Sound and Music: Activity 5

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Instrumental music is only part of the composer’s tool kit. Songs are often employed to emphasize or comment on the dramatic action in non-musical films. Through listening to the song “When She Loved Me,” in Toy Story 2, the audience learns the sad story of the character “Jesse.” Whether a song is heard on the soundtrack or performed live in the film, the lyrics may express or emphasize the thoughts or emotions of the characters, as they do in Toy Story 2. Or a song may be deliberately chosen to play against them, as in Chicago, when slick lawyer Billy Flynn sings “All I Care About Is Love.” The audience knows he feels exactly the opposite, and Billy’s duplicitous nature is exposed.

By using existing popular songs, the composer takes advantage of the audience’s prior associations with the music.Well-known songs can establish an historical period as in Pleasantville and O Brother Where Art Thou? or evoke a foreign country as in Frida. Songs are so evocative that Lawrence Kasdan, the director of The Big Chill (1983), played 1960s music on the set to help his actors get into the mood of that period. When songs completely or principally comprise the music, as in The Big Chill or the 1973 film American Graffiti, it is called a compilation song score.

Original songs, written specifically for a film, such as the Oscar-winning songs “The Hands That Built America” from the film Gangs of New York and “Moon River,” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, may either highlight a single dramatic or emotional moment or make a statement about the entire film.The popularity of theme songs like “My Heart Will Go On,” the Oscar-winning song from Titanic, is often exploited to promote the film.

In musicals, songs function as a type of dialogue. The music and especially the lyrics of the songs are closely interwoven with the script, whether written expressly for the musical as in Chicago (2002) and the 1991 animated film Beauty and the Beast, or when historical or contemporary popular songs are used, as in Singin’ in the Rain and the 2001 film Moulin Rouge.

Finding the right words and melodies to fit the characters and the story is the job of the songwriters, who look for moments in the script that call for a song or for a line of dialogue to inspire the first words of a song. Characters in musicals often break into song when they experience strong feelings they cannot contain. The makers of Chicago, worried that contemporary audiences would find this improbable, presented the musical numbers as being in the imagination of the main character, Roxie Hart.

Unlike typical film scores, which are usually composed after the film has finished shooting, songs for musicals are written and recorded before production begins. Then, during filming, the actors lip-sync to the pre-recorded numbers. Moulin Rouge exploits this practice to make the audience aware that the film they are watching is a work of fiction, as for example, when a character seems to be inventing the song “The Sound of Music” although the audience is fully aware that the song was composed years after the period of the film and years before the movie they are watching.

Play for your students a song from a movie or a musical. Discuss with them the way the song’s use of rhythm, instrumentation, lyrics and melody reveal or comment on the nature of the character or situation it accompanies. Listen to other sections of the score where the song is reprised or worked into the underscore. Ask your students why they think the composer chose to use the song again in these places. Is it associated with the same characters or the same emotions?

Supplemental Activity

Many musicals such as Yankee Doodle Dandy, Cabaret, Funny Girl, The Sound of Music, All That Jazz, Topsy-Turvy and Chicago are based on real life events. Show your students one of these films or a similar film of your choice, or have them view a film on their own.Ask them to research the true story or characters and compare it to the musical version. Discuss with them if the characters and situations are enhanced by the songs, or if they make the story seem less real.

Sound: The Power to Enhance the Story

PDF Downloads

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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