Film - The Psychology of Soundtracks


How much does music play a part in the film and TV that you watch? Steve Taylor-Bryant investigates the psychology of music in the film industry. The article was written in memory of musical innovator and friend Jonathan Taylor, interviewed within...

From the days of silent film and their piano accompaniments to full orchestral compositions, music in film has been meant to evoke an emotion from the viewer. It helps to tell the tale and carries you on the journey that the writer and director want you to take.

When George Lucas first took the rough edit of Star Wars to the executives at Twentieth Century Fox it had no score and, well, they hated it. George was introduced to jazz guitarist John Williams through his good friend Steven Spielberg and history shows you that this collaboration was a success.

Have you ever watched a horror film? I mean a really scary one that frightens you to the core? Try watching it with the volume down so you don't have the evocative music in the background, chances are the film won't have such an effect on you.

I had no choice but to appreciate music whilst growing up as my father was a professional musician in Her Majesty's Royal Air Force bands. He played everywhere from gymnasiums to the Royal Albert Hall and for people such as me all the way up the class ladder to the Queen herself, whilst travelling the globe with the family in tow. My mother is an accomplished tenor horn player and more recently a percussionist, and my sister and I played an array of instruments from a very early age. So I have been raised with the appreciation of music and composition but maybe not the psychological understanding of its effects on the listener.

I personally like all styles of music in film, from Tarantino's use of classic and sometimes forgotten pop songs during scenes of violence, to George Lucas' use of full orchestral scores. My favourite score of the past few years, and one of the reasons why my interest in the psychological effects of film music was sparked, was Han Zimmer's score for The Dark Knight. I have always found Zimmer's scores take me right to the essence of a character, no more so than the soundtrack for Heath Ledger's Oscar winning role as The Joker. A fine example of when music and film work perfectly hand in hand. To help me on my journey of exploration into film music and its emotional effects I spoke to a few people better equipped to explain than I.

Bowtie and score

I started by getting the musician's views from my father. Who better to give me honest answers than someone who was involved daily in the production of music. His name is John Bryant and here is our conversation.

Do you think, as a professional musician you have the ability to view a film soundtrack differently?

Yes I think so, whilst you would be watching the story and listening to the script as a writer, I am listening out for the compositional techniques, playing styles, and orchestrations. I can also tell the difference between the composers, for example I can tell a John Williams piece from others as his style is very melodic, his chording and progressions are different.

When was the first time you can remember ever being emotional due to a film's music?

Hard question. As a child I went to the Saturday matinees a lot. Film music should add to the story, heighten the tension and add pathos. A lot of good composers should also know when silence is as important as music. John Williams used a whole new concept for his film scores, especially Star Wars. He took late 19th century romantic influences and orchestrations and mixed them with new melodic and harmonic styles. He viewed that science fiction films had always been adventures and quite weird and wanted to show them as the swashbuckling tales they were. He also proved that good music can rescue a film; The Cowboys without his score is almost unwatchable.

Why do you think we are so psychologically affected?

Because the music should be about the films meaning, the technical instruction on the musical page should bring the musician to add the emotional depth.

Music can take the sugary sweet and heighten it. A technique of composition started by Richard Wagner was Idée Fixee, which means the top character of the piece, which was opera in his day, should have an element of there own theme throughout, the theme in whichever form adds to the continuity of the piece. You felt the shark in Jaws before you saw him due to the score. It was one of the techniques John Williams re-introduced to cinema.

Do you think there are any rules involved with the implementation of a soundtrack?

The composer and the films creative forces must be as one. Discussion has to take place on whether to use large orchestral pieces or do as Hans Zimmer did and create an instrument. If it’s a historical film do you want the composition in instruments of the time etc?

If you could have written any film soundtrack, what would it be?

Blimey. I love The Antarctic Symphony by Vaughn Williams. Prokofiev, whilst having to obey Stalin's propaganda restrictions wrote some excellent pieces, and I love all John Williams scores.

I had to fight back tears at the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan. Opening with the darkness of a cemetery and then flitting to the Normandy beach landings was a brave way to start a film. The juxtaposition of the ethereal cemetery music going straight into the landings made the film for me, it brought together a heart wrenching story and helped to make a magical piece of cinema. I would have liked to be responsible for that.

After hearing the views of a musician I wanted to get to crux of my piece, how the process works. I was lucky enough to have contact with the genius writer of all things fantastical that is Jeff Noon. Jeff is an established writer in the fantasy and sci-fi genres and started with Microspores, a 140 character dialogue story based on how many letters you can use in a Tweet. In a reverse of the usual way of scoring a media piece Jeff uploads the stories and allows others free rein on what music should be used for the piece. Whilst discussing this project Jeff gave me an insight into the film scores that had affected him.

When do you first remember being emotionally touched by a film score and why?

2001: A Space Odyssey, made in 1968 by Stanley Kubrick. It uses various classical pieces, the most spectacular being the opening of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" by Richard Strauss. That made me buy the soundtrack album. But there was a lot of Gyorgy Ligeti on the there as well, which I hadn't really heard whilst watching the film. And that was my very first introduction to avant-garde classical music. I was only 11 years old at the time. A love of 20 Century Classical music continues to this day.

What is your favourite film score and why?

Probably Vertigo by Bernard Herrmann. I love the way the notes of the main tune move up and down at the same time, a brilliant sonic equivalent of the hero's feelings of vertigo and psychological confusion.

Music score

One of the projects that took up Jeff's Microspore challenge was Jonathan Taylor's Afterwish. A musician and also a psychotherapist, Jonathan had great insight into the effects on all involved with the film making process. We managed to have a good chat before he sadly passed away.

As a professional musician do you think you are more aware of what turns people's emotions on and off when it comes to a film score?

I believe so but also as a qualified psychologist and psychotherapist and having worked as a profiler for years I have a better idea on how music can play on an individual’s thoughts feelings and behaviours. When writing or producing for ‘Afterwish’ or my other work with ‘The Forgetting Room’ I tend to play on emotions people are afraid to admit to, for instance Melancholy, which is an emotion that can become very addictive. If your working on a score for film TV or literature then the scene is set and the music has to reflect the writer and directors process, it has to be congruent at all times so I guess as a musician I have to have a deeper empathy for that moment in that scene, the music can’t just be a surface noise it has to almost become a scene or character in its own right.

Tell me a bit about Afterwish and your music project?

Afterwish and The Forgetting Room (TFR) are in truth egotistical and Vain, Afterwish is my solo work and TFR includes the very talented Leigh Stothard and Kane Hellewell, they are forums in which we have no rules we write what we like and produce it the way we like it and if others don’t like it, I or we don’t care. Both projects are extremely pretentious and why not, we have our own studio (Blacksailstudios) and label (blacksail Records) so we don’t need to chase a deal.

Both Afterwish and TFR albums tell stories in one form or another, they are an expression of thoughts and feelings…

I think Afterwish works with Jeff Noon's microspores because he can say so much by saying so little, the author Phillip Reeve (Mortal Engines) said that Jeff can write in 140 words what it takes the rest of us 14000 words to write. The music is an interpretation of those words, granted many who listen might not get it or feel it, but that’s ok.

How did working with Jeff Noon come about?

I’ve been a fan of Jeff’s for years, I was captured by his first book Vurt. His writing reminds me of the beat movement and I believe he is the beatnik poet of this century.

But also his writing provoked such colourful and effervescent imagery the way Bradbury and Vonnegut did for me. I had added him on Twitter and became aware of another very clever artist called Lextrical, they were writing scores to Jeff's Microspore project, Jeff posted asking if anyone else fancied a go and of course I jumped right in.

Explain the thinking process behind how you score a project such as this?

Jeff Noon's Microspores are rather ingenious in that they are short stories of no more than 140 words, the music therefore is only about 30 to 40 seconds long and has to reflect the story, microspore 18 is one of my favourites:

18 The plastic doll prowls the city. She’s looking for the tin soldier who has stolen one of her eyes. And two of her fingers. And her heart. Noon J 2012.

I began by building a city soundscape, people walking shopping light traffic etc which you can hear just under some warm strings and a then a piano which is just a very simple melancholy arpeggio then I used a royalty free sample I’ve had for years but never used of a Chinese girl singing, I split the sample to fit the piece, I'm sure I’ll have someone email me telling me she’s singing about a punctured tire on her bicycle or something, but it was again the melancholy of her voice I was interested in, the little broken hearted doll searching for her tin soldier.

Do you think you will get involved in more film work? And if so will the processes behind the composition be the same, regardless of genre?

Of course I’d love to do film and TV my ego demands it ha! But realistically it’s a bear pit and very difficult to land the contract, and the truth is there are far more talented people out there than I. Also cost effects, I just recently worked on a piece for a project and once I’d broken down time cost etc of writing and recording I was in effect working for less than basic wages. Would the process be different for other genres? I don’t believe so, whether it is a scene for the first kiss or an asteroid hitting the earth you still have to capture that moment… the thrill of the kiss or the thrill of impending destruction.

How important do you think the psychology behind scoring is? And how are you personally affected by film music?

Psychology is very important, I’m a transactional analysis practitioner, I deal in communication, and everything we do is some form of communication… lets take that asteroid hurtling towards earth… lets face it we are screwed, now lets score it… what do you imagine?.. Now lets replace your music with the theme tune to Benny Hill..!! Great for a laugh on Youtube but it ain't Hollywood is it? Try this for incongruence watch The Shawshank redemption with the volume down and put on Justin Bieber ….

When is the first time you remember being moved by music in a film and how did this affect your viewing?

The Graduate, when I was a kid my big sister let me sit up and watch it with her, that’s the first I can remember, I think it was the harmonies that kept my attention.

What is your favourite film piece and why do you think you prefer that one to any other?

Oh way too many to mention here… favourite pff can’t do it, Shawshank redemption has to be a near the top, Bladerunner, Vangelis can communicate size like no other. I'm a huge fan of Tom Third a Canadian composer for a lot of TV he scored the TV show RE Genesis and that was like ‘wow.. I want to be Tom Third’. I like James Horner, Trevor Rabin. One of my dirty little secrets is I love costume drama’s and I think Carl Davies is just wonderful at scoring, his work on Cranford and Pride and prejudice (1995) is such beautiful work. I could go on and on but I think I’ve done enough of that already.

Who would you most like to score for? And how do you think your music would effect that directors work?

Anyone ha! But seriously, the big budget stuff I again defer to bigger and far better people than I. JJ Abrams would be good, although there’s a real theme works through his creations… Jeff if he's listening I’ll work for you for nothing…god, don’t let my wife read that. If there was a fantastical dream where a wand was waved for me to work with someone it would be David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, James Cameron, Duncan Jones how does that sound? How would it affect their work? Well I’d give them a bloody headache that’s for sure and I think it would have no effect on their work because they’d sack me in fifteen minutes and go get John Williams or Maurice Jarre….

So after talking with all these fascinating people, I somehow have to come up with a conclusion. 

Well, what it has made me more aware of is that the film projects are like a triangular house of cards, The writer/director, the composer, the cast. If you get any one of these points wrong it will all come down by your ears. Take for example classic film The Third Man, the character of the third man is not even seen until the close of the film but with great storytelling and Harry Limes score, you feel you know the character and can even see him due to the way the music acts as a character in its own right. You wouldn't enjoy the film any other way. It just wouldn't work. The scores to H.G. Wells War of the Worlds and Things to Come paved the way for the eerie science fiction scores we here today and throughout the history of cinema.

I suppose what I am trying to say is that whilst we don't notice the soundtrack while we are watching our chosen picture, without it the film would lack something. The ideas and the feelings gotten by the composer at the start of the project seep into our psyche while we view. Music is and always will be what makes or breaks a film, just purely because it sub consciously effects the way you watch.

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