Imagine a movie stripped of its music.
Maybe you’ve never considered the role music plays in film, but think for a moment. What would Indiana Jones desperately running from a boulder be without symphonic drama and rhythmic percussion to build suspense? Would Superman, without a noble brass fanfare, seem quite so heroic? Simply put: The music of movies taps into our emotions using melody, volume, and tempo, helping the viewer experience a deeper level of anticipation, joy, fear, or sadness.
Chances are, just the mention of movies like
Jaws, Harry Potter, and Star Wars not only brings a particular scene to mind but will (no doubt) have you humming. The soundtracks of films like these are not only famous; they evoke an emotional response that tells you how to feel about the movie, or at least about a special cinematic moment. Film composers like John Williams, who wrote the music for these three films, help define the viewer’s understanding through sound. Let’s face it, who can forget: bah-dump… bah-dump… bah-dump… BAH-DUMP, BAH-DUMP, ... BAH-DUMP …? For sure, that shark was closing in for lunch. BAH-DUMP
From the suspenseful, warning low brass of Jaws, to the mysterious fairytale sounds of the celeste in the Hedwig’s Theme from
Harry Potter, to the march-like rhythms of Darth Vader’s theme, the musical soundtracks from movies shape our motion pictures experiences along with the action on the screen.
Caption: John Williams Scoring
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Photo from TashTish Licensed for reuse under Creative Commons
So, What’s Going On?
A film score is music that exists to specifically accompany a movie. It both supports and extends the film’s dialogue, action, and sound effects to bring to life the director’s vision for the movie, and ultimately complete the story. Though a movie-goer might not be able to tell, scoring a movie is a complicated and intricate process.
Its Own Distinct Art Form
Film scoring has evolved as its own unique art form. First, the movie’s director must decide how music should best serve the film. This includes considering style and tone, deciding which portions will include music, and where the musical cues begin and end. Often the composer is provided a rough cut of the film along with cue notes. Sometimes the director has chosen temp tracks—existing music or audio that is used in film production during the editing phase—to provide the composer with guidelines for the film score. These temp tracks give the composer a blueprint of sorts for the tempo, mood, or musical landscape the director hopes to create in each scene.
When the director has finished providing guidelines, the composer is sent off to write and orchestrate. Then, the music is recorded before editing begins. Usually, the music is edited to match the film, although sometimes the opposite may be true. Theatrical moments in the film will be synced to the musical events in the score, a mathematical process of calculations that provides a dramatic effect for the viewer.
Check out this scene from the Indiana Jones flick
Raiders of the Lost Ark. Notice how the sound effects and music work together with the action to enhance the drama of the scene. VIDEO The Changing Musical Landscape
Some of the challenges of film scoring, combined with the rise of technology, have changed the face of film music. Film scores were traditionally one of the more difficult parts of film production. It was expensive to pay not only the composer but all the instrumentalists. Scores were technical—attempting to match the tempo of live music to film scenes required methodical precision, and sometimes plain old good luck. Editing music was difficult and rerecording it was expensive. Film scores had to be the last thing completed, leaving almost no room for error in the creative process.
Enter: Hans Zimmer.
Zimmer changed movie music forever by pioneering the use of computers to make music. Computerized composition was revolutionary for film scores, allowing the film director to hear the music as it was written, tweak tempos to precisely match film action, and edit the film and music concurrently, for much less money. Zimmer embraced digital composition, working with it over time and improving it as technology simultaneously improved. Because short, sharp sounds were among the first for computer generated music to perfect (think percussion and staccato brass or strings), the “Zimmer Sound” is that of percussive, rhythmic, heavy brass. It’s more of a landscape of sound—texture rather than melodies and harmonies. Truth be told, most film scores are written with composition software today. And while some go on to be rerecorded with a live orchestra, many don’t.
The capabilities of today’s technology are once again revolutionizing how music is created. The future of music is, according to Amper Music, a collaboration between humans and artificial intelligence (AI). Amper is an all-in-one performer, composer, and producer for songs, apps, films, and videos. With Amper’s software, an artist simply selects a mood, style, and length of the music desired for a composition. The software responds with a preliminary composition, and the artist can use built-in functions to modify variables like tempo, instrumentation, and even melody. The result is a unique, fine-tuned soundtrack customized to the exact needs of the user.
Watch what the AI company Amper Music, Inc. says about the future of music:
Though technology has cemented a place in film scoring, the use and impact of music remains unchanged. Music in the movies conveys what a movie is trying to say without words and conjures an emotional response even the most inspired dialogue cannot.
John Williams is one of the most accomplished and prolific film composers of all time. Beginning as a concert and jazz pianist, Williams literally played his way into Hollywood studios, at first as a way to pay the bills. Williams found work as a piano accompanist for television series in the 1950s and 60s, which eventually led to work arranging and orchestrating TV scores, then composing for television. Finally, Williams found work composing for major motion pictures, beginning with suspense and disaster movies, ultimately becoming a fixture on the landscape of American film and creating some of the most well-loved soundtracks of all time.
Williams first teamed up with Steven Spielberg in
The Sugarland Express, and then the duo became a power team with the blockbuster Jaws. Williams went on to score all but three of Spielberg’s films. In fact, it was Spielberg who recommended Williams to his friend George Lucas, director of Star Wars. Lucas originally intended to use existing classical music, but Williams took Lucas’s saga about an epic space battle and provided the new music that propelled the series into the fabric of American pop culture.
The music of
Star Wars weaves together the emotional high and low of the film series, helping viewers feel the movie.
Photo from Chris Devers Licensed for reuse under Creative Commons
NSO Pops conductor Steven Reineke calls Williams “a living legend” and “the finest film composer living today.” Williams bridges what critics often call the Golden Age of Hollywood, a time when film composers set movies to classical symphonic music, with the modern. While many contemporary films feature pop or synthesized electronic scores, Williams has been nominated for 41 Oscars®, nearly all with orchestral scores. From
Jurassic Park to Harry Potter, to, of course, Star Wars, Williams’s impact on American film is deep and wide and Williams’s music has become virtually as famous as the films themselves.
Listen to a mashup of just some of the music of John Williams:
In addition to his more classical European orchestral sound, the music of John Williams features trademarks that even novice listeners can detect. His music includes heavy use of
leitmotif, (pronounced LIGHT-moh-teef), a musical term for a recurring musical phrase (melody, chord progression, or rhythm) that is memorable to the listener, often called a motif for short. Think back to Jaws. The bah-dump… bah-dump is a two note motif that helps the viewer anticipate the danger of the approaching shark more intensely.
Like nearly all of his scores, Williams employed leitmotif heavily in
Star Wars. He linked each of the main characters of the film with a motif and used instrumentation—the way the instruments are arranged to play the music—to clue the audience into subtler features of the film. For example, low brass instruments often introduce the Death Star while an energetic trumpet serves as a symbol of the heroic in the most well-known theme of the movie.
Listen to the most famous themes (or motifs) used in
Star Wars: A New Hope: VIDEO (Watch beginning through 4:00)
National Symphony Orchestra is made up of 96 musicians who perform around 150 classical and popular concerts each year. The NSO is performing in its 86th season. In a way, the Kennedy Center is its home—the NSO has performed at the Kennedy Center every year since the Center opened in 1971. The orchestra is committed to music education and audience engagement. While NSO concerts typically present more traditional, classical music for orchestra, Pops concerts usually feature popular music, from classic pop standards to Broadway classics and to modern-day hits.
Photo from Scott Suchman
Steven Reineke is the conductor of The New York Pops at Carnegie Hall and Principal Pops Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Reineke has collaborated with leading artists from Kendrick Lamar to Ben Folds, and created more than 100 Pops orchestral arrangements, performed all over the world.
Check This Out…
We mentioned earlier that composer John Williams wrote a leitmotif for each of the main characters. Once a motif is associated with a character or idea, it helps the composer convey subtle shades of meaning about a scene—when it plays, its arrangement, and its timing give you clues about what a composer wants you to know or feel about the scene. Listen for these clues at important moments for each of the main characters in the film. What instruments do you hear associated with each character? How do the motifs train you as an audience member to attach feelings or ideas to each of the characters?
Soundtracks aren’t the only way that films use sound. Sound designers use sound effects to bring stories to life. What sounds does
A New Hope sound designer Ben Burtt incorporate, and what are their effect? For more on Burtt, …visit The Music of Sound: Ben Burtt: The Sounds of Star Wars Williams drew inspiration from classical composers for many of his motifs. Listen for the eerie music that occurs when C-3PO and R2-D2 are stranded on the desert planet Tatooine. What does the music foreshadow?
Now listen to the portion of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” beginning at 15:55.
Sound familiar? Though the context may be different, just as the music in A New Hope signals danger, so it does in Stravinsky’s masterpiece.
Think About This…
Did you know Williams isn’t the only composer to use motifs to introduce and symbolize characters? The term leitmotif was first applied to the operas of Richard Wagner to describe a recurring melody associated with a character, place, emotion, or idea. And much more recently, composer Lin Manuel Miranda used a musical motif for each of the major characters in his hit musical
Hamilton: An American Musical. If you were a character in an opera, show, or film, what would your leitmotif sound like? Film music often pulls from music of various genres and even older films. For example, in Star Wars, John Williams pulled from classical composers like Stravinsky and Holst, but also from old Western movie soundtracks. Why might one composer draw inspiration from another’s music? What impact do you think this has on the listener’s experience?
Ok, so you get the point: Film scoring is really important to a movie’s meaning. To totally understand this, try experiencing the effect of music on a scene’s tone and mood in this clip: VIDEO
Directors often use temp track guidelines for the desired tempo, mood, or overall direction of the music for a scene. Try your hand at creating a temp track—it’s not nearly as difficult as you think! First, choose a scene from your favorite movie. YouTube is great for finding exactly what you’re looking for. Next, mute the scene and think about what music you would use to convey the mood of the scene. Consider the actions, events, and emotions that occur in the scene. Now comes the fun part. Maybe you already have a song in mind, but if not, visit sites like freemusicarchive.org to see if you can find music that “fits” the scene. If you’re a musician, you might even try composing something yourself. You can stop there or use audio/video software to put it all together.
If you feel like sharing (and you used music that can be legally shared), post your video to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat, or any other platform. Tag five friends and ask them to share how music in movies impacts them as a viewer. Use
#temptrack as your hashtag.
Caption: NSO Violins by Carol Pratt
Teacher & Parent Guide
Parents and Teachers: We’ve Got You Covered
Hey adults! Whether you’re a
Star Wars aficionado or new to the whole world of pops music (that is, popular music or show tunes), we’re here to help. This performance is all about understanding how the music of films impacts how the viewer sees and, more importantly, experiences the movie.
There are few films that can boast a film score as popular and enduring as the movie itself, but the films in the
Star Wars series are certainly among the few. Composer John Williams is a staple in American film scores, writing the music for over 100 films. He’s been nominated for over 40 Academy Awards® for his work, and is largely considered one of the most successful film composers of all time. His success has helped audiences, critics, and even directors understand how significant the score is to the entire cinematic experience, even if their work is heard and not seen.
Here are a couple of relevant links that can help you get started:
Alright, you’re ready to hear the
NSO Pops’s Open Rehearsal: . Star Wars: A New Hope Standards Connections
Music, Theatre-Connecting (Cn11)
Literacy in History/Social Sciences (RH.9)
Social Studies - U.S. History, Civil Rights