We are used to hearing it in the background, but what makes a good soundtrack? A good score isn’t synonymous with beautiful music and vice-versa. A soundtrack must be, above all, useful. Jaws’s theme consists of a simple three-note leitmotif. However, John Williams created a mythical theme that any spectator identifies with the shark.
Music, in film, offers solutions. If a scene doesn’t have any problem, it doesn’t need any music either. The score becomes a visual element: it can manipulate the way the audience views the film. If there is a contradiction between image and music, music will always win, because it connects with the audience immediately and subconsciously and at a deeper level. The audience doesn’t question music; they just assume it and believe it. We won’t be able to see a beautiful landscape if we are hearing apocalyptic music.
This is what happens at the beginning of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening: we are watching a beautiful blue sky, but we hear a sinister theme that makes us aware that something is going to happen. A violent scene can be accompanied by colourful music if we see it from say, a killer’s point of view, who may understand violence as a freeing act. Bernard Herrmann was the first composer to use this asynchrony between music and image. In Psycho’s famous scene, Janet Leigh is stabbed nine times, but with the creepy sound of creaking violins we feel the knife fifty times.
If you pay attention, the soundtrack will guide you…
A theme can attack a character, invade space or anticipate the appearance of something or someone; when we hear Kill Bill’s whistle; the smell of death is around. Some themes take an important element of the film and integrate it in their composition. In Atonement, Dario Marianelli’s score is built with the sound of a typewriter, because it has a meaning throughout the film.
A film usually has a main theme, central themes, secondary themes, sub-themes and fragments or motives, which are a group of three or four notes with their own personality and meaning that the audience quickly recognises. We can also find a contra-theme; a function to fight and overpower the main/central theme. This frequently happens in films with a dual character, such as Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle or Lord of the Rings’ Gollum. In Star Wars there is a main, heroic theme on the one hand, and Darth Vader’s contra-theme on the other hand, which represents darkness and evil.
A good score isn’t synonymous with beautiful music and vice-versa.
In the opening credits we may have an initial theme, which can be increasingly important along the film and finally become a main or central theme. The initial theme is an introduction into the general mood and aesthetics of the movie, but it can also cheat us and end up meaning the opposite: when we hear the initial lullaby in Rosemary’s Baby it represents the good and naïve, but it actually symbolises evil itself (and its ultimate triumph).
When you watch a film, listen carefully. If you pay attention, the soundtrack will guide you and you will have a better notion of what is happening throughout. You can get to know the most intimate details about the characters and places and you will often find that sometimes things are not quite what they seem.