Research Unplugged: Movie Music 101
Watch the opening scene of The Shining and try not feel a little uneasy.
Seriously, it’s impossible. The windy roads, the yellow Beetle inching farther and farther from civilization, unknowingly headed toward Heeeere’s Johnny!, those creepy twins, and impending doom.
Now imagine the same scene set to John Denver’s “Country Roads” (or see it for real by turning off the sound on the above clip while playing this one in a separate window). The windy roads become tranquil and welcoming; it could be the opening to a nature documentary or a coming-of-age tale set in a peaceful country cabin.
The impact of music in film was the topic of Thursday’s Research Unplugged, a series of talks open to the public and held each Thursday this fall in the Schlow Memorial Library. This week, the presenter was Penn State musicology professor and music historian Charles Youmans, who used video clips—from the earliest “talkies” to more modern flicks—to demonstrate just how crucial music is to the way movies are perceived. “Composers are aware of how music pushes our buttons,” he says. Here’s a breakdown of some of his most powerful examples:
Frankenstein, 1931: Incorporating music into early film “troubled filmmakers,” explained Youmans. “They thought viewers would wonder, ‘Where’s that music coming from?’” There’s no music in Frankenstein; we watched a scene where the monster comes upon a little girl in the woods, and without musical cues to set the tone, it’s hard to tell if he’s planning to harm or befriend her. (Spoiler alert: Frankenstein makes nice at first, then tosses her into a pond.) Almost subconsciously, says Youmans, we rely on music to “tell us how to feel.”
King Kong, 1933: Director Merion C. Cooper was convinced music was necessary in film, and King Kong was the first movie with a full-length score. We watched the scene when the ship first closes in on Kong’s island, and the foreboding music makes it very clear that something bad is about to happen.
The Searchers, 1956: Youmans used clips from this classic western to explain leitmotifs, when certain chords or rhythms represent characters or themes. Because it’s unclear whether John Wayne’s character is a hero or a villian, his leitmotif is in the mysterious-sounding key of D flat major, and it plays every time he enters a scene. Youmans says you’ll notice more subtle leitmotifs in Star Wars and the Harry Potter movies.
There Will Be Blood, 2007: With today’s technology, explained Youmans, sound effects are becoming just as important as a film’s score. There’s a really cool scene in There Will Be Blood when the metallic creak of an oil rig blends perfectly with the orchestral score. And because the movie is about a man’s singular focus on oil, a cluster of tones “coalesces into a single note” during the opening credits, he says, representing obsession.
Interesting stuff, huh? Youmans’ talk made me want to re-watch all my favorite movies and pay closer attention to the music — and how it manipulates my emotions.
This fall’s Research Unplugged series is only half over. Check out the schedule of upcoming talks here.
Mary Murphy, associate editor