The Soundtrack of The Seventh Art: Music and Sound in Film

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Music and sound have been integral to the wonder of film since the beginning. Whether it be those high-pitched stabbing strings of Bernard Herrmann’s iconic Psycho score or Ben Burtt’s buzz-like hum that is recognized around the world as the sound of a Star Wars lightsabre, music and sound allow us to see and understand the cinematic worlds in a different way.

Psycho Soundtrack

Score Values

Musical themes in films are powerful tools; not only do they encapsulate the film’s emotional tone, narrative and character development, but they can also bring us back to a time, a place, a moment in our lives that the music unknowingly captured. I have a friend who still wells up every time she hears Ennio Morricone’s theme to The Mission, the piece titled, “Gabriel’s Oboe”. When it comes to creating themes, one of the most notable composers of our time is undoubtedly John Williams. We hear the uplifting leaps of brass from the upwards scrolling titles of a new Star Wars adventure, or even the enchanting celesta of Harry Potter which takes us on a magical journey into the worlds of wizards and muggles. Williams’ score on Jaws became one of the most famous horror scores to date; he brought the terror of the deep to life through two simple notes. All it takes is hearing those notes and you’ve got me hiding under a table. Even on dry land, that musical score is enough for me to expect the beast from below to appear. The impact of the score runs so deep in our culture that my friend learned even at age 5, never having seen the film, to associate that music with sharks. Jaws was not the first film to have a score with a lasting impact and nor will it be the last. I always find a film’s musical composition to be at its best not only when it sounds incredible, but when it works together flawlessly with the director’s vision of the story. When Gravity was released in 2013, we were plunged into Alfonso Cuarón’s expertly crafted dark abyss of space. Steven Price’s score not only helped create this vast and intensely lonely atmosphere, but also highlighted the emotional spectrum of the film’s characters. Price used both organic sounds such as orchestral instrumentation, which reflect the natural and human experience of space, and electronic sounds, which display the mechanical side of space exploration. It was amazing because it did the impossible, tackling the question: how do you create the sound of silence? Working with sound designer, Glenn Freemantle, and sound re-recording mixer, Skip Lievsay, Price and the team created an audio depth to the audience’s experience of this wonderful film, exploring both the thrill and fear of the dark expanse.

Gaining Sound

Often times, sound is overlooked in films. We all know that infamous creak of a door, anticipating our worst nightmare to come, or the happier squeaks and springs of the beloved Pixar Luxo Jr. lamp. We are all familiar with these sounds, but do we really hear the genius behind their creation, recognizing the lasting impression they have on us? Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is a favourite of mine, but it wasn’t necessarily love at first sight; I am someone who loves rhythm, but the first time I saw this film it drove me up the wall! The whole times, I couldn’t stop my fingers tapping along with the beat that was so expertly woven throughout the entire narrative. Wright had expressed from the conception of this film, that music and sound were to be the driving factors (pun absolutely intended). Sound designer Julian Slater, rerecording mixer, Tim Cavagin, and the entire sound team managed to time in every car door and screech and twist and turn to the tempo of each music cue as well as bring us into Baby’s perception of the world around him.

Ansel Elgort in Baby Driver

Thankfully, after a couple of viewings, I relaxed and could take in the incredible dance that was before me. Last year I got to see 1917 in the cinema (oh the days), and I remember leaving with the echo of gunshots still ringing in my ears. Oliver Tarney and his sound team went to extraordinary lengths to immerse us in Sam Mendes’ story. George MacKay’s character, Schofield, goes on this traumatic journey and we are engulfed in the physical, mental and emotional strain of his experience; Tarney and his team would record the sounds of gunfire from multiple locations, letting us share in the uncertainty of where the danger was coming from. The shots that were up close and personal were sharp and jolting—enough to make you jump—as you also watch Schofield react to the same fearful noise. Remote mics were built into the helmets and uniforms, to capture the breathing and footsteps of Schofield and Blake (played by Dean Charles-Chapman). Again, bringing us into the intensely personal and vulnerable experiences of the characters. Films are made up of so much talent, across the cast and crew. I will always be blown away by the skill involved in creating something so magical. I will also still always swell with emotion at the delicate dance of the brass in Nicholas Britell’s score to If Beale Street Could Talk, and experience a childlike joy when I hear the result of Michael Giacchino’s talents in Up. Maybe you can’t help yourself with the occasional aiming of your fingers and letting out a “pew pew”, courtesy of the intergalactic creation from Ben Burtt. But next time you grab your sweet ‘n salty popcorn and sit down in front of a film, have the intention to listen to as well as watch the world in front of you and I tell you, you’ll be amazed by the power and influence of music and sound.

by Hannah Donald

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