What to Listen for in Film Music

image of piano sheet music

The biggest difference between a symphony and a film score is that the symphony was created to stand on its own, to be the focal point of our attention. In comparison, a film score is meant to blend into the background of our attention adding to the emotional experience of the film without distracting from the story.

But film scores are unique an stimulating works of art that can be appreciated both as part of a film and on their own as a listening experience. Here are some ways you can deepen your appreciation and notice of film scores on the screen.

Music in movies is most often scored through entrance cues tied to particular things going on in scene. These cues can act the same way chapters used to work on DVDs dividing the film into its central beats. Most traditional three act films especially in the 90s can be read in this way.

Notice the music at the beginning of the film. How does it change to signal the significance of the inciting action? When is the next time the music’s character changes in a significant way? What does its timbre signal about the story on the screen?

Another way to notice music in film is through themes. In his book, Music and Mythmaking, Timothy E. Scheure dissects the early history of film themes as ways to short hand information to the audience about heroes, villains and damsels in distress. These themes can also be called leitmotifs. This is a technique where significant people, ideas, or objects, are assigned a particular arrangement of notes. Wagnerian operas first made this technique famous and it carried through to films as soon as they began to be scored. Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings score makes excellent use of leitmotifs and if you watch the trilogy with attention to these themes, you will learn new things about the subtexts of the scenes that is not otherwise visible. If that sounds like too much of a commitment, just spend seven minutes watching this vid.

The last way to notice music in film is the contrast between diegetic (music heard by the characters) and non-diegetic music (music heard only by the audience.)

In Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1998 film, The Legend of 1900, the interplay between diegetic and non diegetic plays an important role in the texture and story of the film helping build the sense of the story as a fable that is both true and perhaps not so true.

When you notice music in a film does it exist for the characters or just the audience? How does it change in different roles?

Jaye Viner knows just enough about everything to embarrass herself at parties she never attends. Her novel, Jane of Battery Park, arrives in August