Hearing Beyond Words

If you know me or have read some of my posts, you’ll know that I am a film music devotee. The music of film guided my early education in cinema as I came to know the work of Hitchcock through the music of Herrmann, Spielberg through Williams, Burton through Elfman, Fellini through Rota, and Leone through Morricone. From there, things multiplied quickly as my tastes expanded and I was introduced to different styles (minimalism), periods (Miklos Rozsa’s 40s noir), and trends (Jerry Goldsmith’s electronics). Ironically, despite my note-by-note analysis of many works, I have no training whatsoever in reading music or playing an instrument. Over the years I’ve picked up quite a bit of theory by reading album liner notes, film music texts, and critical writings on the subject. But it still remains an obstacle for someone like me who writes on film not to be able to delve into the compositional science of this so-called neglected art.

So, for years I have been trying to find ways to study the craft without relying on musicological methods. To be honest, most musicological studies of film music are dry reads, often forgetting that the notes and motifs are to be married to an image-track and joined with other sonic elements like dialog and effects. Strictly musicological studies tend to divorce the music from the rest of the film, preferring instead to reach broad-minded conclusions about artistic style and dramatic intent based on close textual readings of the score. What’s missing is an understanding of how music affects the audiovisual experience, and how that experience is crafted by composers in the industry.

Music as Industry

Johnny Williams

A few years ago, two other approaches to the study of film music struck a chord with me. The first is exemplified by Robert Faulkner’s 1978 essay in Qualitative Sociology, “Swimming with Sharks: Occupational Mandate and the Hollywood Film Composer.” Faulkner distills the working relationship between the composer and director in Hollywood and argues that the composer may have artistic license on a project, but ultimately the producer and/or director will negotiate the role and function of music in the film. Faulkner writes, “Only the craft really belongs to the craftsman. The product belongs to someone else.”

Faulkner’s approach is both economic and social, in that he focuses on the nature of collaboration in the film industry. He is less concerned with aesthetics or style as they relate to specific films or composers, but instead how artistic sensibilities gel with the larger filmmaking culture in Hollywood. “The composer’s clients seldom find themselves in the situation where they must follow instructions and depend on the recommendations of the artist/expert, as is often the case with a lawyer or physician,” Faulkner argues. “The commercial craft is precarious: it is negotiated and re-negotiated on a situation-to-situation basis. While both composer and filmmaker are theoretically in accord with the end product of their relationship — a ‘good’ film score — the means by which this is achieved can be a source of conflict. Meddling and interference is a constant problem. Once the score is completed, the filmmaker is the final arbiter of a composer’s labor. He or she has the power to do what he or she wants with the music.”

For anyone who bothers to know such things, there are too few studies of modern Hollywood that delve into the division of labor, the relationships among craftspeople, and the struggle between art and commerce. In my own research interviews with sound professionals, there is a common thread among them: many are experiencing shorter production schedules, budgetary cutbacks, and post-production supervisors and producers who want creative decisions made quicker and films turned around in record time. In this environment, composers sometimes have too little time to develop their ideas; other times, their ideas are drowned out by other sonic elements or dropped altogether from the final mix. Jerry Goldsmith’s second-last score for Richard Donner’s Timeline was dropped but subsequently released on CD by Varese Sarabande because eleventh hour editorial changes required Goldsmith to redo several cues. Because of his health at the time, Goldsmith and Donner agreed to part ways, which opened the door for Donner to hire Brian Tyler to compose a brand new score for the re-edited version.

The question remains how composers (and other craftspeople) deal with these obstacles. How does this affect their creative decisions and choices? To what extent do composers rely on what I would call “fallback principles” to complete a sequence or an entire score because of time restraints? By this I mean the degree to which composers utilize a set of creative assumptions based on training or instinct.

Music as Expression


The second approach rests on the expressiveness of film music. I am particularly drawn to Noel Carroll’s theory of “modifying music,” whereby music helps to clarify mood, setting, character, or dramatic import of a scene. Jeff Smith has noted that Carroll’s theory represents “an aspect of musical cognition, a means of enabling spectators to gauge the emotional qualities of a scene” (“Unheard Melodies? A Critique of Psychoanalytic Theories of Film Music”). By acknowledging the emotional currency of film music, we can begin to understand its affective qualities beyond both musicological and abstract psychoanalytic frameworks. “A cognitive account of film music,” writes Smith, “would not only more directly address the issue of the spectator’s awareness of film music, but would also address the spectator’s mental activities in utilizing cues that musically convey setting, character, and point of view.”

The study of musical cognition — or our ability to understand the emotional expressiveness of music — offers us a valuable way to discover how music affects our experience of a film. Even a casual observer will acknowledge the presence of repeated themes (motifs) that signify characters or other visual iconography. They will also be attuned to the tonal dynamics and mood of music in specific sequences. The ubiquitous example here that combines both of these affective properties is Jaws. I’m thinking specifically of the pier incident sequence when a pair of bright bounty hunters attempt to lure the shark to them with a holiday roast. We’re triggered to the presence of the shark by the two-note sawing motif. John Williams uses the motif not only to note the presence of the shark, but to also indicate its proximity to the bounty hunters. Since we cannot see the shark, the orchestra’s loudness and intensity act as barometers. We’re also cued to the danger and violence of the act, which is emphasized by the guttural churning of the double basses and horn counterpoint. Listen here.

The music here is an unambiguous example of music that serves an emotional role. The threat of the shark is expressed musically, since it is goes unseen for much of the picture. As an audience we are placed in a more informed position than the two hunters: we know when the shark is going to strike because the music (which is not heard by the characters) leads us to this conclusion.

The debate among film music scholars (and some fans) that film music should not manipulate or lead the audience is as old as the practice of underscoring for motion pictures. I gave up a long time ago trying to make sense of it, since many composers will admit that their job is in service to the dramatic and emotional core of the narrative. By their very nature they heighten the emotional tone of a scene through a variety of practices. In a 1996 interview Jerry Goldsmith exclaimed, “The job of the composer is to delve into the emotional aspect of the film. I’ve heard so many people and critics say, ‘Well, the music is leading the audience emotionally. It’s not right!’ Or, ‘you’re manipulating us!’ Well, what the hell? That’s what we’re here to do! Good film is manipulating your audience!”

Moving Music

First Contact

In this way, film music can move us emotionally. With all the hype surrounding the release of the J.J. Abrams’ new Star Trek film, I was reminded the other day of Goldsmith’s contribution to the musical heritage of Gene Roddenberry’s film and TV franchise, especially one scene at the end of 1997’s First Contact. I’m a fan of this entry in the series, but always felt the final scene played a bit stiff. However, all the hesitation and awkward staging seems to melt away when Goldsmith accentuates the emotional significance of this moment, when humankind makes first contact with an alien species. Skip ahead to 6:40 to see this sequence here.

“I want one theme that will sum up the entire…spiritual, dramatic message of the picture,” Goldsmith noted in 1993. “I need the main theme and I need some motif,” he added. “Not a theme but a motif. Something secondary.” These comprise Goldsmith’s building blocks of a score, no matter what genre, tone, or setting. These elements also carry with them the emotional punctuation and grammar of the score. In this example from Rudy, Goldsmith scores the final game with a brassy four-note motif that works in conjunction with the more lyrical and sweeping Irish-flavored theme for Rudy himself (heard when he’s carried out).


What’s even more impressive about the music than its emotional register is its ability to keep the sequence moving. When Goldsmith spoke about audience manipulation, he was referring to a particular practice that emphasizes emotional manipulation (high strings = tears; screeching strings = horror). But another kind of manipulation positions the composer as pace-setter. The Rudy example works well in this respect, since Goldsmith’s two melodies work to create two different moods that affect the pacing of the entire sequence. The 4-note football motif, with its diving violins and reactive brass, works the audience into a frenzy of surreal action. Although David Anspaugh’s camera remains at the sidelines for most of the sequence, the soundtrack (including the music and effects) remains much closer to Rudy’s perspective. Though Rudy cannot hear the music, Goldsmith approximates the tension and excitement with Rudy in mind. Once Rudy is lifted up by his teammates, the tone shifts and Goldsmith returns to the more familiar emotional pull of Hollywood film scoring. The lyrical theme, joined by a choir of voices, moves the audience tonally towards the film’s resolution as it moves them emotionally. The bold timpani roll signifies a slowing-down of the action as Goldsmith scores the remainder of the scene more gently, thereby stretching the apparent passage of time.

Two simple melodies in service to a story. Whether we consciously hear the music or not, Goldsmith and others like him have shown that music can be a modifying element in a film. I’ve tried to argue here that such a modifying effect need not be reserved to an emotional framework, designed to move the audience spiritually. This is certainly the case, even as Goldsmith has pointed out in the quotes above. However, my own attempts to study film music have led me to consider the modifying elements as temporal and spatial in nature. Music moves the audience through a sequence, both emotionally and temporally. Ask yourself why you feel almost out of breath after one of these dramatic sequences. You haven’t moved in your seat, but you have been moved by the rhythmic and expressive nature of film music.

Rudy finale


  1. Rick G. says:

    I bought the Rudy soundtrack specifically for its beauty and majesty. I love the innoncence of the opening music that contains a hint of optimism that is carried througout the entire film. I enjoyed how he started the walk-on tryouts with a flurry of flutes (if they were flutes) followed with the pounding of brass together with the rigors of the workout. It lent itself to the exhiliration that is Rudy’s, as he is finally working with his beloved team and the understanding of the demands required to be a member of the Fighting Irish.

    The score never takes away anything from the film and as I understand what you’re saying, it is married with the moving image to make it a “moving” image.

    Also, you know a good score whenever it is used in trailers for films that try to capture the essence from whatever film the music is borrowed.

  2. Adam Slight says:

    I can totally relate with the whole “manipulation” arguement. Regardless of my love for film music I’m always flipping back in forth in my opinion. You’re probably right — its best to just let it be.

    Also: I’m sure you’re noticing how heavyweight Giacchino is getting eh? I almost consider him to be today’s John Williams (yes yes, even though John Williams is still kicking around)

  3. Rick: Trailer music has always interested me. For a while I had a lot of fun seeing how many trailers used Newman’s “Shawshank” score, Edelman’s “Come See the Paradise”, and David Newman’s “Hoffa”. Throughout the 90s, these three scores were heard in countless trailers!

    Adam: I’m still wrestling with Giacchino. I think his music for Lost is first-rate. Considering the tight schedule of that series, I am continually amazed at his ability to create new and interesting themes week after week. However, I’m not sold on his feature work, if only because he hasn’t established a voice yet.

    His Incredibles score bore too close a resemblance to the Bond film “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” (Maybe not his fault, since Brad Bird might have wanted that 60s Barry sound). Speed Racer and Ratatouille didn’t do much for me, either. And I was really disappointed with Star Trek. His main theme sounded like a secondary motif that was about to give way to a larger, more “trekky” fanfare but never did. Check out the outstanding podcast by the Film Score Monthly guys analyzing the music of Trek and you’ll see/hear what I mean. Go to iTunes and listen free.

  4. Daniel J.S. says:

    I have to mildly dispute one of your points (as well as stick up for my profession) in this entry. You write that most musicological studies do not sufficiently account for the score’s situation within the complete audio-visual milieu, privileging purely musical analysis of the score. I’m not sure that “most” studies actually do this to begin with, certainly not those of the past ten years or so (if you haven’t already, check out the recent “Beyond the Soundtrack” from UC Press), but in any case what one mustn’t forget is that music has built up a series of codes and conventions over various generations that signify on their own and are understood (intuitively if not theoretically) by audiences through its hearing. Composers are aware of these tropes and how they are hermeneutically unpacked; in essence, what they often end up doing is taking the visual cues of the film and transposing them into these long-standing musical conventions that articulate musically what the films presents visually (for example, the use of tremolo strings to depict the supernatural, or the use of french horns as rustic couleur locale is prominent in Weber’s opera “Der Freischütz” of 1821). This is why all the talk of film as “Gesamtkunstwerk” doesn’t exactly match up with what often takes place. The score is written to be synchronized with the film, yes, but it still follows its own independent “rules.” If I may offer this contention, it is that what is directly integrated into the audio-visual experience is issues of musical form (I would include the use of leitmotifs and such here), transitions, etc. When it comes to things like melody, harmony, timbre, orchestration, etc. composers and orchestrators mobilize conventions and gestures that in many cases can be traced back to symphonic music and opera, particularly of the nineteenth century.

    I submit this is one of the reasons why musicologists emphasize the music in the study of film scoring: they find it productive to examine how longstanding sonorous tropes are adapted and transformed (and in some cases invented) to function in this new multimedia context; how the significations of these tropes dovetail into the meanings contained in the visuals. If the needs of the film narrative are adapted by composers to fit the conditions of music, is the score truly subordinate to the film? Is the score an autonomous piece of music after all? I’m not advocating for the unimportance of “an understanding of how music affects the audiovisual experience, and how that experience is crafted by composers in the industry” as you put it, but one shouldn’t dismiss readings that emphasize the music, because musical production is a unique cultural practice of its own and even as but one part of a greater totality, the production of film music relies upon the vicissitudes of music’s own history and carries cultural associations that are both independent of and enrich the understanding of film.

  5. Eric says:

    I had recently come across the practice of using Bin-aural audio waves to manipulate the human brains emotive senses. This is referred to as I-dosing. see link.


    These audio “experiments” had moderate effects on me personally but non the less I was intrigued by its emotional or psychological effects on the human mind.

    Due to this discover I happened to notice subtle usage of similar sounds in certain movies. Two I can recall right now are a 2009 movie called Antichrist and a more well know Hollywood production called Batman:Dark Night.

    I am currently trying to gather information from the internet on this audio practice in the cinema industry but to no avail.

    Maybe my search parameters are not correct for the required results I want as this is the closest topic I have found so far.

    Do any of you have some helpful links for me or just even some personal thought on this “theory”?

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