Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 15

University of Illinois Press

Understanding the Score:


Film Music Communicating to and Influencing the Audience
Author(s): JESSICA GREEN
Source: The Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 44, No. 4 (WINTER 2010), pp. 81-94
Published by: University of Illinois Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/jaesteduc.44.4.0081
Accessed: 21-10-2015 01:21 UTC

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at http://www.jstor.org/page/
info/about/policies/terms.jsp
JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content
in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship.
For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.

University of Illinois Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to The Journal of Aesthetic
Education.

http://www.jstor.org

This content downloaded from 169.229.11.216 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 01:21:28 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Understanding the Score: Film Music


Communicating to and Influencing
the Audience
JESSICA GREEN
Introduction
When most people sit down to watch a film, their focus usually stays on
the very dynamic images that move onscreen. The dialogue, as a form of
diegetic sound, is probably the next piece of the film they concentrate on,
but this only imitates actual experience, since most people understand communication by both watching and listening. Christian Metz, in his influential text Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema, describes film as Born of
the fusion of several pre-existing forms of expression, which retain some of
their own laws (image, speech, music, and noise), to which he later adds
written materials as a fifth component.1 Of these five channels of information included in film, music is the most artificial because in many films
the majority of music is nondiegetic. For the audience, it is also the channel
most removed from everyday life. While people do interact with images, the
spoken word, text, and sound in the normal course of a day, people do not
walk around constantly supported by a sensitive soundtrack that follows
their emotions and thoughts.
Yet despite the artificiality of the musical score in comparison with
everyday life, audiences have come to accept film music as an integral part of
what it means to watch a film. Films that fail to use much music or fail to use
it well often have a problem involving the audience as completely as films
that embrace music as a tool that can expose the inner feelings and thoughts
of characters and can shape the way that viewers feel about whats happening on screen. To understand the importance of film music, Stam, Burgoyne,
and Flitterman-Lewis further explain why it is important to examine music
as a significant channel through which the audience makes meaning of the
film: Metzs definition of the cinemas matter of expression as consisting
of five tracksimage, dialogue, noise, music, written materialsserved to
call attention to the soundtrack and thus to undercut the formulaic view of
Jessica Green recently graduated with her M.A. in English rhetoric and composition
from Brigham Young University. She received a graduate research fellowship award
for her work in reflection and critical thinking in first-year composition.
Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 44, No. 4, Winter 2010
2010 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
This content downloaded from 169.229.11.216 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 01:21:28 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

82 Green
the cinema as an essentially visual medium which was seen (not heard)
by spectators (not auditors).2 By distinguishing dialogue, noise, and musicall auditory channels of informationas important pieces of film, Stam,
Burgoyne, and Flitterman-Lewis support Metzs assertion that the cinema
possesses various dialects, and that each one of these dialects can become
the subject of a specific analysis.3 Once audiences and critics consider music
as one of the fundamental dialects of film, it then makes sense to understand music as an essential part of communication and argument in film.
But is the film score more than just a reflection of a characters sadness or
the exciting chase music that exhilarates audiences? While most audiences
would certainly be able to cite numerous instances of music reflecting the
feelings of characters or the general mood of the film, some people might
be surprised by the extent to which film music shapes and affects meaning
in film. Stam, Burgoyne, and Flitterman-Lewis define several types of music
that can be used in scores: redundant music, which reinforces the emotional
tone; contrapuntal music, which runs counter to the dominant emotion; empathetic music, which conveys the emotions of the characters; a-empathetic
music, which seems indifferent to the drama; and didactic contrapuntal music, which uses music to distance the audience in order to elicit a precise,
usually ironic, idea in the spectators mind.4 Though these terms can be
limiting because music often fulfills more than just one role in a scene, they
do demonstrate that music is making an argument or working to convince
or persuade the audience, proving that film music is behaving rhetorically.
Though film music does often fulfill the basic roles of conveying emotion
and suggesting connections or themes in the film, film music also works in
more complex roles to affect the meaning in film. Through musics development of specific leitmotifs, themes, and cues, the calculated use of film
music in conjunction with the other channels of information helps to create
the narrative and control the way that the audience interprets a film.
Musics Basic Functions
Convey emotion
To start with the simple functions of the score, one of musics most basic
roles in film is to convey emotion to the audience. Current research points to
the fact that audiences can understand the emotions or qualities that music
is portraying even when the music is divorced from the image it was created
to accompany. In a study designed to prove whether or not listeners would
uniformly associate a selection of music with abstract qualities, researchers had listeners write down their responses to ten different musical film
and television themes. For example, the theme to the TV series Miami Vice
was played to 105 respondents, who produced a total of 328 verbal-visual
associations. While no one reported recognizing the tune, the music

This content downloaded from 169.229.11.216 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 01:21:28 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Understanding the Score 83


i ndicated aggression, speed, and urban environments to most listeners. No
one heard qualities like reflection, love, ritual, religion, or animals.5 It is significant that even without the visual images that would generally accompany such musical themes from television or film, diverse listeners were able
to come up with similar responses to what the music represented to them.
Though some music or some listeners might resist such uniform responses,
this study proves that music written to project specific feelings or ideas really
can communicate with listeners. As Anahid Kassabian concludes in his book
Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Hollywood Film Music,
A comparison of the respondents associations with those in a mood music
catalogue points out the stability of film musics meaning system.6
In almost any film, the power of music to communicate emotion is heavily
used. In one scene from The Last of the Mohicans (1992), a group of three
men come upon the homestead of a family that they knew well. Outside the
cabin, however, lie the bodies of the wife and children, killed and left where
they lay while their home was torched. As the men creep around the cabin
trying to ascertain the damage, sustained low notes played by the orchestra
communicate the sadness of the men at seeing friends killed in such a brutal
manner. This example shows musics ability to illustrate the point that the
men regret what they see, a simple expression of emotion through music.
Power to suggest connection or themes
One of musics advantages over other channels of information (image,
dialogue, text, sound) is that it has the power of suggestion concerning what
a character may be thinking about or considering, whether that be a previous action, a person, or a place. Larry Timm writes that music is used to
create unspoken thoughts of a character or unseen implications of a situation. Music can be used to transfer subliminal messages to the filmgoers
where we can feel what the main character is feeling or where the music creates the conditions of the atmosphere on screen.7 Beyond getting audiences
to identify with what the character is going through, however, directors use
music to create and connect the overarching themes of the film and help
audiences understand the purpose or meaning.
One of the overarching themes of The Last of the Mohicans is that of duty,
and music is the tool that is often used to convey how this theme affects
characters. For the officer Duncan Hayward, thoughts of duty are often portrayed with music that references his military duty. As he journeys to begin
his service, the audience hears the strings imitate the jaunty military tune
that a soldier marching on his way to battle might hear. At other times, the
simple beat of the snare drum reminds the audience of soldiers marching to
service, again bringing to mind thoughts of duty.
Filmmakers have long exploited musics ability to provide unity
and emotional reinforcement to the image on the screen. Beginning with
accompaniment to silent films, such as Erno Rapes Motion Picture Moods

This content downloaded from 169.229.11.216 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 01:21:28 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

84 Green
for Pianists and Organists, music during films ranged from lullabies and
love themes to exciting chase music and the sound of sinister and grotesque
themes guaranteed to frighten even the strongest viewer.8 Later scores
were written for specific films, and finally sound (including music) came
packaged with the film.
Though some might argue that music simply reflects the drama on
screen, because the audience is listening to the score as they are watching
the film, the music automatically affects how viewers interpret what is happening. Veteran composer Leith Stevens taught that Music must assume an
attitude of partnership with the other elements concerned in the story.9 In
its most basic functions, film music works with the image to help the audience feel the emotions of the characters and to understand the larger themes
at work in the film. By working with other channels of information, music
moves beyond the role of simply reflecting or filling the background to the
role of actually affecting and creating meaning in the film.
Musics Ability to Identify and Suspend Reality
How important can music be in the development of the film if, as often
happens, the music is unconsciously heard and easily forgotten? Instead of
trying to understand musics purpose while other channels distract us, Kay
Dickinson suggests we rate musics importance in terms of what the film
would be without it:
The majority of film-goers would not be able to tell you much about
movie scores. Even if you were to catch a group leaving a movie theatre and ask them about the score they had just heard, many would
admit to not really having noticed it. However, if the same ensemble
had been asked to sit through that material minus the music, they
would probably feel frustratedly disconnected from the film and its
characters precisely because of the lack of musical prompts to guide
them towards a set of expected responses.10
It is this tendency of audiences to use the score as a tool for understanding
the meaning of other channels of information that makes film music so
integral to the film-viewing experience. When using the music to help determine the meaning, the audience becomes less questioning, and more accepting, of what is happening on screen. In her book Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music, Claudia Gorbman argues that film music functions to
lull the spectator into being an untroublesome (less critical, less wary) viewing
subject.11 How does the music accomplish this? By helping the audience
make the correct interpretations of the words and actions of characters,
especially when other channels of information might be hard to understand. Gorbman further argues that the classical film score encourages
identification: emotional proximity through the use of culturally familiar
musical language and through a matching, an identity of sound and image

This content downloaded from 169.229.11.216 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 01:21:28 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Understanding the Score 85


which masks contradictions and posits a wholeness with which to identify
unproblematically as subject.12 Gorbman is here arguing that music has the
power to connect potentially dissimilar images and music into a whole that
creates meaning from their combination.
In the same scene mentioned earlier from The Last of the Mohicans, the
audience might initially be confused by the Mohican partys cold handling
of the dead bodies of their friends. As evident from the womens objections to their proposal to leave the bodies behind unburied, a spectator
might wonder at their refusal to bury the bodies or to set the farmstead in
order. In contrast to the mens closed faces and cold actions, the music for
this scene clearly communicates their grief. The unresolved chords that
sound as the men look over the property show the audience that the men
feel uncertain about the course of action they must take, and quiet woodwinds mournfully play in the background as the men decide that they
cannot bury the bodies for fear of a Huron party following them. As the
audience sees a wide shot of the party leaving the property, there is a slow
progression of lowering notes that communicates their resignation at leaving their friends behind. Though their actions seem cold, by adding in the
mournful dimension of the music, the audience can correctly identify the
Mohicans sympathy.
Another important function of film music is its ability to suspend reality
for the audience. When movie-goers sit in a theatre and hear the opening
strains of the title theme, they have been conditioned to accept the music as
part of the cinematic experience; indeed, many films use opening music to
situate the story in a time, place, or context that will help the audience more
readily accept the film. In the book Movie Music: The Film Reader, Gorbman
states that despite the fact that music is not actually part of the fictional
world, The returns on the investment of a musical score are enormous,
considering that the film normally gets it forgotten. Music greases the
wheels of the cinematic pleasure machine by easing the spectators passage
into subjectivity.13 Music helps the audience locate themselves in scenes or
events that may be unusual, exotic, or even far-fetched in the context of their
lives. Instead of judging every action or conversation in the film in terms of
real-life experience, music helps the audience suspend reality and skepticism by creating a sense of unity and unreality.
The opening scene of The Last of the Mohicans depends heavily upon
music to transport the audience into the world of the Mohicans. As the film
opens, the audience watches as Hawkeye, Chingachgook, and Uncas chase
down a deer to the music of the title theme. Heavily beaten drums with low
brass playing an ominous melody begin the title sequence, symbolizing the
mens stealthy hunt of the deer. The music then breaks into harmony and
crescendos into the full orchestra, where trumpets lead the melody, as the
hunt becomes an open chase. The music ends and silence reigns after the
shot from the rifle that kills the deer. Though this may seem like just a deer

This content downloaded from 169.229.11.216 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 01:21:28 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

86 Green
hunt, the music creates an atmosphere where the audience can quickly realize
some important facts. Through the unity of the strong brass title theme, the
audience realizes that Hawkeye/Nathaniel is one with Chingachgook and
Uncas despite his white heritage. The proud trumpets proclaim that the Mohicans are experts and can exert dominance over the wilderness. Modern
viewers might initially feel distanced by the unusual clothing or the fastpaced experience of hunting for deer in a vast forest, but the music draws the
audience into the foreign world of preRevolutionary War America.
To fully enjoy the cinematic experience, the audience must first set aside
their demands for reality and accept the fictional world of the film, and
music functions as an important part of this process. Gorbman writes that
Music lessens defenses against the fantasy structures to which narrative
provides access. It increases the spectators susceptibility to suggestion.14
Kassabian agrees with this notion, stating that music crosses over the
boundaries between unconscious and conscious processes; it contradicts or
shifts what seem like heavy-handed meanings in the visuals.15 Though it
would only take an image of the Mohican party hunting for deer to communicate to the audience that the film is set in the past, by combining these
images with the title theme, music bridges the gap and helps viewers situate
themselves in the grand wilderness of the Mohican world.
Musical Conventions
To understand how music creates meaning in film, the audience must
understand how musical conventions shape film. Kassabian reports that
musical [c]ompetence is based on decipherable codes learned through experience. As with language and visual image, we learn through exposure
what a given tempo, series of notes, key, time signature, rhythm, volume,
and orchestration are meant to signify.16 In the same way that even children can understand a change from color to black and white as representing
a flashback in time, film audiences can also analyze the ways that music
can signal different responses. Dean Duncan, in his book Charms that Soothe:
Classical Music and the Narrative Film, writes that The specificity of these
cues, and the specificity of their identification, are very important. They can
cause us to interrogate our affective responses as they simultaneously engage our intellects and increase our knowledge, so that feeling and thought
can profitably coexist.17 To understand how music is functioning rhetorically within a film, audiences must stop listening passively and begin to
unravel what differences in tempo, rhythm, and volume mean in terms of
the plot or character development.
Leitmotif
In musical scoring, repeated themes have a specific term: leitmotif. A concept
derived from Wagners use of themes in opera, the leitmotif could be

This content downloaded from 169.229.11.216 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 01:21:28 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Understanding the Score 87


efined as a theme in a film [that] becomes associated with a character, a
d
place, a situation, or an emotion.18 Justin London, in his article Leitmotifs
and Musical Reference in the Classical Film Score, explains that in filmic
contexts the introduction of musical leitmotifs is highly conventionalized.
Usually this introduction involves the simultaneous presentation of the
character and his or her leitmotif, especially when we are given a striking
presentation of both early on in the film. The conventions of opening title
cues can also serve to fix the reference of a leitmotif.19 One basic way that
leitmotifs create meaning, then, is by constructing identifications that are
easily recognized within the film. London further explains that
Another constraint on the sound-shape of names and leitmotifs is that
they must be reasonably stable so that every time they are uttered or
performed they remain recognizable tokens of their name/leitmotif
type(s). In musical contexts this means that while a leitmotif may be
varied in a number of parameters such as orchestration, dynamics,
accompanimental texture, and some small melodic or rhythmic variation (especially tempo), one cannot radically alter the basic shape of
the musical leitmotif without risk of losing its designative function.20
Most of the time, leitmotifs can be identified as a simple melody, usually
only a few measures in length. In order to establish the leitmotif with the object of its identification, the leitmotif is usually repeated a few times to firmly engrain its essence with the audience. In order to create these themes or
meanings, composers repeat the same or slightly altered themes, which the
audience learns to associate with characters, places, or emotions. Themes
accumulate meaning to varying degrees, Gorbman argues. The theme can
be assigned a fixed function, constantly signaling the same character, locale,
or situation each time it appears, or it can vary, nuance, play a part in the
films dynamic evolution.21
One of the keys to understanding the score for the film Braveheart (1995)
is to understand the composers use of leitmotif. Of the changing leitmotifs
in this film, Murrons theme is one that develops and takes on new meaning
throughout the course of the narrative. The basic melody of the theme is
first heard when, as a child, Murron gives Wallace a thorn in sympathy after
his fathers funeral. The flute hints at Murrons strong sense of compassion
and understanding, and the plucked notes of the harp sound resolute as
the pipes work out into the foreground, closely echoed by the orchestra.
The scene closes with the lone flute again, mirroring William alone by his
fathers grave. Murrons theme is more fully developed in the scenes where
William courts her and when the priest marries them in secret. This leitmotif
symbolizes the quiet dignity of Murrons gentle nature through the harp,
woodwinds, and French horn that all play the basic melody at some point.
The composers calculated use of pipes and an ominous ending of low brass
that resolves unhappily seem to represent the fact that Murrons own ending will be unhappy. Even the oboe that resonates after the marriage seems

This content downloaded from 169.229.11.216 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 01:21:28 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

88 Green
to warn the couple that life will not be kind to them through its minor tones
and the orchestras rapid crescendos and diminuendos.
Thematic transformations
Once basic identifications are made with different themes, however, the
leitmotif can be modified or altered in order to reflect the changing status
of the character, place, situation, or emotion. Roger Hickman discusses the
importance of the changing leitmotif in his book Reel Music: Exploring 100
Years of Film Music: Thematic transformation helps to create variety and
gives support to dramatic situations. In the simplest terms, a leitmotif can
be altered when it recurs during a film. The alteration can be a change of
instrumentation, tempo, or harmony. Through these transformations, the
changing mood or state of a character can be depicted.22 Changing leitmotifs, then, signal development in characters and situations.
Murrons theme changes significantly throughout the film as Wallace
both mourns his wife and seeks to redress the wrongs done to his family. At
Murrons burial, the phrasing of the repeated theme varies from mourning
(slower oboe), to rage (more forceful brass orchestration), to resignation
(fluctuating volume of the string-dominated phrase), to eventual peace
within himself (plucked notes of the harp that resolve). It is apparent from
the number of times that the theme is repeated throughout the film, though,
that Murron is not forgotten in Wallaces thoughts. Though the notes of
Murrons theme stay consistent enough that they are easily recognizable, each
time the theme is played, the music represents both the changes in Wallaces
thoughts and concerns as well as his unswerving diligence to duty.
Music often illustrates the complex changes that point to transformations
of character. One means of assessing the relative importance of music,
Scott D. Paulin writes, is to consider the melodic ideas or leitmotifs and
the extent to which they are linked to texts that thereby provide them with
associative meanings that are then retained or developed on the motifs subsequent appearances.23 Although one leitmotif may be introduced with a
specific character, when it is combined with another characters leitmotif,
the audience should wonder what is trying to be communicated with the
combination. Is the character beginning to resemble the other character, is
he experiencing the other characters most prominent emotion, or is he sympathizing with what the other character is feeling?
Murrons theme is also an example of a leitmotif that is used to portray
two characters in Braveheart. Despite the fact that Murron is killed relatively
early in the film, Murron continues to be a significant force both in the
course of Wallaces life and after his death. One example of Murrons theme
taking new meaning is when the Princess and Wallace meet together at the
cottage, and the Princess becomes Wallaces love interest. The leitmotif that
had represented Murron now adapts to suit the Princess. As she watches
Wallace ride away, the woodwinds and strings transition from Murrons

This content downloaded from 169.229.11.216 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 01:21:28 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Understanding the Score 89


traditional theme into a more worried, quickly paced orchestration than
Murrons leitmotif had ever been. As the orchestra fills out the theme, it
swiftly changes into the title theme, once more returning the audiences
thoughts to the duty to country that is so important to Wallace.
The Princesss adaptation of Murrons theme is continued in the scene
where the Princess pleads for Wallaces life before the king. At first only sad
flutes that mourn her unsuccessful cause are heard, but toward the end of
the scene, when the Princess realizes that the king is incapable of mercy, the
harp slowly picks out Murrons theme, contrasting not only the two women
but also the difference between the caring and giving Murron and the selfish
and tyrannical king. While it is fairly simple to understand why Murrons
theme would become the Princesss theme after she becomes the principle
love interest, more complex questions arise as the audience considers the
timing and changes to the theme. Why, for example, would Murrons theme
play when the Princess is telling Longshanks that his line will end forever?
Is it because it should be Murron who is carrying Wallaces child, or is it
because Murron should finally feel revenged for her death because of the
kings helpless state? Transformations of theme can bring to the audiences
attention the complex issues that are at stake in both the development of the
plot and the development of characters.
Defining character
Another important role that leitmotif fulfills is to define and distinguish
character. Leitmotifs establish early on which characters the audience should
be supporting and which are the villains of the film. Timothy E. Scheurer, in his
book Music and Mythmaking in Film, writes that Just as the topics and gestures
that accompany the hero and the lovers are meant to get our hearts to swell
and to stir our blood to noble action, so the gestures for the villain are meant
to remind us of untrammeled violence and fill us with uneasiness.24 Though
critics may call the scores identifying of heroes and villains too simplifying, in
reality, the score doesnt simply leave the audience with identification, which
would be redundant in most cases because the image of the identified is already
on the screen. Instead, the score works to amplify and interpret the changes and
emotions that are driving each characters course of action.
In a scene that marks a crossroads in Braveheart, Robert the Bruce shows
what his true feelings are for Scotlands future. After the battle that he has in
part caused, he walks the battlefield, examining the dead of his countrymen
with haunted eyes that seem to take responsibility for his betrayal. Dark
strings and low brass combine as Bruce falls to his knees on the battlefield,
the regret for his choice clear in the musical choices as well as the framing
of the shots. Bruce makes a vow to never be on the wrong side again, a
vow that defines him throughout the rest of the film. At later points in the
film, when he is forced to take sides, noble, strong music reminds him of his
pledge to his country and to himself.

This content downloaded from 169.229.11.216 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 01:21:28 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

90 Green
Playing counter to the image
In relating the music to what is going on in the images and dialogue of the
film, one of the most basic distinctions is whether the music is playing with
or against the image. Gorbman states that Either the music resembles or
it contradicts the action or mood of what happens on the screen. Siegfried
Kracauer, for example, writes that counterpoint occurs when music and
picture convey different meanings that meet in a montage effect.25 Larry
M. Timm, in his book The Soul of Cinema: An Appreciation of Film Music, also
discusses this technique of music play[ing] against the action . . . Generally, this occurs when the composer uses music that opposes what is being
seen on screen. For instance, a director may wish to tone down an extremely
violent segment of his or her movie by accompanying it with an opera aria
or a slow ballad.26 Though this might seem like a fairly simple distinction,
by hearing music that seemingly opposes the mood of what is happening
on screen, the audience must make sense of the contradiction and what purpose it serves.
Though many of film musics conventions are learned simply through
watching a variety of films, often a film will teach its audience what specific
musical cues and prompts mean within that film. In understanding a potentially confusing scene,
music serves to ward off the displeasure of uncertain signification.
The particular kind of music used in dominant feature films has connotative values so strongly codified that it can bear a similar relation
to the images as a caption to a news photograph. It interprets the image, pinpoints and channels the correct meaning of the narrative
events depicted. It supplies information to complement the potentially ambiguous diegetic images and sounds.27
Functioning in much the same way that a caption narrates a photograph,
Gorbman argues that music tends to shed light on the meaning that the director would have you glean from the film. Instead of stringing together
words to communicate, music creates meaning through a multitude of varying factors such as instrumentation, tonality, key, and phrasing that work
together to create a mood or feeling that suggests or emphasizes something
that the audience might not have paid attention to or realized. Though it
might be difficult to come up with the narrative solely based on the film
music, with the help of other visual or auditory channels of information that
direct the meaning, film music can comment on the drama and even persuade the audience to feel a certain way about the action or characters.
One example of music working on many levels is the final scene from
Braveheart. The audience listens as a single flute plays the outlaw theme
while the Scotsmen assemble with Robert the Bruce at their head. By using this particular theme, the audience recalls all of the other instances
of this theme, both the failures and the successes that the Scotsmen have

This content downloaded from 169.229.11.216 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 01:21:28 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Understanding the Score 91


e xperienced in attempting to free their country from England. An oboe joins
the flute as Bruce pulls out Murrons wedding cloth, calling to the audiences attention the real reason for Wallaces fight against the British. In this
one simple duet symbolizing the duty of the men to unite in battling for Scotland and the purpose for their fight, the audience experiences the cumulative
effect of all the instances of both themes that have led to this critical point in
the narrative. Just as the audience watches the men on the field evaluating
their reasons for being there and their chances for victory, the audience, aided
by these two very different themes, will be mulling over the same issues. As
Bruce rides forward with the other nobles, trumpets join the initial instruments, indicating a convergence of peoples and ideas. When Bruce mentions
Wallace, the trumpets soar out in a war theme, but they are quickly overridden by the sound of the drums and pipes that foreshadow the victory of the
Scots at Bannockburn. Finally, Robert the Bruce and William Wallace have accomplished their design to free Scotland from English rule. Pipes resonate on
a final note as a single sword waves in the wind on the field of battle, symbolizing freedom, the overarching theme of the film.
Depending on how a particular member of the audience interprets the
music in conjunction with the images or dialogue, the score may not sway
everyone to exactly the same meaning. Kassabian comments that No film
can force a perceiver to engage in a particular way. Even the most rigidly
assimilating of film scores cannot guarantee the cooperation of perceiving
subjects.28 In the example above, though the music points to the freedom
of the Scots, because so many themes are compressed into such a short span
of time, different members of the audience may identify and emphasize specific parts of the score. But music, Royal Brown states, of all the many
separate components that make up any given commercial film, plays one of
the strongest roles in what has been and continues to be a world-wide tendency in commercial cinema to encode the visual/narrative amalgam with
the mythologies, both political and extrapolitical, embedded in a particular
culture.29 Music more so than image seems to appeal to more general cultural narratives such as family, home, friends, and enemies through broader
conventions that work in a variety of mediums. So while it would be very
hard to misinterpret the basic functions of music in expressing emotion or
identifying characters or themes, because the more complex functions of
music invoke the broader, more universal themes of life, different members of the audience will be able to use the music to bring the story or
message of the film closer to their experience and issues. This proves
to be more of a positive than a negative aspect of music, since it allows
viewers to take a more personal approach to films presenting even very
foreign concepts.
In giving additional meaning to film, one of the most important roles that
music has is to work with the other channels of information (image, dialogue, text, sound) to comment on what is happening. Musical narration can

This content downloaded from 169.229.11.216 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 01:21:28 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

92 Green
coincide or differ from the mood being portrayed by the image, can allude
to ideas not explicitly stated in dialogue, can reveal the purpose of words
or objects displayed on screen, or can work with sound effects to explain
what is really happening. An important principle to remember is that music is a cogenerator of narrative affect.30 Leith Stevens advises that During dialogue scenes, for example, music should promote an understanding
of the characters motivations, give color and depth to their mood, help to
explain reactions and attitudes by reminding the audience of some earlier
dramatic development that has bearing on the present scene, or emphasize
some quality of the characters background which has bearing on his reactions in the scene.31 Such a partnership between music and other channels
of information will not only clarify the purpose and meaning of the scene
but also influence the audiences understanding of the action. Through the
same way that the editing of images affects the audiences interpretation of
the film, so the way that music helps to create the narrative of the film will
change how audiences respond to the film. Music works in conjunction with
the other channels of information (image, dialogue, text, sound) to give the
audience a more complex understanding of what is happening in the characters minds and how decisions are being made.
One of the scenes most affected by the contribution of musical scoring in
conjunction with the other channels of information is the climactic resolution of The Last of the Mohicans. During the discussion of the Huron wise
man and Magua that will determine the fate of the two Munroe girls, no
music plays, the lack of music pointing instead to the focus on the words
and arguments being presented. As Hayward volunteers to take Coras
place at the burning stake, a steady drum beat begins, marking the beginning of events that cannot be reversed. As Cora is traded for Hayward and
Alice is dragged off by Magua, a lone fiddle begins to play the same eight
measures over and over again. The unusual 12/8 time signature drives
the fiddle tune and gives the audience the feeling that all the characters
are being pushed forward into courses of action that were unforeseen.
Low bass notes are added as the repetitive music sweeps the characters
along, Uncas chasing after Alice with Chingachgook, Hawkeye, and Cora
following behind. The tempo and beat of the music are working here in
conjunction with the montage of images that indicates the quick speed of
the action taking place.
One by one instruments are added to the mix until the whole orchestra
sounds together as the camera cuts to a panoramic view of the mountain,
slowly moving until at the bottom left corner we can see the cliff face that
the Huron party is crossing. Trumpets dominate this majestic view of nature, but as the camera cuts back into a closer shot, the trumpets drop out
and once again the fiddle dominates, with countermelody played by the
low brass. At this point Uncas attacks the Huron party alone, cutting down
several men before he in turn is cut down by Magua. As the focus of the

This content downloaded from 169.229.11.216 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 01:21:28 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Understanding the Score 93


camera comes down upon the individuals fighting, the music diminishes in
volume so that the sound effects can become more prominent, emphasizing
the very physical nature of this clash of peoples and beliefs. The volume
increases as Magua first swipes Uncas, but then the harmony develops more
strongly as Uncas falls and the attention is turned to Alice.
As Alice steps away from the Hurons and closer to the edge of the cliff,
the fiddle and drum finally fade away to simple pitches played by high
strings. Alice has always been viewed as the younger sister, the school girl
who hasnt quite grown up enough to take on real responsibility. In earlier scenes of distress, it is her older sister Cora who has supported her. Yet
with all of her friends stripped from her and what seems like her final hope
in Uncas failed, Alice has come to a definitive decision. By also stripping
away both the melody, harmony, and percussion, the music represents the
point that Alice seems to have no alternative left. As the camera centers on
her face, the string pitches resonate back and forth while she steps out onto
the cliff. Switching back to Magua, also centered by the camera, the drums
thrum back and forth, helping the audience register his disbelief at her resistance of his command to come back to the safer path. Just before she steps
over the edge, the strings come together in a chord and the timpanis beat
out a mourning for her eminent choice. To close the scene, the fiddle comes
back in but is quickly eclipsed by the brass that represent Chingachgook
and Hawkeyes revenge on the Huron, especially Magua.
Though the fiddle tune that dominates this climactic scene may at first
seem inappropriate for the deaths and difficult choices that it works with,
the sweeping rhythm clearly represents the choices that each of the characters must make. Although the tune doesnt extensively work with leitmotifs
established earlier in the film, by changing the instrumentation, tempo, and
phrasing of each characters portion of the scene, the music differentiates
each characters choices and decisions. Although this film may be dealing with the global issues of war, race relations, and change, it is the personal motives and decisions that the music emphasizes, as reflected in the
very personalized themes of the film music that work with the channels of
image and sound effect to create a powerful message that speaks to viewers
without dialogue.
Conclusion
As evidenced by the strong use of musical scores in modern film, film music
has come a long way since the initial silent films piano or organ accompaniment that simply marked general emotions or moods. Though film music
has retained its basic functions of reflecting emotions and moods in the images, the film score has progressed into actually shaping the narrative. By
establishing specific leitmotifs, themes, and cues within a movie, film music
fulfills the more complex role of working in conjunction with the other

This content downloaded from 169.229.11.216 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 01:21:28 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

94 Green
c hannels of information to rhetorically influence the audiences interpretation of the film and the message that the viewer takes from the film.
NOTES
1. Christian Metz, Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1974), 58.
2. Robert Stam, Robert Burgoyne, and Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, New Vocabularies in
Film Semiotics (Routledge: New York, 1992), 59.
3. Metz, Film Language, 93.
4. Stam, Burgoyne, and Flitterman-Lewis, New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics, 63.
5. Anahid Kassabian, Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Hollywood Film Music (New York: Routledge, 2001), 19.
6. Ibid.
7. Larry M. Timm, The Soul of Cinema: An Appreciation of Film Music (Upper Saddle
River, NJ: Prentice Hill, 2003), 5; emphasis in the original.
8. Ibid., 60.
9. Leith Stevens, Film Scoring: The UCLA Lectures, Journal of Film Music 1, no. 4
(2006): 345.
10. Kay Dickinson, introduction to Movie Music: The Film Reader, ed. Kay Dickinson
(New York: Routledge, 2003), 13.
11. Claudia Gorbman, Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1987), 58; emphasis in the original.
12. Ibid., 108.
13. Claudia Gorbman, Why Music? The Sound Film and Its Spectator, in Movie
Music: The Film Reader, ed. Kay Dickinson (New York: Routledge, 2003), 40.
14. Gorbman, Unheard Melodies, 5.
15. Kassabian, Hearing Film, 9.
16. Ibid., 23.
17. Dean Duncan, Charms that Soothe: Classical Music and the Narrative Film (New
York: Fordham University Press, 2003), 137.
18. Gorbman, Unheard Melodies, 3.
19. Justin London, Leitmotifs and Musical Reference in the Classical Film Score,
in Music and Cinema, ed. James Buhler, Caryl Flinn, and David Neumeyer (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan, 2000), 87.
20. Ibid., 88.
21. Gorbman, Unheard Melodies, 27.
22. Roger Hickman, Reel Music: Exploring 100 Years of Film Music (New York:
W. W. Norton, 2005), 43.
23. Scott D. Paulin, Richard Wagner and the Fantasy of Cinematic Unity: The Idea
of the Gesamtkunstwerk in the History and Theory of Film Music, in Music and
Cinema, ed. James Buhler, Caryl Flinn, and David Neumeyer (Middletown, CT:
Wesleyan, 2000), 61.
24. Timothy E. Scheurer, Music and Mythmaking in Film: Genre and the Role of the Composer (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008), 121.
25. Gorbman, Unheard Melodies, 15.
26. Larry M. Timm, The Soul of Cinema: An Appreciation of Film Music (Upper Saddle
River, NJ: Prentice Hill, 2003), 10.
27. Gorbman, Why Music? 40.
28. Kassabian, Hearing Film, 138.
29. Royal S. Brown, Overtones and Undertones: Reading Film Music (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 30.
30. Ibid., 32.
31. Stevens, Film Scoring, 345-46.

This content downloaded from 169.229.11.216 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 01:21:28 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions