How Movie Music Is Made
The magic of movies impacts us both individually and culturally. For years films have captivated audiences and created a great escape from the trials of daily life. But besides a great script, convincing actors, and effective directing, the movie music can truly make a film spectacular. But there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes in making movie music besides the composing. How is it so effective? And who makes it happen?
How it Happens
After the movie is shot and editing is underway, a supervising music editor oversees the first cut of the film. It's here that they look for important cues and where the music would be coming in. They decide where a theme should begin, where a “hit” is needed, and overall how effective the music will be in relation to the images on the screen. Through careful analysis with the director, editor, and music supervisors, the team can find where film music will be most compelling in the movie. From there, the composer works their magic in creating beautiful, moving pieces that will enhance the film’s storyline and character development. Watch the evolution of the Chariots of Fire theme come to life:
Mixing is the next step in creating film music. With the score composed and recorded, the mixer changes the levels of volume from a subtle background track, to sweeping orchestral themes. The timing of volume levels is very important in order to create clean, sharp audio. Without the careful attention to detail in this stage, the film music can become distracting or ineffective, the exact opposite of what we want a score to do. In this editing stage, careful attention is paid to creating texture, rhythm, and movement with the music. It’s not enough to have a great theme. It has to be timed and edited correctly to integrate with dialogue and sound effects. Again, this is a big effort between the sound mixer, editor, and director.
Role of Movie Music
Music is what gives life to a film, it’s the essential partner to make a movie move its audience. Perhaps the most important role of movie music is to create emotion. If a track in a film can be removed and not change the tone or meaning of the scene, then it’s not doing it’s job. Movie music should continuously be enhancing the scene and making us feel something. Otherwise, you’ll just tune it out as the movie goes on. And while movie music can be strategically composed to match the feeling of a scene, the most memorable score are the epic main themes that go beyond the expectation of the audience and create a new meaning to the film.
How Movie Music is Effective
A good film score, ideally, is one you won’t notice at all. It should integrate perfectly with the images on the screen, helping move and emote the story. It should heighten the drama, clue you into what’s happening next, or help resolve a plot line. What movie music shouldn’t do is draw attention to itself. If the score becomes too animated, it distracts the viewer instead of enhancing the experience. But if movie music can bring out emotions and help enhance the plot, the storytelling becomes very powerful. That being said, there are unforgettable themes that seem to announce themselves and create excitement through familiarity.
Themes for characters, setting, relationships help build a connection in your mind. Who could ever forget the villainous Imperial Theme from Star Wars? This theme has created a strong bond between the character Darth Vader and what we thinks of him.
The creation of themes is especially effective for a series of films like The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Harry Potter. Meaning is created once your brain has made a connection between a theme and a character. Now when you hear the theme, you know what the scene is about or what’s to come. Themes create anticipation as well as confirms familiarity. The feeling of excitement when you hear a character's theme is unsurpassed by any visual cue and effectively grabs your attention. And while movie music can direct emotions when simply matching the scene (high strings when it’s sad, ominous drones when it’s suspenseful etc), the score becomes much more effective when it challenges the audience’s expectations. This is how a film score can become a selling point itself: it becomes more than the film.
Movie music can sway your opinions and meaning of images without you even realizing it. Even if you can’t pinpoint a theme to a character, you’re still able to recognize an important track. But beyond individual meaning, movie music can create cultural importance. We remember these musical themes more than most top 40 hits. If someone asked you to sing a song from Star Wars or Harry Potter, it’s most likely you can do it on the spot. You can hum along to a film score even if you haven’t heard it for years. The movie music becomes as important as the characters and one-liners you love in films. These themes come to represent a time in history and pop culture that sticks in the memory of those who’ve experienced it.
In the end, it’s the attention to detail that produces effective movie music. The details in the mixing, the extensive work between editors and directors, and of course the compositions themselves. Like every component of a film, it’s a collaborative process. And when done right, it can make cultural meaning that extends far beyond the time it was created in.