Human Aesthetics

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My Struggling to Find Music’s Relation to Films

by Veka Prameshti*

[Jakarta, LttW] Recently I read news about Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Atticus Ross doing another film score for David Fincher’s ‘Gone Girl’ – a movie adapted from a novel written by Gillian Flynn that tells a story about a couple’s dark marriage. Well, little surprise that David Fincher chose the duo to do the film score, as Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are very well-known for creating music that brings out the dark, mysterious, thrilling, gloomy kind of ambiance that puts the audience on edge while watching movies in which they score the music (e.g, ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’, ‘The Social Network’).

I’m no expert in this, but you may call me music and film enthusiast who is struggling to find the relation among music and films; and that leads to the questions, how do Mr. Reznor and Mr. Ross response to Mr. Fincher’s movie? If I’m referring to Keith Negus’s thinking, in which music alone could construct a variety of images within our mind, what would actually happen when those images are ‘reduced’ to a single image—or a scene in this case—belongs uniquely to the director? And vice versa, if an image could ‘speak’ loud enough already, why would a director needs music anyway?

Let’s take silent films as an example; Michel Hazanavicius’s film ‘The Artist’ (2011) might suit the criteria. As a non-audible moving picture, the audience have no way of knowing the tone in which the actors are speaking in; in this case, the audience rely solely on the moving visual, and the actors’ acting to present the story that is being told. In my opinion, however, those two are not enough. In order for a story to be captured and understood by the audience, a movie needs a way to communicate what facial expressions and written texts cannot. This is where music comes in; it made a whole lot of sense to me with the language of music throughout the film.

One of the scenes of ‘The Artist’ (2011)

Another case comes from the Disney’s animated film ‘Fantasia’ (1940), which seems quite the opposite with what music does to silent films. In ‘Fantasia’, music turns out to be the point of departure, before later responded by the story and the visual. The film consists of eight animated segments set to pieces of classical music conducted by Leopold Stokowski; seven of which are performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra (Wikipedia). As far as I can remember, ‘Fantasia’ is all centered on the story and animation, while music is at the peripheral; and I was wrong. However, the thought that classical music fits perfectly with the animation, remain the same. In fact, it has become my habit to visualize classical music with films in general; a good example might be Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey, and the legendary John Williams who scores for the ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Indiana Jones’ trilogies.

Excerpt from ‘Fantasia’ (1940) featuring The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky.

Music surely does a lot of things to films; it creates ambiance, sets the tone of the movie, imply the sense of space, create contradictions, giving direction of emotion, and so on. Music also expresses, highlights the intangible and invisible aspects in a movie. All in all, it helps as well as enhances the story telling process. However, my view may seem very music-oriented—and it doesn’t feel right; then I assume, this must be related to the artistic and symbolic understanding on both sound and visual symbols, in which I’m lacking of.

In search of a good explanation on the relation between music and film, I was borrowed a copy of “Popular Music in Theory” (Keith Negus, 1996) from a friend, and found the semiotic connections between sound and visual as analyzed by Andrew Goodwin. “For Goodwin, video images had not simply been imposed on a musical song but had been drawn out of the music due to the way that the music itself carried certain meanings and signified in various ways,” as recalled by Keith Negus. “Goodwin suggested that the sound-image relationship could be approached via the distinctions between icon, index, and symbol.” (see the box below)

Referring to the above account, I assume that within the general conception of the sound of films, music—or commonly termed as the original soundtrack—is just one of the determinant factors to give sound to films, or in other words, to communicate the story to the audience. Else there are atmospheric sound effects, audible dialog, etc. Again, I have to have enough understanding on the visual symbols as well to get to know the relation among these two. Knowing that cultural context is one of the prerequisites, I must understand the history behind whatever musical genres and visual symbols a film director may use; then I would start to comprehend the core message of a film.

Disappointingly, I often fail to consider that films are basically an interdisciplinary work in which moving images and sound should be experienced as one. Furthermore, after being introduced upon Sacred Bridge’s thoughts and analysis on cultural creations such as movie— in which one possess a great deal of inter-mechanism works among literature, acting, visual arts, fashion, sound, music, technology, and so on— then my short of references regarding all of those fields had determined how I appreciated any movie creation.

Most of the greatest movies in history aren’t just great because of the good actors, or directors, or composers. They are great also because they had the perfect teamwork to tackle such disciplines involved. For music, they need composers who are able to create the right symbols, which would allow the audience to feel, connect, and engage in the story told through motion pictures. At last, I will not be able to entirely drown in the feeling of intense suspense or fear in the movie ‘Silence of the Lambs if it weren’t for the music composed by Howard Shore, who also worked on ‘The Lord of The Rings’ Trilogy, ‘The Aviator’, ‘Hugo’, ‘The Departed’, ‘Doubt’, just to name a few.

In conclusion, for a motion picture to have profound effects on the audience – not only does it need to have a great cast and crew; on top of it all, it requires the audiences’ awareness and understanding on all of those ‘unspeakable’ meanings, carried thorough musical and visual symbols. So, good luck with the struggle, folks!


*Veka Prameshti is our newest local contributor regarding issues around music and arts.

Veka Prameshti

Author: Veka Prameshti

Veka was born and raised in Jakarta, Indonesia. In early 2004, she left for Switzerland to study and earned a dual degree in Hospitality Management and Business Administration in 2007. She also studied Music Business in California, and graduated in 2009.

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4 years ago

Since symbols are “invented” regarding one’s aesthetic experiences, there’ll be a point when we hardly understand the movies with “uncommon” symbols. This is a problem that i often encountered. But that’s the struggle is all about right?