How Great Film-Makers Break the Music Scoring Rules

Originally posted March 16, 2011

As I’ve currently been composing the score for the film Torn by Windy City Productions, I’ve been reminded of the various unique ways that music can be used in film. A well-composed score will enhance the desired emotional effect that the director is seeking. When a film score is properly written, it won’t distract from the visual elements. In other words, the viewer shouldn’t be overtly aware of when the supporting music comes in and out. However, if it is written well and mixed well with the audio from the scene (dialogue, etc.), it can have a powerful influence on the viewer’s emotional response.

However, as is often the case, the exception proves the rule. I will explore three famous scenes from three war films. In each of the scenes discussed, music is used in a unique way in which the viewer is very aware of the music and its impact.

As the main character Adrian Cronauer (Robin Williams), in Barry Levinson’s 1987 film Good Morning Vietnam, plays from the army base radio station the 1968 Louis Armstrong song What a Wonderful World, the film cuts to images of the war, specifically of the more questionable elements of the conflict and how it was impacting the average citizen. For those who have seen the movie, most will remember the scene, as the paradox between image and sound creates a strong emotional and reflective response on the inhumane aspects of war:

The second clip to be discussed is the famous helicopter scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now released in 1979. Most often, film music is non-diagetic – meaning that the characters in the film do not hear the music. Diagetic music, on the other hand, is music within a scene where the characters are aware of it, such as a radio playing in the background, or music in a nightclub scene. Coppola brilliantly mixes these two techniques with the use of a recording of The Ride of the Valkyries from Richard Wagner’s opera Der Ring des Nibelungen. In this case, we can see the commander of the Air Cavalry Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall) use a recording on tape to blast the music from a loudspeaker as the helicopters attack the village. If the music were used non-diagetically (as is normally done), it would still have worked very well. But because it used diagetically, it has the profound effect of creating a strong image of the pilots and soldiers, as they seem to be attempting to glorify the battle and to treat it almost as a game – and for those who know the movie, they do indeed end up surfing as the battle is still raging.  (Sorry – the embedding feature would not work for this clip – please link to the video below):

The third example is from the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan by Steven Spielberg. This is very unique in that the scene below uses no music at all. The entire sequence has not a single note of music – from when the landing crafts touch down on the beaches of Normandy, until over twenty minutes later when Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) finally has a very brief moment to reflect on the battle. This length of footage with no music score is very rare in modern film-making. The film’s composer John Williams could have very easily written a great cue for the scene, and it likely would have worked very well. But Spielberg took a calculated risk. He was trying to create a sense of realism (quite effectively from what I’ve heard about people who were actually there on June 6, 1944). The lack of film score is accompanied by a “shaky” hand-held camera technique, used to create a sense of “being” there. Spielberg depended on great acting with great characters to draw the desired emotional effect from the viewers. The soldiers were depicted as very human and full of fear, as they were thrown into a very inhumane situation (unlike the too-cool-for-his-own-good Rambo-style movies). The superb special effects were used to serve the story well, and not just used because Spielberg had the budget to do it. The powerful audio sound effects of the battle and the lapping waves become the “music score” of the scene. I believe that adding non-diagetic music in this case would have diminished the impact of the scene rather than enhance it. It’s the attention to these little details that makes Spielberg such a great film maker:

As a composer, I’ve often been tempted to “over-score” a film. It’s especially easy to fall into that trap as computer music software has become so powerful. But just because one can certainly does not mean that one should. And as can be seen and heard by the above examples, music has a very powerful effect when used properly in films – and great film makers and film composers know when and when not to employ it. As Claude Debussy once said, “Music is the space between the notes.”

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