Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Introduction to film music

The passion for film scores seems to have been in my blood since the beginning. I tried, unsuccessfully, to acquaint myself to mainstream genres of music, but so far not a single one of those has touched me as instrumental scores do. Why? I think the reason will be better understood once you read this write-up. So before I get started, I’d like to say something about music in general.

Here is what defines “music” as –

1. an art of sound in time that expresses ideas and emotions in significant forms through the elements of rhythm, melody, harmony, and color.
2. the tones or sounds employed, occurring in single line (melody) or multiple lines (harmony), and sounded or to be sounded by one or more voices or instruments, or both.

Let’s look at this. The second definition is a more technical description of music, in quite scientific terms. The first one, however, is the most appropriate definition which an average person would associate with music. So hereby, we can define music as an art of sound in time that expresses ideas and emotions in significant forms through the elements of rhythm, melody, harmony, and color.

And now, the central point of my above discussion here – why do we listen to music? Why is music more or less an integral part of every person’s life? The answer, in my opinion, is surprisingly simple. Music is all about emotion. In other words, music is a tangible form of emotion. When we listen to proper music, it brings about feelings in us which evoke our emotions. It is a sort of communication, a beautiful way of communication. Music communicates directly with our soul and evokes our deepest emotions without us realizing what it’s doing. We drift away in this torrent of emotion and experience what this hobby/passion is all about – enjoyment!

Whether sad, happy, classic, action-oriented, dramatic, martial or simply lighthearted fun, all emotions can be expertly expressed by music. I don’t think anyone will disagree when I say that if you want to get across a message, getting music involved in the process almost always enhances it. Try reading a poem out to a group, and the second time singing it out after setting a tune to it. See how much difference it makes! Even plants have been scientifically known to grow better if exposed to gentle music alongside. This unique power makes music a powerful tool for use in several fields, a very important one being the instrumental score in film.

As we all know, a film is an art of both visuals and sound. The proper union of both sound and image is vital for a film to deliver a powerful impact. They’re incomplete without each other. They must complement each other in a way that they seem to be one and deliver a perfect emotional message to the audience. As I described above, music is a powerful tool to evoke emotions in us. What the music score does in the film is to enhance the emotional impact of the onscreen visuals and strengthen the impression on the audience. This unique relationship between sound and image never ceases to amaze me and is one of the many reasons why I have film scores as my passion. Here’s a brief summary about how film music gained its prominence.

The birth of music in film was rather inadvertent – when early films were played in the theater, the then contemporary movie projectors produced a loud and disturbing noise, distracting the audience from the film. In order to lessen the impact of this sound to some extent, musicians were hired to play music alongside the film, in a mood appropriate to the action onscreen – for example, slow and melancholy for a sad scene, jovial for a happier scene, fast paced for an action scene, eerie for a horror scene and so on. When it was found that the audience liked the effect, the tradition was encouraged and a music group ranging from a small ensemble to a full orchestra was employed to play alongside the music (this was before music began to be recorded on physical medium for films). Note that this was not necessarily music composed particularly for the film, it usually comprised of symphonies by classical composers. Eventually the power of music in the film was noticed to a point, especially in the era of silent movies, that they began to be regarded as an essential ingredient in the making of a film.

And very rightly so. An ideal score is one which leaves powerful impact on you when you’re watching the visuals and yet it does not distract you from the movie towards itself. It holds your attention hard enough for you to appreciate its significance and for you to vaguely but significantly remember it on its own away from the movie and still keep you engrossed in the film. You’re only subconsciously hearing this music, yet how you will miss it if it’s taken off the visuals! How do I begin to explain the beauty of this effect in the film? It’s done better by experience than by words.

Think of the racing strings and brass which build into the majestic Gondor theme during the Lighting Of The Beacons scene in Peter Jackson’s Return Of The King, setting up the adrenaline rush to the already visually stunning sequence. Think of Lebo M’s grand rising vocals (though it’s actually part of the Circle Of Life song, but arranged by Hans Zimmer and Mark Mancina) in the immortal opening scene of the rising sun and gathering animals over the vast African landscape in Disney’s classic The Lion King. Think of the terrifying, creepy, foreboding and building sense of danger developed by John Williams’ main theme even in the absence of the shark in Jaws, comprising only of two main notes. Think of The Imperial March which plays whenever Darth Vader appears onscreen, and which has become one of the most classic villain themes of all time. Think of the famous flying scene from E.T, scored so brilliantly by John Williams that Spielberg actually edited the scene to fit the music better.

How much of an impression this music makes on us, yet how it never overpowers the visuals. And still how we can even remember a significant theme from it later. Can’t you visualize Boromir’s sudden sinister lust for Frodo’s ring on hearing Howard Shore’s spectacular Ring theme? Can’t you see the majestic Mufasa’s ghost encouraging Simba in the grasslands on hearing Simba’s theme from Hans Zimmer’s masterpiece The Lion King? Can’t you almost feel the lions stalking an unaware prey hearing the suspenseful cues from Jerry Goldsmith’s The Ghost And The Darkness? Can you feel the terror and tragedy of the crew of the sinking Titanic on listening to James Horner’s score? Don’t you feel like putting up the hat and boots and revolver on hearing Ennio Morricone’s Western scores? Don’t you feel like putting on that superhero mask and cape on hearing Danny Elfman’s Batman Theme? Can you visualize the grand vista of the Prehistoric world hearing The Egg Travels from James Newton Howard’s Dinosaur? Do you get the “cool vibes” hearing John Barry’s classic Bond theme? Can you feel the T-Rex moving closer with the rising timpani beats in Jurassic Park? Do you feel like grabbing your wand and flying on a broom hearing John William’s Hedwig’s Theme? I’m sure you’ll agree with most of these if you love the art of cinema as much as me. And there are countless examples of such memorable scores in history. But let us move on.

It is important to note that a score doesn’t necessarily have to be a beautiful, properly structured, well composed piece of music. Even a non-traditional sound incorporated into the scene and heightening the emotional impact of the scene can be a perfect score. A great example is maestro Bernard Herrmann’s classic score to the famous shower murder scene in Psycho, which has been said to be even more terrifying than the actual scene itself. The piece consists simply of two violins playing fiendishly high notes side by side. This is actually a warm-up technique and not a proper method of playing the violin, and yet it is heralded as one of the best scored scenes in film history. A more recent example is from the hit 2008 film The Dark Knight, scored by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, where Zimmer developed a most disturbing theme for the villain of the film, The Joker (brilliantly portrayed by the late Heath Ledger). Included on the soundtrack album in the Why So Serious track, the actual theme consists of only two notes, whereas the arrival of the Joker is signified, in a very Jaws-ish way, by a distorted electric cello tenaciously sliding up. The deranged mind of the character is scored not by “music” but rather a rhythmic, chaotic array of sound effects comprising from synths to bomb SFX, creating more of a soundscape than a music cue. Zimmer himself said he made it hateable for people to understand the character better, which is probably (and ironically!) why it worked so well and received praise even from fierce critics of Zimmer.

Another very important but often overlooked point for film music is that it’s meant to score not just the action onscreen, but the *emotion* onscreen. There may be scenes very similar in action, but very different in emotion. Here’s an example – a fight between the protagonist and some drunken tramp on the street after a quarrel may not need any powerful music. This is because there isn’t any strong emotion involved, it’s just a random encounter – the two don’t have any personal vendetta. On the other hand, a climactic final fight between the protagonist and the film’s arch villain who killed his father needs just about the most dramatic music possible. I don’t need to explain how high the stream of emotions runs in such a scene and how effective the music must be to highlight it. Ironically, there is possibly no middle ground in such a situation – it’d need either the most balls-out action music or absolute silence – for silence can often be a very powerful score in itself. A very good example for apt emotional scoring would be the scene in Return Of The King where Faramir leads a troop of soldiers from Minas Tirith on a certainly suicidal mission to fight the immense troops of Orcs invading Osgiliath. Howard Shore scores this high paced action scene not with pounding action music but the soft ethereal vocals of Billy Boyd. What’s being highlighted is not the action but the tragic sense of purpose in these men as they know the inevitable and yet do it out of their sense of duty.

And I think I can go on endlessly giving such examples about the various aspects of film scores. But I’ll stop here and let you think about what I’ve tried to say above. This is exactly why I’ve always adored film scores. This is why I felt a power and solace in this instrumental music that I could never feel in most mainstream music. This is a sadly neglected yet most wonderful, charming, captivating and emotional genre of music and a most important form of art. The music brings about feelings in me like few can. This isn’t any other catchy jingle put on top of a heavy beat to sound foot-tapping and “kewl”. It’s a lovely art where YOU have to equally use your own heart and brain to understand what the purpose of the music is. What is this music trying to convey to me? What message is it intended to serve? What is its purpose in this scene? What is the emotion of the characters at this point? Or is it a clever red herring meant to masterfully divert from the plot before some shocking revelation takes place? And as I noted previously, these are the type of things that are better understood by personal experience rather than by reading others’. Though it does require patience and willpower to adapt to this genre of music if you’re used to mainstream music before, it is a most wonderful and enchanting world once you enter it and experience it yourself.

And now I'm ever glad to see that score music is getting more recognition than ever. Top composers like Hans Zimmer and John Williams are significantly popular even among the mainstream community. Most studios are putting in money both for hiring quality composers and for quality score releases. Even some TV shows are getting live orchestral scores composed for them. Special labels like Varese Sarabande, La-La Land Records, Intrada, Film Score Monthly and Milan have come up specialising in film scores and releasing several wonderful unheard scores from previous films. I only pray for this trend to continue and may we see wonderful releases for the several deserving unreleased masterpieces still in there.

Misconceptions about film scores

I cannot deny that film music is quite a niche genre. Though thanks to rising popularity of top composers like John Williams, Michael Giacchino and Hans Zimmer, the awareness of the beauty and power of film scores is slowly spreading among mainstream people too, but still the number of people who listen to film scores is very small compared to all the rock/pop/metal/electronic/techno fans out there. As a result, some of the larger more profit-oriented labels are either not releasing scores properly or making them available only in inferior quality download-only format. Therefore I encourage all fans of film scores to buy the mass produced album CDs whenever possible in order to keep this lovely genre alive for a long time in the future.

Because of the lack of awareness and recognition of scores among the larger part of the crowd, many misconceptions and untruths have popped up among people regarding scores. While that’s common with almost everything around, some of these are remarkably ignorant and even downright insulting/harming. With no offense to anyone, here are some of the larger issues I want to address with my personal views. My intention is not to disrespect anyone’s opinion, but offer my own in order to provide a wider point of view and also to help more unfamiliar people understand the topic better.

Misconception 1 – "Film score is nothing but background music meant to play alongside the movie only, and does not need to be released separately."

When these people find “random background music with no words” in between two “kewl” hip-hop tracks interrupting their fun, they whine about how useless it is and how that stuff should stay in-film and not released. Now, granted that with a few exceptions, the producing of an album like the aforementioned one (score tracks between some other genre) isn’t really a nice way to go. I always prefer scores being released on a separate disc or collectively placed at the end so everyone can enjoy their favourite music. But dissing the score as being unworthy of release or being useless is nothing short of a grievous insult to the music, the fans and the composer who took pains to produce it. It's true that some scores aren't strong enough as standalone music and therefore are better appreciated in the film itself rather than on CD. But you have that with every genre of music out there, not every new album is a good one. Trying to apply this as a universal rule to every film score out there is unacceptable for me.

First off, one of the most unique and remarkable facts about film score is that there are two sides of it – the technical aspect and the artistic aspect. This is something you cannot find in any other genre of music. This music hasn’t been made for people to hip and hop to in brain-dead mode at a party, but meant to draw, engulf and immerse you in the visuals of a film and bring you closer to the emotions the visuals are trying to convey. And taken away from the visuals, a great score is a fine piece of music you can enjoy and feel it push your emotional buttons. I enjoy scores the same way one might enjoy the classical symphonies of Beethoven and Mozart (no comparisons, simple examples). After watching the film you can understand the twists and turns in the music better to the action onscreen, and appreciate it even more. Remember these things cannot be understood just by reading a write-up, they’re better experienced. And also don’t forget there are thousands of people in the world, including youngsters, who like to listen to film scores. Just because you don’t like a genre doesn’t mean its crap. And like every other genre, film music has its own unique merits.

Misconception 2 – "The best score is one you don’t hear in the film."

So what they’re essentially telling me is, the director hires a composer on a significant part of the budget, hires a large orchestra and studio, spends weeks or even months recording the score, oversees mixing and editing with the visuals, only for the product not to be heard in the final film?! Jeez, that’s foolish of him. Or not.

The obvious thing is, if the director didn’t want you to hear something in the film, he wouldn’t have put it there in the first place. Or he’d have it buried it under heavy sounds and dialogues. The fact that it’s very much audible to a normal person indicates that he DID want you to hear it. If you’re in the theatre with your ears physically present there, you are naturally going to hear it. Now, whoever said that statement originally was making an important and valid statement, but evidently its meaning has been twisted by people and morphed into something else. I’ll explain more clearly now.

What the director wants is that he does NOT want you to LISTEN to the score. Mind you, I said LISTEN, not HEAR. Now, at first glance you might say it’s one and the same thing. But fact is, there’s a big difference between hearing and listening. I’ll explain it better with an example. Imagine two kids in a classroom with a teacher explaining something. The first kid is paying total attention to the teacher and taking in and understanding everything he’s saying. On the other hand, the second kid is super bored and wants nothing but for the class to end, thinking longingly of the video game at home. Now, pay attention here. Both the kids are in the same classroom and their ears are physically inside the room. But one is carefully listening to the teacher, understanding his words and taking in the meaning. And the other one has his mind wandering off to la-la land, so while the teacher’s words are going into his ears (as they’re physically present there), they’re little more than background noise to him, as he’s not paying them any attention. So, the first kid is listening to the teacher and second merely hearing the teacher. Isn’t it now clear how big the difference between plain hearing and actually listening to something?

The above example isn’t really good for the following explanation about the use of score in film, because that is more than background noise for the average filmgoer. So what the score is meant to do is to be prominent enough to support and enhance the emotions onscreen, but not be so overpowering that you are distracted from the movie and focused on the music (I admit, I’m someone who always keeps an ear out for the score and if I like it then my attention is quickly caught, but that isn’t really the music’s fault!). Instead of being like an ordinary tree or lamp post put in the background, it’s very much in the foreground and in your face, but you are so engrossed in the visuals itself, and the emotions of the characters – the emotions the score is now emphasizing – that you do not really *listen* to the score, but subconsciously you know it’s there and how powerful it is, and appreciate it for it. You heartily complement the music when doing a review of the film, and if you happen to come across it somewhere, you can recognize it. All this without being distracted from the film itself. THAT is the sign of a good score.

And that is a reason why I dislike it when people refer to something like Howard Shore’s Lord Of The Rings scores or John Williams’ Star Wars scores as “background score”, or “background music”. I think it is about time we do away with the word “background” when referring to a proper film score. Although I admit that the term isn't false technically, and originally this thing was indeed known as background music, scroll back and read what I wrote about the history of film score. That music was played for an initially different purpose, not as a form of art but as a filler. There weren’t themes, leitmotifs or careful musical development till the climax. And that’s exactly what a proper modern score has. Mind you, I said proper. If the score is just some little jingle or random array of musical arrangements thrown in the movie to act as a mundane accompaniment to the film, then I’d call it background music. When you love the art of film score as much as I do, you'll find the music means much more than background sound to you. For me, a proper film score may not be exactly in the foreground but it certainly isn’t yet another obscure entity crammed into the background. It is a prominent and carefully structured piece of musical work and work of art and it should be respected as such. It's almost like a character in itself. That’s why even Grammys now refer to this as “original score” instead of “background score”. And that’s why I dislike referring to amazing scores like the LoTR trilogy as “background music”. It should respected as a proper work of art and we have big events to do that, like the Ubeda Film Music Conference and Film Music Festival of Ghent. Yes, you read right. “Film Music Festival”. Not “Background Score Festival”!

Misconception 3 – "All a score needs to do is work well in the film, nothing more should be asked of it."

Technically speaking, this is true. After all, that’s what the music was created and meant for. To enhance a film’s emotions and emphasize them. And to be truthful, music that doesn’t serve the visuals well is not a good film score at all, even if it’s a good piece of music. As such, the composer cannot be fully praised his work. First and foremost, the score MUST serve the film well to be considered a good film *score*. Therefore passing off a score as bad by merely listening to it on CD without watching the film is extremely unjust. And if the score finds a life of its own, away from the visuals, that’s a big plus point for the composer and a bonus for the listener. Why I’m saying this is, I am NOT trying to negate the importance of the score in the film.

The reason I’m mentioning this issue is the recent trends in Hollywood awards, especially the Oscars, where some quite mediocre scores often bag the most prestigious award a film score can expect, while more deserving, superior and more powerful scores, product of the composer’s long weeks of hard work, go back empty handed. When I raise this issue to some other fans, I’m immediately besieged by a volley of defensive arguments as to why the winning score was outstanding, why it totally bested all its rivals (including the aforementioned “the best score is one you don’t hear in the film” argument), and why it was the SOLE deserver of this important award.

And what none of them wants to hear is that I never said the winner was a bad score.

And that’s the point. Remember I told you there are two sides of a score – the technical aspect and the artistic aspect. While the former is certainly more important to judge a score by, it’s important to note that when two scores are compared, then BOTH these aspects have to be compared. They may both be brilliant in their own films in situ (with the visuals), but it cannot be denied that the score with a better artistic value – a more structurally sound, well developed, thematically progressive and emotionally powerful musical score – is superior to the score which sounds good only in the film, and falls apart on separate listening. Try to understand what I’m saying here. This is after all a very, very prestigious award these composers are competing for. As such, ALL aspects of their product must be judged in order to see which is the better effort.

There are numerous scores I can think of which serve the film well, but listening to them as a piece of music is a pain in the back. There are scores which work well as a separate musical work but they are ugly and inappropriate for the film. Remember, a good score can make or break a movie, and therefore the latter is very much disqualified. Now come the scores which are a pleasure both on disc and on screen. Which one do you think deserves the award more? Like in highly competitive national exams, even a slight edge counts. In those exams, a single mark can give one student success and doom the one right behind him to failure. Such must be the competition between these scores too – as far as I’m concerned, the score which sounds better on CD has proved that it has the edge over its rival. Since they’ve reached so far through all the nominations, they’re both at the SAME technical level, since they BOTH serve their respective films well. Now the artistic value kicks in and gives the better score that extra “mark” that qualifies it for the award. They both are good and deserving scores in a tie at the technical level, so now this point acts as a tiebreaker.

So this is just a small taste of the wide, wonderful world of film scores. This blog will give you my views of some scores I liked (and some I didn’t), and I will also be doing occasional analysis and my views on news updates on here. I don't consider myself a formal reviewer - for that purpose I advise you to check out the websites listed on the right side - all of which are well known to be among the best film score websites out there. The objective of this blog is to simply express my own views about the scores and events. So go on and explore the articles, and any feedback/suggestions for improvement will be always welcome and greatly appreciated!

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