The Power of Music – When Film and Music Meet

The wonderful broadcaster and composer Neil Brand writes about the power of the film score to propel a story and examines how our cultural memory, taste and expectations of films and their scores have gradually changed over time. He shares his enduring personal fascination with film, TV, music and considers the challenges of working with archive material and using music to bridge a gap between historic and contemporary attitudes.


The Power of Music

We have all grown up surrounded by music. Some of it we have chosen to hear – to suit a mood, or an aspiration, to cheer us up or make us feel secure. Most of it has, however, come at us by chance – from a cinema screen or TV set, from speakers in a shopping mall or bar or online. That music has been carefully written and placed to do a particular job, and because we have experienced so much of this ‘narrative music’, we are very sophisticated receptors for it, and the composers and producers responsible for that music know it. By chance, being born in the late 1950s, I have experienced all the phenomenal technological developments that music has seen in the last half-century. I bought my first synthesiser in 1978, recorded music in a studio on quarter-inch tape in the 1980s and finished and mastered a complete track digitally on my home computer yesterday. My first experience of the power of music was in a cinema before I had even learned to write and all the film music I heard in my youth I rushed home to try to pick out on the piano. Yesterday I watched a movie, Francis Lee’s Ammonite on TV, and found myself wishing it actually had more music. That is extremely rare. I usually fervently wish movies had less music. Here’s the reason why …

When allied with storytelling, music is primarily one thing – information. How and when we are given that information is a delicate judgement call that the composer and director must make. One of the greatest films of all time, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, starts with no music under the titles at all. That is because the whole story is about the unravelling of a mystery, the key to a man’s life. When we watch a film in the cinema (something we’re probably all missing right now) the moment the lights go down and the tabs open, all our senses are alert – we are expecting a certain experience, based on the promotional campaign or the poster for the film. Are we going to get that experience? We usually know from the first note we hear, but when we don’t, as with Citizen Kane, we are hooked. We want to know. Information is being withheld from us. That will keep us watching. Alternatively, with Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner we are hit with a hammer-blow of electronic power even before the titles come up, leaving us in no doubt that we are in for a futuristic and dystopian ride. And the supply of information continues, just enough to keep us watching but not, hopefully, leading us by the nose.

We as an audience get far more pleasure from working out a plot point for ourselves than being told what to think or what to feel.

Music tells us about characters, about major turning-points in the story, about the deep subtext beneath a scene. It can tell us when a character is lying, when we are being asked to concentrate on something else in the screen, when to be swept up in the action and when to sit back and view it dispassionately. The problem arises when we maybe don’t want to be told those things because we are already experiencing them. ‘Show don’t tell’ has always been the cardinal rule in screen storytelling. We as an audience get far more pleasure from working out a plot point for ourselves than being told what to think or what to feel. Acting, mise-en-scene, direction, body-language already give us vast amounts of information about a story, something I learned over 40 years of accompanying silent films.

Films today, particularly mainstream fantasy blockbusters, use wall-to-wall music, partially because it is somehow expected, partially because the entire billion-dollar edifice of, say, the Marvel movies (which I love) are built over an abyss of disbelief. Comic book heroes are pure escapism but their onscreen lives need to look and sound as real as possible, hence the score pulling us into their experiences, making us empathise with, for example, a man who turns into an unstoppable green monster when he’s angry. David Banner/The Hulk, has real problems with the fact he does this, and the music mopes along with his human self, only bursting into life when he is punching bad guys into tall buildings. Harry Potter, Marvel/DC, James Bond, Lord of the Rings – these are impossible worlds made possible because music helps us to empathise with their unrealities, otherwise the escapism will not work.

Mainstream fantasy blockbusters, use wall-to-wall music, partially because it is somehow expected

Oddly enough, adding music to a scene actually makes it less real, despite music’s ability to draw us in emotionally. Our day to day lives are not continuously underscored, so that ‘real sound’ when it comes in a film, feels ‘more real’ because the music is not there. Movies that have no music have chosen that option to give the impression of authentic documentary realism, avoiding the artifice of underscoring.

To go back to the silent movies – these, by definition, these need music. Archive film of this period is rare, delicate, needs careful handling and comes with a whole cartload of problems for modern audiences. Thanks to extraordinary modern technology, one of those problems is virtually eliminated – the look of the image. Restoration techniques can now make a film shot 120 years ago look like it was made yesterday. Whether this is an entirely good thing (colourisation is still highly controversial, as the colours are guessed-at, not original) is a question for another time, but beautiful archive film, with deep focus and pin-sharp images, grabs and holds the viewer in a unique way.

The real problems for composers and audiences begin with the content. Attitudes, interests, politics have changed hugely in the past few decades, let alone since the silent films of the 1910s. Some films are unwatchable for that reason, or have scenes that are toxically politically incorrect, racist or sexist, and knowing how to deal with these (or if to deal with them at all) is one of the challenges of scoring archive material. As a musician, I have found myself time and again having to use a kind of binary vision – seeing the films as the audience saw them when they were made, while simultaneously monitoring how a modern audience must be seeing them. This is because I have always seen music as a bridge between the age of the film and a modern audience. An archive drama needs to cross the years to engage with us today, to be supported by sympathetic music, just as the Hulk does. That music should be connecting with us in 2021, rather than its original audience. But we need to understand that first audience’s reaction in order to channel the rich subtextual layers beneath the drama.

Restoration techniques can now make a film shot 120 years ago look like it was made yesterday ... the real problems for composers and audiences begin with the content ...

Where I have found this most necessary is with archive documentary. I believe that, just as with movies today, the audience needs to hear more in the music than they are seeing onscreen. If music merely describes the image we’re watching then it’s wallpaper, no matter how successful it may be as music. But when music fills out the context beyond the images, when it has an attitude and an authorial presence – then the images spring to life.

Take a travelogue. Much archive film is concerned with travel, seeing places that had, perhaps, not been seen on a screen before. The cliché of silent film accompaniment would be that the pianist plays something approximating the cultural music of the place, inevitably cheapening the pictures with a pretty stereotypical approach. Now, thanks to the opportunities offered by digital sampling, it’s possible to make music that sounds more authentic. But beyond that, we could surprise the audience with a take they don’t expect. Look more deeply at the sequence – what does it tell us about the time it was made, about the people who made it? Is there another story being told beneath the context, maybe one the contemporary audience couldn’t know about, but we do? What emotion can we channel from this sequence that isn’t already there?

It is possible to speed up a sequence with music but also to slow it down, make it more thoughtful, change our experience of it. Flexible music brings the most intractable sequences to life and draws us into the story

One of the most awe-inspiring films I have ever worked with is South, the account of Shackleton’s disastrous 1915 expedition to cross the Antarctic ice cap, restored by the BFI in 1999. The ship was crushed in the ice before making landfall and the entire crew got home only after months of survival on an uninhabited island and a courageous 750-mile voyage in a lifeboat by Shackleton himself. Most of these events were documented by Frank Hurley on 16mm film and are wonderful scenes to accompany for the reasons I’ve recounted above. The modern composer is left to their own devices to decide how to score the film, whether the story’s outcome will be good or bad, adding tension throughout. The composer controls our responses and can change the subtext of every shot. A less imaginative composer would splosh unchanging ‘It’s very cold’ music across the whole film. (I’ve seen that done – entire silent comedies rendered unfunny by ill-judged ‘isn’t this funny’ music). But for an insightful composer with attitude, a complex and involving story like South is endlessly inspiring. ... Until the last 20 minutes. At that point, the 1916 audiences were treated to images of something they had never seen onscreen before – Antarctic wildlife. Seals, birds, penguins. Lots of penguins. We’ve all seen a lot of penguins, so South’s 2021 audience could get very bored very quickly, especially after the nail-biting journey of its previous 50 minutes. So now the composer has no choice but to think outside the box. Make the images as awesome for us as they were for their first audiences – put as much contrast into the music as possible, make a mini-story within the sequence.

It is possible to impose musical structure over the most abstract of images because music has its own dynamics and momentum. It is possible to speed up a sequence (just adding music to a set of silent images does that) but also to slow it down, make it more thoughtful, change our experience of it. Flexible music brings the most intractable sequences to life and draws us into the story. That, I guess is the key. A good composer seeks to score a film scene by scene from the inside out, from deep inside the flow of the drama on many levels and from moment to moment rather than imposing ideas from outside. Composers for pictures must be dramaturges, understanding the many levels of story, character and emotion they are engaging with and communicating them through inspired music. The best of that music can be listened to in isolation away from the picture and will still keep its interest and innate musicality.

And in the modern world we’re talking about music in its broadest sense – the line between composition and sound design is thoroughly blurred now, and rightly so. The manipulation of sounds, electronic, real, abstract, can communicate as vividly as music, if not with the same emotional impact. The use of existing music, particularly songs, is wider than ever. A classic number in the right context can communicate a wealth of information in an entertaining way.

All in all, the sound palette the composer can now bring to all filmic storytelling, archive or modern, is absolutely vast – greater than ever before. But that means that the choices of how to score a sequence today are harder, more complex and more crucial. But I would add, much more rewarding.

– Neil Brand 2021