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Music in film: Emotional manipulation or enhancement?

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mattiasflgrtll6's Avatar
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Something I think is interesting to talk about is whether music helps raise the impact or if it just feels bloated. Some prefer there to be a score accompanying it since it drives the emotion home while others prefer it to be quiet and let the scene speak for itself.

I fall in a camp of inbetween. I think both are valid ways of handling dramatic moments, but it requires a level of confidence from the director that the drama can stand on its own whether the music is there or not. For instance, in My Sister's Keeper the music is so over-the-top in tone that I get the impression Nick Cassavetes doesn't trust the material enough. As a result it feels hollow and kinda phony as a whole.

Meanwhile with Titantic I'm very well aware that the score is trying to give you these ecstatic or painful emotions (I consider James Horner's work on this movie to be some of the finest of all time), but the scenes weren't impactful enough as it is already, even the best possible score wouldn't get to me. I think some of these moments even without the accompaniment of music would still be quite powerful. Horner is simply there to help them out, which is a sign that your movie has a good sense of understanding how to get its point across.

The same logic applies to horror movies. The music can sometimes make them even scarier, but they need to be scary on their own too.
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Movies without the music are pretty darn flat, since soundtrack writers are very conscious of the fact that they are the emotional barometer of the movie. That's how a person walking down the street is labelled as about to be stalked by the psychopath, way before the psycho actually appears. One of the better examples of the simplest of musical themes would be the two note mantra that speeds up as you about to be eaten in Jaws. And, yeah, the Titanic theme takes Jack and Rosie from the realm of a sleazy, below decks affair to a great romance.

Music doesn't do plot exposition...it's the emotional content and how strongly you are supposed to feel about it, the threat, romance, or whatever. It definitely takes both film and music to make a great scene, but the musical soundtrack allows the two to amplify each other. There are early "talkies" that didn't have much music or that used music that wasn't right for the scene, and often the dead space between words really intrudes on the plot by making events appear to be more isolated from each other.



mattiasflgrtll6's Avatar
The truth is in here
The Phantom Carriage is an excellently scored silent film. It's so far the only one in the genre to make me cry, and a lot of it is thanks to the music.



I remember M. Night Shyamalan talking about how every time he shot a film, he told himself "this time we're doing it without music." That this time it would be stark and raw and stripped down, but every time his composer (James Newton Howard, generally) would come in and play something under the footage and every time he was won over again.

I think the fun answer to your either-or is simply "yes." Yes, it is manipulative, and yes, it enhances the experience (or can). It's not entirely clear where the line between the two is, not just for music, but for cinema itself. How could you have an empathy engine, as the medium is often called, that didn't manipulate you?

In practice it seems like the thing we really expect from great films is not that they don't manipulate us, but that they do it well enough that we either forget or don't mind, in the moment.



I just watched a rather obscure John Wayne movie last night and after the movie was over I thought to myself I don't even remember one small part of the music score. And I'm sure there was a score...To me that's a hallmark of a good music score, one that can be felt on a subconscious level but doesn't stand out like a soar thumb.



Yep. I recall an interview with a movie composer (not sure which one) when he said that the best movie score is the one that you don't hear because it melds into the story. As for manipulation or enhancement, for sure, it's both of those, quite deliberately. The music tells you to get ready before the monster appears.



Possible distinction: scores should be invisible, themes should not. In fact I hold it against, say, a superhero film or a big adventure movie if I walk out and can't remember any of the music. But for the in between moments I think invisibile is good.



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Possible distinction: scores should be invisible, themes should not. In fact I hold it against, say, a superhero film or a big adventure movie if I walk out and can't remember any of the music. But for the in between moments I think invisibile is good.

A good point.



I recall Jerry Goldsmith talking about writing the score for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and saying that he felt pretty good about what he had produced until Bob Altman pointed out that there was no theme, forcing him to back to the drawing board and producing the theme that would later be used on Star Trek: The Next Generation.


NCFOM does a great job with minimal scoring. On the other hand, I take it to be a defect that I can't recall any of the music from Marvel movies.



I would say that emotional manipulation and enhancement are the same things, except one has a negative connotation while the other has a positive one. Everything in a movie is designed to make you think or feel something isn't it?



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I would say that emotional manipulation and enhancement are the same things, except one has a negative connotation while the other has a positive one. Everything in a movie is designed to make you think or feel something isn't it?
I agree with that. I think everything in a movie is manipulation. The editing, the sound design, the color scheme, etc. So I don't feel music is any more, than anything else in a movie.



I would say that emotional manipulation and enhancement are the same things, except one has a negative connotation while the other has a positive one. Everything in a movie is designed to make you think or feel something isn't it?
This is pretty much where I stand. I'm not getting into the craft, quality, or artistry of it, but everything in a film is fictitious and assembled by a group of people with the intention of drawing some emotion(s) out of the audience, and music is a big part of it.
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I think everything in a movie is manipulation. The editing, the sound design, the color scheme, etc.
It is and it isn't. There are good manipulations and bad manipulations. We wanted to be lied to, we know it is all fake, but we also want to be told an honest lie. We want something that resonates with our understanding of the world and feels fitting when we think about it.

EX: JJ Abrams continually trying to outrun plot holes with action is a bad manipulation.

EX: Every reality show I can think of uses the cheap trick of tinkly piano music in an attempt to make viewers feel sad for "Contestant X." These moments are rarely earned and feel cheap even though they must work for a large portion of the audience (or why would they keep doing it)?

So I don't feel music is any more, than anything else in a movie.
No argument here. Good music can make a movie. Bad music can ruin one. Music used as a spackle to cover up bad writing is bad manipulation, but there are many bad manipulations that don't involve music.



I would say that emotional manipulation and enhancement are the same things, except one has a negative connotation while the other has a positive one. Everything in a movie is designed to make you think or feel something isn't it?
Well said and I agree. I also agree some movies need themes that stand out, while others like serious dramas often don't.



It's definitely both. I'm normally not bothered by it, sometimes I love it, but I guess the only time this could raise an issue is if it's emotional manipulation during a documentary or something that's supposed to be based on a true story.


Part of the reason we watch films is to be emotionally enhanced and manipulated, as people we tend to think emotionally. I feel like with movies i'm watching them because of the part of me which that is bored and desires something more intense out of life.



I think that music is like any other technical element in a film (angles, acting, writing, costuming, etc). It works best when it is in sync with what the rest of the film is trying to do. The ominous strings in Jaws are not meant to fade into the background; the ominous, almost seismic rumble of the score under There Will Be Blood isn't something I could even hum a few bars of, but I know it was there and added to the film.

I think that music feels wrong in a film when it doesn't cohere with the rest of the film, or when it is asked to do too much of the heavy lifting.

Everything in a film is meant to layer together to create a certain effect on the viewer. When a musical score is coherent with that effect, it is definitely an enhancement. I think that we can all agree that a good movie is often an example of "positive manipulation"--much like a good magician is practicing a kind of "positive deception".



I think that music is like any other technical element in a film (angles, acting, writing, costuming, etc). It works best when it is in sync with what the rest of the film is trying to do. The ominous strings in Jaws are not meant to fade into the background; the ominous, almost seismic rumble of the score under There Will Be Blood isn't something I could even hum a few bars of, but I know it was there and added to the film.

I think that music feels wrong in a film when it doesn't cohere with the rest of the film, or when it is asked to do too much of the heavy lifting.

Everything in a film is meant to layer together to create a certain effect on the viewer. When a musical score is coherent with that effect, it is definitely an enhancement. I think that we can all agree that a good movie is often an example of "positive manipulation"--much like a good magician is practicing a kind of "positive deception".
All well said and I like what you wrote, but I have a question...

I'm curious about what you meant in the last part that I bolded? Can you elaborate a bit more? What would be an example of a negative manipulation? Could a good movie manipulate negatively?



A good point.



I recall Jerry Goldsmith talking about writing the score for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and saying that he felt pretty good about what he had produced until Bob Altman pointed out that there was no theme, forcing him to back to the drawing board and producing the theme that would later be used on Star Trek: The Next Generation.


NCFOM does a great job with minimal scoring. On the other hand, I take it to be a defect that I can't recall any of the music from Marvel movies.
Sounds like you might enjoy this video, then:






All well said and I like what you wrote, but I have a question...

I'm curious about what you meant in the last part that I bolded? Can you elaborate a bit more? What would be an example of a negative manipulation? Could a good movie manipulate negatively?
So by "positive manipulation" I mean that (in my opinion, of course) we as the audience have a contract of sorts with the artists who create the art that we consume. We agree to suspend our disbelief--to whatever extent necessary in terms of the story--and the person/people creating the content are essentially curating/orchestrating our experience.

A movie like Hush is probably an easy way to explain this. I know that the movie is about a home invasion. So I go into the film knowing that I will feel stressed/anxious/fearful/angry/upset at different times. But I also know the genre within which the director is working, and specifically I know the "vibe" that I get off of Mike Flanagan. So I am not expecting graphic sexual violence. I am not expecting to see something outlandishly gruesome or upsetting like a child being killed or graphic animal violence. This is positive manipulation because I am experiencing a range of emotions, but I am doing so intentionally and I am trusting to the director to take me on that journey in a way that ultimately I will feel positively about.

This isn't to say that a film can't or shouldn't be surprising. I think that many great movies are able to create shocks to our system that still operate "within bounds" of what we got ourselves into.

So just as when you watch a really good magician you know that they are fooling you, it can still be a positive experience because you are meeting each other halfway. You know it is fake, but you are still capable of being surprised and delighted or even being moved.

When I watch a movie, I am agreeing to let a stranger take me on an emotional journey. Sometimes that journey is really predictable (ie many romantic comedies simply involve watching how the two leads fall in love and rarely end, for example, with them not together). Sometimes as a viewer my parameters are more open, like when I put on a film with no idea of whether the ending will be happy or sad or if the main character will even survive. Music, like any of the other technical elements of a film, is part of how the film guides me along my emotions. And when a score is really well done (whether it is blaring horns or something incredibly subtle), it adds to the emotional push of the film.



The irony is that the question arose when we state it as something that aligned but somehow has a negative connotation.
An intended attempt (or, as enhancement) to draw or dictate the audience's emotion via sensory experience sound complicated though.
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