Before I do anything else, I’m already going to have to apologize. It’s terrible, and shock might come as a natural first reaction. Especially when taking into account that I usually consider and profile myself as a film geek. Here it is: I don’t know the difference between a soundtrack and a film score. Awful, I know. So I Wikipedia-ed (don’t start about the conjugation of that one, it seems weird any way you try) it, just to write this post. That’s what’s called dedication to the cause. Wikipedia defines ‘soundtrack’ as follows: A soundtrack can be recorded music accompanying and synchronized to the images of a motion picture, book, television program or video game. And then a film score (also sometimes called background music or incidental music) is original music written specifically to accompany a film. The score forms part of the film’s soundtrack, which also usually includes dialogue and sound effects, and comprises a number of orchestral, instrumental or choral pieces. So a score is part of a soundtrack. Using one of my favorite films as an example, I am interpreting these definitions like this: Can You Feel The Love Tonight by Elton John is part of the soundtrack of The Lion King, but it’s not part of the score. This Land, composed by Hans Zimmer, would be part of both the score and the soundtrack.
Soundtracks. I’ve often tried to pinpoint certain events in my life, which sparked a lasting interest for a certain organization or movement or medium or just something. I can trace film back to my 2nd year in high school (I was 14, making it the year 2006), when 2 days of classes were replaced with 2 days of films. You cannot imagine the epicness.
Soundtracks, on the other hand, seems more difficult. The first track added to my music library dates back to the 1st of February, 2011. It’s from the movie Pride And Prejudice (2005). However, this collection is transferred from a previous hard drive, so a whole bunch of music arrived together, and within that batch it’s not possible to distinguish which came first. Pride And Prejudice seems fair though. I mean come on, that opening sequence is all about the music! Other possibilities are Le Fabuleux Destin D’Amélie Poulain (2001) and Lemony Snicket’s: A Series Of Unfortunate Events (2004). I think that these 3 movies really opened my eyes and ears and made me aware of the power of music in film. It’s been one of my passions ever since. Out of the roughly 3300 songs in this library, I have catalogued around a 1000 as “Soundtrack”. Some songs already existed, others were specifically written for the story, and some are completely instrumental. They all have their own power and uses.
The point of this post is just to try and make you more aware of soundtracks. Some might say that it ruins the magic, that paying attention to all these minute aspects of film distracts from the whole experience. I had a similar fear when I enrolled in my first Theater And Media Studies course: Film in Context. But guys! NO! When I learned about the history of film, and all the turning points in it, the various facets it incorporates, then watching a film only becomes that much more fulfilling. Also, it can be just as easy not to think about that sort of stuff, especially if you’re watching a film with someone else.
It’s like the introduction of sound to film (which happened around the 1920s, if my memory serves me correctly). Before there was sound, silence in film had no meaning. There would often be someone playing a piano as background music, so calling silent films silent is already problematic. Then sound was introduced. Filmmakers started experimenting. The pianist was eliminated. Only after sound was introduced could silence really be appreciated. Silence was now really silence. It was an extra aspect in which the message of a film could be brought across.
That’s how I look at my knowledge of film. At first, it was nonexistent. Then I followed the course. After that, my film experience became richer. But, like I said, you can just as well not pay attention. When you do though, that’s when you can really focus on the message of the film.
Being as into soundtracks as I am, I will almost immediately notice when it’s not there. When an emotional scene is being played out, without any background music, it can really make such a scene more powerful. The use of background music (in my experience) is mostly aimed at the viewer’s identification with the character. It can make a viewer more involved. I believe that, were you to take all the actual music out of the last half hour of Titanic (1997), there wouldn’t be as many people crying when watching. But the whole film might be much more powerful.
Filmmakers are very much aware of this. Often a soundtrack can be regarded in the same way as costume design: you’re not supposed to notice it, but it should influence your experience and emotions all the same. Of course, there are moments when bombastic moves are required. That goes for both soundtrack and costume design. It can jump out and you can really go ‘Wow…’ It’s all about what the filmmakers want you to feel, what they want to say with a film.
So next time you’re watching a movie, you could pay attention to whether there is music in the background. Or not. Your call.
UPDATE: I have thought about it some more, and I now believe it all began with The Island. The final scene in that one is just so amazingly powerful, mostly because of the music (the visuals come into it as well, but still mostly the music). Please go and listen to My Name Is Lincoln by Steve Jablonski right now. This is part of his best work, trust me.