How Does Music Help Movies or Films?

By Dennis Costa ; Updated September 15, 2017

Cinema and music are two art forms that go really well together. After all, movies comprise images and sound, and apart from dialogue and sound effects, music serves an important function in telling a story and underlining the drama in a given scene or sequence.

Ages-Long Connection

For thousands of years, the performing arts of drama and music have been linked together, according to the book “Complete Guide to Film Scoring.” Early Greeks and Romans used choruses to accompany their dramatic plays. Precedents also exist in Japanese Kabuki theater, Shakespearian plays during the Renaissance, and the opera and ballet plays that developed in the Baroque period.

Early Days

A pianist or a group of musicians frequently accompanied early silent films with live music in order to bring an additional dimension to the viewing experience. The first documented instances of this mix of moving images with music occurred in London and Paris screenings held by the Lumiére family. In 1908, Camille Saint-Saens wrote what is believed to be the first film score specifically composed for a film. However, expense issues made this kind of practice rare at the time.

Advent of Sound

It wasn’t until the arrival of sound in motion pictures--heralded by the Al Jolson movie “The Jazz Singer” in 1927--that music played a larger role in cinema. At the time, musicals became popular. The ability to record music separately from the rest of the production was developed some years later and made things easier and less expensive. The usage of source music--music that seemingly came from somewhere in the scene--became common, as was the usage of theme songs written to promote the film.

Physical Functions

Music can assume many functions within a movie, a sequence, a scene or even a moment. These can be divided in physical, psychological and technical functions. On the physical aspect, music can set up the location of the story (e.g., playing folkloric music in an exotic location). Music can also serve to establish a time period, a practice used frequently in period pieces. In moments where the action or suspense ratchets up, music can heighten those moments to great dramatic effect.

Psychological Functions

Music can function as a storytelling device when it comes to characterization by revealing thoughts and feelings of a given character. Another key function of music is establishing the mood or tone of the film, which also has a psychological effect on the audience itself. Some directors and composers take this conceit a step forward and effectively deceive the audience through music, setting up expectations about something and suddenly turning the tables through what is called a reversal.

Technical Functions

Transitions from one scene to another, especially if the second scene is set at an entirely different location, can be jarring to the viewer, but music helps soften this transition by establishing auditory links from one scene to the next, thus creating continuity. Themes and textures can also be reused at significant moments or in connection to certain characters to create a sense of overall cohesiveness to the movie as well as a sense of dramatic build.

Notable Film Composers

Some of the most acclaimed film composers include John Williams, with films like “E.T. The Extraterrestrial” and “Jaws” from director Steven Spielberg; Max Steiner, who scored the original “King Kong” and the classic “Gone with the Wind”; Danny Elfman, who frequently collaborates with director Tim Burton in movies like “Batman” and “Ed Wood”; Bernard Herrmann, an iconic composer with productions like “Citizen Kane” and “Psycho” under his belt; and Ennio Morricone, who scored many spaghetti westerns like "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” Other notable composers include Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, James Horner, Howard Shore, Alan Silvestri, Nino Rota, Randy Newman and James Newton Howard.

About the Author

Based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Dennis Costa works as a speechwriter. Since 2004, he has also been contributing to the "Caribbean Business" newspaper, and "Vida Actual," a Spanish-language lifestyle magazine. Costa holds a Bachelor of Arts in communications.