In Praise of the Soundtrack

As I write this I’m playing my iPod.  I have no idea what I will be hearing next. I am rather proud of the fact that I have an extremely eclectic playlist.  You name it, it’s probably on there: hard rock, bluegrass, free jazz, early music, contemporary Hawai’ian, movie soundtracks…

Let’s stop there for a moment.  Yes, I have movie soundtracks in my collection.  Rather a lot, actually, from old musicals to James Bond films and everything in between, some of it very obscure.  That’s not to say that all soundtracks are good, and for me a big part of it is that I have to like the movie, or TV series, the music comes from.  But there’s something about soundtrack music that is important, and it’s too often neglected.

We don’t often pay attention to a movie’s score, and composers who work in soundtracks don’t often get the recognition they deserve, although that’s changing.  But some of their work is simply extraordinary, and can go a long way toward establishing the effectiveness of the movie. That’s why it always mystifies me when people express disdain for soundtracks, and film music in general.  They point to particularly overwrought examples from tear-jerker movies and say, “I don’t want music to tell me how to feel.  I don’t want to be manipulated like that.”  This is an odd thing to say, for several reasons.

For one thing, anyone who doesn’t like when music “tells them how to feel,” must not like music in general, because few things in this world are as effective at conveying – and, yes, manipulating – emotions.  That’s why we respond to it, why we like it.  Just try to find a Beethoven fan who can talk about the Ninth Symphony without going on about how emotionally stirring the finale is.

Music puts us in a place in time, and can, years later, return us to that place.  That’s why so many couples over the years have had “our song.”  It connects with very important emotions.  And we generally like when it does that.  It’s the same reason that people maintain an affection for the music of their youth, when their emotions were much more volatile.  This includes music they may not have especially enjoyed at the time; it’s that recognition, that emotional trigger, that matters.

Okay, I hear you say, that’s all fine and well for the music we choose to listen to, but soundtrack music for films is another thing entirely, a blatant attempt by the filmmakers to makes us cry, or laugh, or scream, to make us excited or happy.  Well, yes, it is.  But then, that’s why we see the movie: to have our emotions manipulated.  We’re being manipulated by the screenplay, the actors’ performances, the cinematography, the editing, and all of the other tricks of the filmmaking trade.  Music is just one of those many tricks, one that happens to be particularly effective.

Great score composers are master manipulators.  Some may rely on musical clichés but that’s only because they work.  Indeed, some film composers do seem to have limitations; it’s unfortunate that Alan Silvestry’s score for the whimsical Who Framed Roger Rabbit is at times indistinguishable from his score for the brutal Predator.  But a truly original composer can do tremendous things.  It is well known that Jaws almost failed before starting because the mechanical shark didn’t work.  But instead of giving up, they took advantage of the problem, never letting us get a look at the shark until the movie was more than half way over.  Instead we got ominous shots of the water.  And that theme.  You know it.  On the double bass.  It’s what sharks sound like.  Genius.

To see just how much music can touch us deeply, look no further than Randy Newman’s score for Awakenings, one of the most tear-jerking movies of all time.  Consider what is probably the most emotionally wrenching scene in the movie: to avoid spoilers, I’ll only say it takes place in the cafeteria and involves dancing.  There, those of you who have seen it are tearing up as you read this.  The actors’ performances are exemplary, but how much more does the scene carry us away because of that haunting piano music.  Is this something to be disparaged?  Sure it’s manipulative, but that’s the whole point.  There are so many other examples it would be impossible to list even a fraction of them.

The bottom line is that music is vital, whether it be a sweeping score by John Williams or a collection of jazz standards selected by Woody Allen.  It helps tell the story.  I’m thinking about this because as I write, I wonder what would happen if my book were made into a film.  Such an occurrence is highly unlikely, because many of my conceptions are pretty much unfilmable.  But I said that about The Lord of the Rings, so who knows?

But as I write particular scenes, I find myself wondering what sort of music I would want to score it.  And my eclectic iPod sometimes helps, sometimes hinders.  Sometimes the right music helps me write a scene, or takes a scene in a direction I hadn’t expected.  Maybe that’s a bad thing.  Maybe I shouldn’t write with music.

But that’s dumb.  Music is part of how we tell stories.  It always has been, from the ancient epic poets, whose works were sung, to the latest epic filmmakers, whose soundtrack albums are sometimes as popular as the movie itself.  So play on, you soundtrack muses.  Help us to tell the stories people will remember.

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