Have you ever tried watching a film with the sound turned down? It sometimes only becomes apparent quite how essential the musical score is when you take it away. A musical score performs many functions, and we will discuss a number of those here. The composer Aaron Copland, who produced some classic film scores himself, divided the functions that film music can perform into five categories. By taking a look at each of these categories in turn, we can discover some of the wide variety of ways in which film music can affect an audience. Of course an audience won’t always know that they are being influenced, even manipulated, by the music – but don’t doubt for a second that they are. If you use the following tips when you put together your film score, you will ensure that your music takes on a powerful story-telling role in your film.

1. Create A Sense of Time & Place

Music can be a fantastic shorthand that can set the scene in a matter of moments. We hear the sound of a sitar and immediately we are in India, we hear Buddy Holly and we are in 50s America. The mind makes these connections without us having to think consciously about it – an audience can be transported instantly to a specific time and place before they have even seen an image. Here is an example from the opening of George Lucas’ American Graffiti. We actually hear the music before we see anything at all, and already we start to get a feel for where and when the film will be set.

Bill Haley & His Comets – ‘Rock Around The Clock’ from American Graffiti

2. Create Or Underline Psychological Refinements

We can use music to tell the audience what a character is thinking. Sometimes we know that a character is angry, and the music just underlines this fact. Other times, maybe the character isn’t showing any emotion at all, and this is when we can do some very interesting things with the score. Take a look at the clip below from the Royal Tenenbaums; the actors do very little, but the music tells us a story of unrequited love. We learn a huge amount about the on-screen relationship very quickly through the use of Nico’s ‘These Days’ on the soundtrack. You don’t necessarily need a song with lyrics to do this of course, although that is what has been done in the example below. In fact, when you are performing this technique and there are lyrics in your piece of music, you have to be careful not to be too literal or this can come off as a bit cheesy. Look for words that say what you are trying to convey in a more roundabout way.

Nico – ‘These Days’ from The Royal Tenenbaums

3. Use Music As A Neutral Background Filler

This may seem counter-intuitive. Why bother with music if it going to be ‘neutral’ – if it is not going to do anything? The great thing about this is that it means we can gradually transition the music out of being neutral, and into being dramatic, or tense, or sweet – often without the audience noticing. They will begin to feel a certain way without ever thinking about why. The clip below shows a classic example from Sunset Boulevard. The music sits below the voiceover, and becomes what is called an ‘underscore’. Of course it can then increase in presence at any time to emphasise some part of the on-screen narrative.

Franz Waxman’s score for Sunset Boulevard

4. Build A Sense Of Continuity

Quickly cutting from one location to another could be sonically quite jarring if all we had were sound effects. Music can smooth these transitions beautifully. Sometimes leaving a final chord ringing out over a change in scene can ease the audience gently into the next part of the narrative. The classic use of music in building continuity is of course in the montage, and montages don’t get better than this! Notice how we hear relatively few sound effects in this sequence – the sonic focus really is on the music.

Bill Conti – ‘Gonna Fly Now’ from Rocky

5. Underpin The Theatrical Build-Up Of A Scene

This is what we tend to think of when we think of film music; a score underpinning the story, making the drama more dramatic, making a love scene more intense. The chilling, atonal build behind Heath Ledger’s speech in the clip from the Dark Knight is a great example. It gives us a window into the Joker’s character (as per point 2 above), but it also underpins the narrative of his story, getting shriller, more intense and more manic as the story progresses. A great example of why Hans Zimmer is such a sought-after composer.

Hans Zimmer – ‘Why So Serious’ from The Dark Knight

Sometimes scoring the opposite of what is happening in the film can be even more effective. This probably isn’t a technique that should be used very often, but once in a while in can be extraordinarily successful. The torture scene from Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs is a classic example of this technique; the violence onscreen seems even more brutal when you contrast it with the sunny pop of Stealers Wheel on the soundtrack. This final clip maybe not be one for the squeamish:

Stealers Wheel – ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’ from Reservoir Dogs