How Music Impacts Movies and Film

Aryana Sofea
April 1, 2020
5 minutes

What would happen if movies are made without music? Imagine seeing the first-ever dinosaur on-screen without hearing the awe-striking Jurassic Park main theme song. Or watch ET flying in the basket of a bicycle over the moon silently. Or Pulp Fiction without Dick Dale’s cataclysmic surf-rock guitar. It’s unimaginable and almost impossible to do so. Throughout entertainment history, songs have added majesty to landscapes, glory to struggle and battle, depth to both the heroes and villains. When vision and sound collide, an experience beyond the ordinary level arises.

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” ― Plato

Music has always been an integral component of any audiovisual project - be it in movies, films, documentaries, short videos and even in advertisements. Music is key to make an audiovisual project transform from good to great!
A great soundtrack can make a mediocre movie transform into a phenomenal one as it is able to convey so much emotion, as well as help initiate the speed of the ‘mise-en-scéne’. Mise-en-scène is an expression used to describe the design aspect of a theatre or film production, which essentially means "visual theme" or "telling a story"—both in visually artful ways through storyboarding, cinematography and stage design, and in poetically artful ways through the direction.

Whether it be a popular song that fits into the vibe of the movie, for example, Smash Mouth’s, All Star for the animated movie Shrek,

Or a custom musical score that helps to create the movie’s vibe, for example, Hedwig’s Theme for the movie Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone,

These songs help create an experience for the viewers and ultimately bring about a reaction from them to appreciate or associate with the movie/film they are watching more. 

Music light’s up the emotional landscape of production and helps place viewers within the momentary reality on the screen. Music is more than just notes placed coherently to create a certain tune, it is something you feel. Music brings about the flow and movement of emotions in you. In regards to movies and films, music is what makes some scenes bearable as well as deepens the watching experience.

So, why is music such an important feature in the movie, film and video industry?

1. Music creates an atmosphere and sets the pace and rhythm. 

This is the essential role of sound in videos. Video creators, producers, marketers use music to catch the attention of viewers, to affect the mood of the viewers or to create a sense of anticipation, joy, sadness or anger - evoke the viewers’ emotions.

Music helps alleviate the viewers from a 2-dimensional viewing experience to a 3-dimensional viewing experience. Viewers can’t feel the temperature - whether it’s extremely cold or humid, can’t smell anything, have no perimetric vision, or feel the textures of the ground and walls through the sense of self-movement and body position a.k.a the “sixth sense”. 

On top of that, there are always jumps in time and space in movies and videos. If someone’s spent a whole day feeling nervous about an upcoming test, or war, or speech, or a first date, the viewers may have skipped the whole day and gotten to 5 minutes before the situation.

So in regards to that, with the emotional ability from music, this allows the videomakers to let the viewers know how they’re supposed to feel at that moment. 

2. Music alters our perceptions.

As mentioned above, background music for movies and videos underline all the key moments. For example, if the screen shows a scene that’s momentous and grand, creators pick inspiring and epic melodies. On the other hand, when there are disturbing or anxious moments, sound and music tend to be more ominous to bring about the feelings of fear. 

Music is the most effectual emotional trigger in any film. It adds to the action or the dialogue on the screen. Even during the silent film period, music played a very important role in intensifying the action. An easy relevant example would be the cartoon Tom & Jerry that depended heavily on the background music to invoke emotions and make the storyline come to life!

This short clip will also show further the impact a musical score brings about to the viewer’s watching experience in the iconic movie, Jaws:

Sometimes it enhances the emotion, other times supports it. If you see an emotional scene without music, it's harder to engage with it. Music bridges that gap.

A little doll sitting at the toy rack of a toy store is normal; I mean, if you pass by a Toys ‘R’ Us, you wouldn’t even think twice about it, but once a piece of creepy, scary music is played over it, it reminds you to be afraid.

The video below demonstrates beautifully the effect of music over certain situations and how each music may bring about a whole new meaning to a scene altogether. 

3. Music stays in our memories, even after a long period of time.

We all know examples of using catchy music in advertising campaigns and sometimes may even unconsciously know them by heart. This also applies to many popular movies. For movie junkers, if you were put to the test to name a movie just by listening to the soundtrack,  you’d probably score 10/10. A well-chosen melody tends to remain in the memory after watching and this may be due to how much music affects our brain and thought patterns as well as how our brains react to certain music notes and tunes.

Here’s a fun 10-minute game you can play to guess the movie from listening to the soundtrack,

Something else that’s really interesting about how our emotions are affected by music is that there are two kinds of emotions related to music: perceived emotions and felt emotions.

This means that sometimes we can understand the emotions of a piece of music without actually feeling them, which explains why some of us find listening to sad music enjoyable, rather than depressing.

Unlike in real-life daily situations, we don’t feel any real threat or danger when listening to music, so we can perceive the related emotions without truly feeling them–almost like indirect emotions.

The technicalities and scientific reasoning on this occurrence will be discussed another day (or you may read This Is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin), however, it just goes to show that music does have a big impact on a viewer’s watching experience.