your story.

Finding the right music

Most music in films can be heard in the background of a scene, or sometimes it takes center stage in an action sequence, but either way the right music does make a statement. The most common style of movie music is instrumentals because music with lyrics often distracts the audience from the intended storyline or dialogue.

To start, you should first research royalty free and public domain music online. This music is often available at no charge, and the artists that compose them will not expect payment when your film earns its critical acclaim. You might also consider creating your own music with free online applications such as Audacity, ACID Express, Jam Studio, or programs such as CakeWalk Media Creator 5, Music Maker, and Mac's Garage Band.

No matter where you get your music, however, you should always cite your source and give musical recognition in the closing credits of your film. Proper music citation is as follows:

  • The name of the artist
  • The name of the song
  • The title of the album
  • The manufacturer (e.g., EMI, Tommy Boy, Warner Brothers)
  • The year it was produced

It will look like this in MLA format:
Doe, John. "Song Title." Album Title. Manufacturer, Year.

Music guides your audience and invokes the emotions behind your film's story, the action and the words. It is a great enhancement to any film. Movies have never been "silent," and as a filmmaker you should experiment with music.

Think about how the music you choose lends to the message you are trying to convey, and the atmospheres you are trying to create. To the audience, music is the "color" of your film, painting in parts of the story where your script and dialogue do not.

About the Author: Jaclyn Bell is a digital media instructor and the director of community content for OneSeventeen Media Inc. as well as the competition director of the Young Minds Digital Times Student Film Competition.

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