Music In The Movies Experiencing Something New

Music In The Movies: Experiencing Something New Essay, Research Paper

Question:?For the elements of music are not tones of such and such a pitch, duration and loudness, nor chords and measured beats; they are like all artistic elements, something virtual, created for perception . . .sounding forms in motion.? [Suzanne Langer, Feeling and Form (1952), p.107].

The success of music in film relies on the perceptions and interpretations of audiences based on their social experiences. Discuss.

Response to Question:The function of film music is not easily defined. Film music is often associated with realizing the social experiences of the audience, such associations then leading into psychological and aesthetical discussion. Whether or not film music is examined as an analyzable art form, it is part of an audiovisual system that allows spectators to escape. If this is so, music is subliminal in the sense that it unconsciously prepares the spectator for the means by which to do so. Cinema events can allow audiences to perceive reality in a passive framework and therefore, the success of film music does not heavily rely upon interpretations of viewers? social experiences. More to the point is the fact that film music allows a virtual reconstruction of ?experience? along with the proposal of new ones.

If cinema accommodates the invention of virtual social experiences, then by what means does the music contribute to this? An understanding of the relationship between music and the cinematic world of the ?make believe? will help to answer this question. Film music can allow far-fetched ideas to become plausible. Alien attacks, shootings, murders and court room hearings are not usually associated with the vocabularies of our everyday social experiences, so how can cinema extrapolate such experiences so realistically? Music certainly has an important role.

Suzanne Langer discusses in depth the associations between music and time. She suggests that:

Music creates and image of time measure by the motion of forms that seem to give it substance, yet a substance that consists entirely of sound, so it is transitoriness itself. Music makes time audible, and its form and continuity sensible.

Jean Mitry has similar ideas:

Film needed a king of rhythmic beat to enable the audience to measure internally the psychological time for the drama, relating it to the basic sensation of real time.

Consequently, film music can cover up the incoherencies between real time and virtual time. The relative time passed between events on screen can be expressed through the music. How else can a narrative spanning decades logically take place within and hour or two of film? In this sense the cinema experience challenges and recreates our sense of reality.

However, a virtual recreation of time cannot solely explain how cinema can achieve such a reality. Although our everyday experiences are not accompanied by music and whilst many experiences offered to us through film are not common place off screen, music can allow movie events to achieve ?an accustomed intelligibility and lucidity; movies, that is, are so much more legible than life.?

Noel Carrol continues his train of thought by suggesting that whilst the affect that goes with an observation in everyday life is often unknown, film music constantly alerts us to the feeling that goes with what we see – ?the movie-world is emotionally perspicuous through and through.?

This concept is well illustrated by the all-time classic thriller Psycho, by Alfred Hitchcock. The one scene which remains strong in the memory of many viewers is the shower stabbing. The use of music in this scene allows the viewer to achieve a comprehension beyond that of real life experience. Close-ups express feelings of fear and terror on the victims face, while at the same time, the aggression and urgency felt by Norman Bates is illustrated by synchronizing the fall of the knife with repetitious shrieking of violins. By combining an audible expression of emotion with a visual one, this scene allows the viewer to experience two emotions simultaneously. This affect is impossible in everyday life.

So, at this point, not only does music function in allowing the virtual replication of time, it can also allow events on screen to achieve clarity beyond that of our everyday experiences. Basically, film music provides the means by which the cinema can explore uncharted territory. However, how does the film communicate new experiences at a personal level? How can emotions the spectator has never experienced be expressed? For cinema to be entirely convincing, it must communicate to the spectator at the subconscious level. This is when film music achieves perhaps its most important function.

Surrealist attitudes towards filmmaking reflected Freud?s theories of the dream and the unconscious. Such philosophies associated the nature of dreaming to the use of superimposition and slow motion in film. To observe film music on a similar level would suggest that subconscious emotive communication could occur. The combination of music with on screen action can create an experience that defies and literary description – it can ?set forth the dynamic forms of subjective experience only art can fulfill.? So, through music, the spectator is engaged beyond the visual action into a realm consisting of unconscious emotional receptions. After all, film music is often heard at a subconscious level.

Parallels between human experience and music can also be attributed to musical archetypes. C. G. Jung was the first to use archetypes in attempting to explain common mental processes among humans. He suggested that the archetype was a collective unconscious of society which could explain many of the subliminal workings of the individual psyche:

They exist pre-consciously, and presumably they form the structural dominants of the psyche in general . . . they are varied . . . and point back to one essential irrepresentable basic form.

Jung discussed archetypes by proposing that they could describe the common existence of myths and fairy tails across different cultures. When relating these concepts to music, it can be found that music too has a collective cultural meaning. After all, music has accompanied childhood fairy tails and bedtime stories since the beginning of time. Once again, that dubious question awaits: does society create art, or does art create society?

The origins of when and how such archetypes are formed is uncertain, so this question is not easily answered. However, psychological aspects of film music tend to suggest that these archetypes do exist. Russell lack provides and effective description of such qualities in film music:

Music organizes and dredges memory, invoking something akin to a feedback system. The repetition of musical experience creates a residual psychic structure that becomes archetypal.

To avoid complications regarding the psychoanalysis of films, it may be suggested that whilst emotional receptions can occur subconsciously, the element of choice does provide a context in which film music can specifically aim at communicating emotions and experiences more realistically. To say film music only creates unconscious emotional responses would assume that due to the individuality of the spectator, there would be no way of effectively choosing the right music for the right scene.

Music can convey a wide range of emotions (sad, happy, romantic, etc.) and to suggest that music by itself provides and inexplicit form of emotional illustration would be more accurate. Hence, it is the combination of the music with the film that allows these emotional experiences to become more explicit. Carrol discusses this concept further:

Movie music involves coordinating two different symbol systems; music and movies . . . these two symbol systems are placed in a complementary relationship; each system supplies something that the other system standardly lacks, or, at least, does not possess with the same degree of effectiveness that the other system possesses.

Therefore, by adding music to the film, the filmmaker has a direct means for ensuring that the audience is connecting the correct expressive quality with the action on screen. In other words, for the filmmaker to achieve uniformity in emotional perception, the choice of the music for each scene must realize the existence of common social and cultural codes (archetypes) among all human beings alike.

This is not to say, however, that film music realizes any specific social experiences of the viewer. If film music realizes these common cultural codes, it can still only communicate at a very general level. Music generally does not communicate by asking the spectator to recall a past experience. Russell lack?s ideas on film music may clarify this. Lack suggests ?both music and language are based upon an articulation of sound into discernible units and a kind of grammar, although in the case of music, this grammar may be metaphorical.? In this sense, music is similar to language, however, Lack stipulates that musical communication is more likely to occur when the listener engages in a comparison between pre-experienced musical idioms. Viewers do not recollect past experiences to interpret a film, but by listening to the music and employing such comparisons (often unconsciously), they can engage contextually with the experience being offered through the film.

The study of film music is difficult and interpretations often fall victim to the scrutiny of individuality. The existence of such extensive psychoanalysis, however, leads one to believe that films are continually challenging the very reality we cling to for answers. Furthermore, the obsessive study of film music just emphasizes such insecurities. This is obviously an area requiring further attention. There is no doubt, however, that with the rise of the pop song in film scores, and with virtual reality on the horizon, the possibilities for ?virtual experiences? will rise beyond our current comprehension. We can then look forward to and exciting shift in film studies when, perhaps, the profundity of Langer?s idea that music consists of ?sounding forms in motion? will be fully realized.

Works Cited:N. Carrol, Theorising the Moving Image, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

B. Creed, ?Film and Psychoanalysis?, in J. Hill and P. Church (eds), The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

R. Lack, ?Film Music as a Kind of Language?, in Twenty-Four Frames Under: A Buried History of Film, (London: Quartet Books, 1997).

S. Langer, Feeling and Form, (London: Routledge and Degan Paul Limited, 1953).

J. Mitry, The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997).

Works Consulted:T. Adorno and H. Eisler, Composing for the Films, (London: The Athlone Press, 1994).

G. Burt, The Art of Film Music, (Boston: Northeastern university Press, 1994).

R. M. Prendergast, Film Music: A Neglected Art, (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1992).


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