How to Use Music and Sound Effectively
Sound and music are central concerns during the editing of a film. As any viewer of Jaws or Psycho can attest, a fitting score can provide the emotional grip necessary to create a great film. Equally important are the subtler uses of sound and music that drive scenes forward and provide the viewers with unconscious emotional cues.
There are several components to the audio track of a film. Most feature films include an original score, written by a composer often working in close coordination with the work’s director. A score is sometimes disparagingly referred to as background music, but it is this layer of music – sometimes unobtrusive, sometimes foregrounded and thematic – that frequently creates a movie’s mood and provides the glue to hold scenes together. While the old guard of film composers such as John Williams and Hans Zimmer prefer orchestral overtures and driving bass lines, there is a younger generation of composers skillfully adapting themselves to whatever mood their production demands, moving easily between instrumental, electronic-ambient, and folk-inspired scores. Often reared in the world of rock music, this cohort includes acclaimed composers such as Alexandre Desplat, Mark Mothersbaugh (formerly of Devo), and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood.
Equally important to the feature film is its soundtrack, which is distinguished from the score by its use of pre-existing musical material. The movie soundtrack became an increasingly common component of Hollywood films toward the end of the 1960s, a phenomenon often attributed to the success of Simon & Garfunkel’s music in The Graduate. The third main component of non-dialogue audio in a film is provided by the sound designer and the sound department. Sound design emerged as a powerful aesthetic tool for the generation of Hollywood directors that came of age during the 1970s, from the whooshing of the fan in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now to the menacing splashing of water in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.
Not every film requires an original score written by a highly-paid Hollywood composer. Often, the best solution to creating the right mood for a scene is the subtle use of shifting soundscapes, skillfully-deployed sound effects or repetitive, droning music. The influence of Philip Glass’ scores to films such as Koyaanisqatsi and The Thin Blue Line brought musical minimalism into the mainstream of film, and this type of repetitive, meditative score has become a rich source of emotion for contemporary film.
There is a great deal of minimalist music available royalty free, as well as treasure troves of sound effects and ambient padding available from sites such as AudioBlocks and free videos can be found here. The skillful use of music and sound can transform scenes and revitalize the narrative pull and emotional grip of a film.