Culture Film & TV Music

Listening to Movies: Musings on Soundtracks

Across film genres, soundtracks shape and support the genre and message of the film. Film composers employ various techniques when writing scores, but they all ultimately create tracks with structures that grow and evolve with the film’s motifs.

Musical Films

What works for non-musical films may not work for musical films. In general, musical films, more so than others, need to tie songs together in order to track the personal growth of the character.

The songs of Sing Street, a coming of age musical film, fail to transport the audience into the world of the protagonist. The funk in some tracks illustrates the quirkiness and different personalities of the characters in the band, but not all songs share the same traits. The lyrics felt like a convenient outlet to narrate his character progression, instead of one that evoked greater empathy to his personal growth.

In order to evoke and sustain the audience’s emotions, composers borrow renowned music sequences. Frozen 2 is a musical film that employs the use of Dies Irae successfully. The first few notes of the Dies Irae (a Gregorian chant about the apocalypse) is a haunting sequence commonly used to evoke fear in films. In Frozen 2, it is used as a motif to signify a call to Elsa which lead her to eventually learn about her purpose and kingdom’s history. Everything in the past, including Elsa’s views of her own gifts, is a curse, as this was before Elsa knew and found herself. Dies Irae helps to link Elsa’s view that her gifts are a curse and the actual curse during the war between Northuldra and Arendelle where countless died.

Elsa’s character growth when she works through and eventually accomplishes her purpose becomes something that the audience experiences alongside her. In Into the Unknown (the first time we hear Dies Irae being used extensively), Elsa runs away from the curse of the past. As the song progresses, it modulates from minor to major (‘sad’ to ‘happy’), signifying Elsa’s eventual empowerment. The metaphor of the warring curse for Elsa’s own insecurities is further emphasised when she eventually ends the actual curse after overcoming, instead of running away from, her own fears. This interpretation is supported by the sampling of Dies Irae in All is Found, Elsa’s lullaby from the past in A Minor, in her breakthrough song Show Yourself. Although the song is primarily in a major key and reminiscent of other Disney themes, having Elsa face these elements of the past illustrates with certainty how she has overcome her fears.

Non-Musical Films

Iconic soundtracks of non-musical films combine techniques in a novel way specific to the film’s theme.

Shepard tones, a form of auditory illusion, consist of different octaves played simultaneously to portray an ever-increasing or decreasing pitch in a sequence of music during high-tension scenes. Diegetic music (music that is part of the fictional setting) incorporates on-screen sounds, allowing tracks to better relate to the film sequence. For example, the soundtrack of Interstellar incorporates the sound effects of the firing of thrusters on-screen and Shepard tones to increase and sustain tensions when the characters undergo risky take-offs.

Composers may also borrow from classical music to give their pieces more character. Jojo’s Theme from Jojo Rabbit includes a standard march with melodies played by the recorder, juxtaposing the grim realities of war with the rose-tinted, simplistic views of a child.

Franchises/Film Series

Soundtracks within the realm of franchised Hollywood films tend to have iconic themes too – think Star Wars or Jurassic Park.

The Marvel franchise has a theme, but it is less memorable than other names we can easily list. This can be attributed to the use of ‘temp music’ – the tendency to incorporate the temporary scores of films when creating the final soundtrack. Composers may unintentionally reduce the specificity of the film scores, compromising on the level of specificity that only arises when they detail a score from scratch. The Marvel tracks are usually layered below sound effects in fight scenes and heavy dialogue, and the musical link across the multitude of Marvel films is ineffective due to the inability to have specificity to the respective stories.

An example of a series that has an amazing soundtrack is Election, the crime film series by Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To. The use of drum and bass sequences characteristic of Chinese culture emphasises the themes of the films that are pervasive in the election wars of a Teochew gang in Hong Kong. Across the existing two films, there are conflicts of putting one’s career (novel) instead of family (traditional) first, or overlooking traditional habits of respecting one’s elders. The use of syncopation (off-beats) helps to raise tension for gruesome scenes without making it an overkill, thus normalising the level of violence, giving the audience a clearer picture of life in Wo Luen Shing.

The Covid era may change the way film scores are produced – we have seen music artists collaborating with fans and other musicians live during quarantine, and perhaps things have been changing in the film industry too. But one thing’s for sure, the core techniques that film composers employ remain diverse. What makes a ground-breaking track, then, is dependent on how creatively the composer sources old samples or sequences in an illustrative way to best support the other elements of the film.