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Importance of Music in Movies

Sound engineers record musicians performing the score for movies.
Vicheslav/iStock/Getty Images

Before movies had voices, they had music. From silent films to today's computer-generated extravaganzas, film composers use the score to help tell the story, fulfilling the vision of the movie's director. A movie's score engages the senses of the moviegoer, instilling emotions, establishing a mood, creating plot relationships and communicating time and place. The role of music is so important that names like John Williams, composer of such scores as "Star Wars," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and "Superman," are as well-known as those of the movies' directors.

Music Manipulates Emotions

The most obvious role music plays in movies is in manipulating the audience's emotions and engendering in them the desired feelings. The selection of certain sounds create feelings of happiness, fear or even panic. Science writer Philip Ball, author of "The Music Instinct," says our brain is hard-wired to respond in emotional ways: "Our response to certain kinds of noise is something so profound in us that we can't switch it off. Film composers know that and use it to shortcut the logical part of our brain and get straight to the emotional centers."

Music Gets Us in the Mood

The first bars of music in a movie usually establish its genre. The ponderous sound of an organ communicates a different atmosphere than light electronica playing a quick melodic tune. Film composers carefully choose instrumentation and sound to set a mood or tone for each scene in a film. The music telegraphs whether something is serious, suspenseful, joyful or amusing. The ominous "bum-bum, bum-bum" theme music that plays before the appearance of the shark in "Jaws" or the shrieking strings during the shower scene of "Psycho" both create an inescapable atmosphere.

Music Introduces People, Places and Things

Music helps viewers understand the plot, a trick filmmakers picked up from operas and Richard Wagner's use of leitmotifs. Film composers create specific musical signatures or theme music for characters, situations or places. A recent example of this can be found in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, in which upbeat, quick music is played for the hobbits, while the fellowship gets romantically heroic music. Composers also use theme music to foreshadow or connect different elements of the plot. There is scientific evidence that this works, reports Matthew V. Skelton in the website Film Score Monthly, based on the findings of Claudia Bullerjahn and Markus Guldenring, who investigated the effects of film music using content analysis and discovered that "film music polarizes the emotional atmosphere and influenced the understanding of the plot."

Music Places Us in Time and Space

Movies rely on music to help establish time period, location, cultural heritage or social standing. Using Baroque-style music sets a scene in the 18th century. "Back to the Future" used Huey Lewis' "The Power of Love" for its "present day" scenes and such songs as "Earth Angel" and "Johnny B. Goode" for its scenes in the past. Music doesn't have to be authentic for this to be effective. For example, music that audiences perceive to be Russian can set something in Moscow even if the music is actually American in origin.

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