Screen, Sound, Symmetry: Why choosing the right music for your film matters

Music communicates to us emotionally through systematic violations of expectations.”

Daniel J. Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music (2007)

Staggered pulses of analog synthesizers cloak the Los Angeles night sky as the serrated tics of a weary TR-909 drum machine puncture through the speakers. A wrist-watch is strapped to the steering wheel, each pass of the dial slowly suffocating the driver, and reeling audiences deeper within the tension, mood, and atmosphere of the scene.

This is Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn’s hyper stylized 2011 cult classic film, and it is a masterclass on how the right soundtrack can not only enhance the narrative—helping to establish mood, setting and tone—but become integral to it, as demonstrated in Drive’s breakout synth-pop motif, “A Real Human Being” by College, ft. Electric Youth, heard at the emotional apex of the protagonist’s journey, and also—faintly, and in an entirely different context—at its conclusion. The continuities expressed in muted, but recurrent sound, capture the hope, despair, and resilience that wind through Refn’s narrative.

Music’s intrinsic link to film is most commonly traced to mood and ambience. The earliest commercial films in history used live musical accompaniment in the absence of on-screen sound for this very purpose. What would the original Phantom of the Opera (1925) be without its melodramatic organ accompaniment?

To locate the ideal song for a given scene, the first and most important step is to reflect on the mood to be conveyed. Let’s consider a classic that demonstrates one of the most affecting pairings of sound and mood ever committed to film; Alfred Hitchcock’s unforgettable shower scene in his landmark 1960 horror film, Psycho. Hitchcock’s quick, sharp camera cuts, coupled with the tormented, splintery sounds of string instruments—which mimic the camera’s actions in counter-rhythm—create a sensory experience of psychological terror. Here, sound and picture operate in symmetry. The outcome is the all-too-perfect arousal of fear in the unsuspecting audience before the full horror of what has actually happened is realized, or even fully portrayed.

It’s easy to associate certain instruments with specific moods–which we can partially attribute to the lasting impact of iconic audio/visual pairings such as the aforementioned Psycho. Staccato strings lend themselves naturally to tension, cascading piano phrases offer a sense of hopefulness, while timpani is often used to create a sense of scale, telegraphing to the audience that something truly epic is about to unfold.

However, the exploration of soundtrack dissonance—the use of music that embodies the emotional and tonal opposite of a scene, can be just as effective.

Quentin Tarantino’s soundtrack curation has practically spawned its own genre of what we might classify as “A.M. radio-as-thematic-and-emotional-centerpiece”. His use of Stealer’s Wheel’s 1972 Dylan-lite hit, Stuck in the Middle as the backdrop for one of the the most punishing and controversial scenes in modern filmmaking in his 1992 directorial breakthrough, Reservoir Dogs, summarily illustrates the creative potential behind the contrasting forces music and film can create when one is used to counter the other.

A song’s implementation into the film itself should be considered when seeking out an ideal pairing. When a song is integrated into the film’s narrative, and thereby assimilated into the dramatic “universe” of its characters, it’s classified as diegetic sound. In the wildly popular Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, the various Awesome Mixes Chris Pratt’s character plays throughout the two films are routinely queued-up by the character himself, while he and others often remark upon, and sing these selections throughout the film series.

Conversely, when a song or score is played outside of the fictive consciousness of the film’s characters and universe, it’s referred to as non-diegetic sound. Despite the complicated label, this is simply the implementation of a traditional score or song into a film. This is, in fact, the most common application of music to film. Think of those classic promotional radio single tie-ins like Huey Lewis and the News’s iconic(stay with me) single, The Power of Love, which would be eminently less cool were it not “matched” with Michael J. Fox’s plucky underdog Marty McFly engaging in some casual hitchhiking-by-way-of-skateboard shenanigans. What a time to be alive.

There are many pathways to explore, and many branching roads that will lead to those decisions when pursuing the perfect marriage of sound and film, but it’s important to remember that there’s truly no wrong answer. Returning to where we began, I will reiterate the Levitin quote that opens this discussion: music is in and of itself a disruptive force. In setting out to find the right music for your film, think what kind of disruption you are aiming for: light or dark? Happy or sad? Calm or angry? Revelatory or mystifying? And of course, your choices are not limited between these opposites!

The fundamental point to take away is the centrality of music tofilm, both in its creation and in its consumption by your eager audience. Music does not make a film. But the right music can make the film-going experience.