Sound and Music: Activity 4

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Musical Score

Using rhythm and tempo, melodic harmony or dissonant tones, a film score conveys mood, emotion and character in ways that dialogue alone cannot.As early as 1908, French composer Camille Saint-Saens wrote the first score tailored for a specific film, the silent L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise, and Russian director Sergei Eisenstein commissioned a forceful percussive score from composer Edmund Meisel for his 1925 silent film The Battleship Potemkin.

Generally, however, silent films were released without musical accompaniment.“Fake books” helped theater organists or musical directors find appropriate compositions for each scene. These books included compositions to cover almost any on-screen situation from romance to battles to comedy.

During the early days of sound film, composers condensed or adapted existing musical pieces.Then, in 1933, Max Steiner wrote an innovative score for the RKO film, King Kong, which still influences movie scores today.

Rather than a series of musical interludes, Steiner provided a musical illustration of the film’s narrative content. Steiner and the film’s director Merian Cooper agreed not to employ a score during the first part of the film, which showed the realities of Depression-era New York. Instead, the music begins when the characters enter
the dream-like fog surrounding mysterious Skull Island. From then on, music accompanies most of the film’s action. A few scenes, like King Kong’s fight with a dinosaur and his battle with circling aircraft from on top of the Empire State Building, were so full of sound that music was judged unnecessary.

Following a nineteenth-century operatic model, Steiner used leitmotifs, or themes, for different characters and situations. (One of the best-known examples of a leitmotif is the two-note theme that signals the appearance of the shark in Jaws.) Although King Kong does not speak, his complex personality is depicted through music.The giant ape’s brutality is conveyed by dissonant tunes and the use of brass instruments, for example, while his tragic loneliness is represented by a yearning melody.

As Steiner proved, musical scores can provide more than just a background to the rest of the film.The 1945 film The Lost Weekend, starring Ray Milland as an alcoholic
on a weekend bender, was originally screened without a musical score.When the audience laughed during the dramatic drunk scenes, the film was immediately
withdrawn, and composer Miklos Rosza was hired to write a score.The newly scored film went on to win Best Actor, Best Picture and Best Directing Oscars.

Music can also underscore the humor or pathos of a scene by playing against what is seen onscreen. For example, in Life Is Beautiful, light-hearted music performed on the soundtrack while a tragedy unfolds intensifies the sense of loss. Intercutting the cheerful song “Whatever Will Be,Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)” with attempts to free a
small boy from his kidnappers heightens the tension in the 1958 film The Man Who Knew Too Much.

In some scenes, absence of music is the most eloquent accompaniment. Peter Weir, the director of Master and Commander, requested breaks in the underscore so the
audience could hear the sounds of the ship and sink into the daily life of the characters.

Before composing the score, the composer attends a “spotting session,” a meeting with the producer, director and music editor, during which they decide how and where to use music in the film.The composer then begins to compose the musical phrases or “cues.” Cue sheets indicate each place in the action where the music enters and exits.When woven together, these cues make up the score.

The composer’s choice of instruments is often guided by the content of the scene. In The Lord of the Rings:The Two Towers, composer Howard Shore used a Norwegian fiddle to subtly allude to the Viking-like qualities of Rohan culture, and the jittery sounds of a hammered dulcimer contribute an unbalanced feeling to “Gollum’s” scenes.

Show your students a scene from one of the films listed below or a film of your choice and ask them to identify as many different musical themes or leitmotifs as possible. Some suggestions are The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Jaws, Star Wars, E.T.The Extra-Terrestrial or any of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Ask them to identify the tone or mood of each motif. Discuss with your students the purpose of a musical motif and consider the way each theme adds to character development and the ways it helps communicate the storyline.

Supplemental Activity

Screen a silent film with a recorded music track for your students. Discuss the way the music is used to represent the sound effects or dialogue of a sound film. Play the same film with different music and discuss the ways this changes the film.

Sound: The Power to Enhance the Story

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Complete Sound and Music Activities Guide (PDF)

Activity 1: The Origins of Sound Film

Activity 2: Dialogue

Activity 3: Sound Effects

Activity 4: Musical Score

Activity 5: Songs

Activity 6: Sound Mixing

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