Although a film is composed of plenty of manipulation techniques, sound choices and a recurring score ultimately tells the audience how to feel a certain way about a particular onscreen event. In this blog I’ll go over how some films reverberate their message simply with the score.
Take Alfred Hitchcock's “Psycho” for instance. The music shifts into an ominous tone at the presence of Marion’s stolen money, and occurs again at other points of her getaway. The consistent iteration of the stolen money theme reinforces the first 30 minutes of suspense and familiarizes the audience with the brooding world Marion is getting herself into. It’s scores like these that sit in the back of your head as you find yourself completely mesmerized on the film.
Now some films don’t even necessarily need the blaring suspenseful music to complete a horrifying scene. That’s where Paranormal Activity comes in. Not the best film in the horror genre, but hey, they were able to turn an $11,000 budget into a $200 million dollar success; that’s besides the point. What made this film work was its use of infrasound - a low frequency sound that is below the human threshold to be heard but is known to be extremely unsettling. Paranormal Activity was able to refrain from cliche high pitched jumpscares and instead rely on its infrasound that carried the unnerving presence of something supernatural throughout. It kind of makes you think how people would view this movie if it didn’t turn into an undeserved six part franchise.
Much like Psycho’s repetitious theme, Requiem For A Dream, directed by Darren Aronofsky takes a similar path. The “hip hop” styled montage sequences that accompany characters entering their newly drug induced world is especially notable. Sound designers and careful editors create these montages to help encompass the rush these drugs produce. It tells a large story within such a small stretch of time. Such as the the sound of a cash register pinging during the transaction and the sound of a sword unsheathing when taking the drugs. This helps filmmakers relay quick information while keeping the integrity of the storytelling. Many other scenes such as the “refrigerator scene” utilize the same sound technique. When our character is on a drug induced trip, sounds become much more unworldly; the most mundane occurrence could be amplified.
Christopher Nolan’s Inception soundtrack is comprised of just one song: Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien by Edith Piaf. The song was used in the film to signal a “kick” into a dream. All the music that follows are simply subdivisions (when a particular beat is broken up in smaller metrical patterns) and multiplications of the same song. Speeding up the main theme of Inception reveals the bombastic trombones evident in the beginning of the song. Keep an ear out next time you watch this film; at some points you’ll be able to make out Edith Piaf’s voice resonate through some intense scenes.
These are just a couple of ways filmmakers are able to produce a quality message or tone purely with sound. Some directors however, most notably Martin Scorsese, employ silence in their films to create similar undertones, but that’s a topic for another day.
If you had a film question, there would only be one person to ask, Eric. Devoted to learning film, and part time philosopher in his past time, Eric will take you on a journey through film.