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The Importance of Music on Film & Emotion

Steven Howsley | October 7, 2020

This article was originally posted on Raindance Film Festival website.

If you took a second to close your eyes and think about Star Wars, what comes to mind? What are you hearing? Laser blasters, light sabers, possibly a dramatic score by John Williams? For the major films in pop culture, music plays a major role in developing the themes and tone of the production.

For scores of a more subtle nature or even in commercial work, music still shapes how we perceive the visual imagery on screen.

For example, imagine a scene where our main actor is running through a field. The brush is tall and they are running at a fast pace with no clear emotion on their face. In the background you hear a brooding horror soundtrack with shrill violins and low end rumbles. How are you feeling for our actor? Scared or concerned?

Now imagine the same scene, our actor running through the field, but this time an inspiring action soundtrack emerges. Triumphant brass and orchestra take charge and sound just like your favorite super hero flick. What are you feeling now? Probably something different than our last example.

Though the change of soundtrack for our scene was subtle, the interpretation of the scene changed dramatically. The same principle applies to all of film — whether it’s a toothpaste commercial or blockbuster hit. If you’re looking for great commercial music, stock music subscription or library sites may be a good bet. If you’re making the next Avengers movie, better hire a professional composer.

Here is my favorite video on how music impacts all types of filmmaking:

But what about removing music all-together? Now that we know that changing a soundtrack can change the scene, will removing it do the same? In short, the answer is yes. While there are plenty of wonderful silent films out there, most films need a score. Don’t believe me? Let’s bring this full circle and look at an iconic scene from Star Wars at the end of The Force Awakens where Rey climbs to the top of the island to meet Luke Skywalker for the first time.

I’m cherry-picking this scene because there is nearly no dialogue for the entire 3-minute scene and John Williams has his score do most of the talking. I’ve found two clips of this scene, one with and without music, and I think it will blow your mind. In particular, pay attention to how awkward and strange the last 30 seconds are compared to the version with the score. The scored version is powerful, literally showing how music creates a language and emotion of it’s own.


Without Score:

Music plays into emotions more than you may realize and when it comes to filmmaking it is one of those essential things that can really make or break a production. The next time you are looking for production music, take your time and think about how your viewer may interpret your scene based on the supporting music.

Written by Steven Howsley

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