Music vs. Silence: 5 Simple Rules for a Better Film
This is a guest post by musician Milosz Jeziorski.
Your most powerful asset as a filmmaker is understanding the tools available to tell your story. As filmmakers, we are creators and initiators of experiences and emotions. A film is ultimately successful when the audience can feel connected to the 'emotional narrative' the film traverses. If you're a frequent reader of No Film School then you already have an edge in understanding the tools available for the visual aspect of film. This article aims to put you in control of the aural tools: sound and music. I've seen directors improve their films tenfold by taking the time to consider the role that sound and music play in a film.
1. The Musical Sweetener
The most basic reason to use music in a film is to enhance the way an audience will perceive certain scenes. In most cases, music can provide boosts of emotions such as love, sadness, excitement, etc. Music can create unique implications which affect the viewer. For example, picture a simple exterior shot of a house:
As the camera begins to zoom in, music can imply specific things to the viewer. With a tense or suspenseful score, the image will imply something negative, whereas with a pleasant and warm guitar playing, the house will appear to be the idyllic family home. Music can also overtly contrast with the tone of the visual image for dramatic (lullaby playing during a murder scene) or comical (intense orchestral music playing while a man struggles to open a jar) effect. Finally, music can boost any emotion already in a scene, or provide a fresh emotional context for your visual.
2. Silence in Context
'Perceived Silence' is what you might be hearing if you are sitting in a quiet room reading this article. This can be thought of as the absence of 'meaningful sounds': sounds which progress the story (dialogue, music, gunshots, etc.). We may still hear the background noises (wind, light bulbs buzzing, distant cars) but overall the scene will appear to be silent. This is because the human brain works in a way where it tends to ignore sounds which are consistent and nonintrusive, creating the illusion of silence.
In a feature film, these 'silent' moments give the audience time to breathe; a time to sink into the picture. They often work well as downtime following a BIG and LOUD scene. If you're trying to give your viewer a good fright, there is no better way than letting them get comfortable in a silence and suddenly giving them a 90 decibel jolt.
Silence can speak volumes, Kubrick strikingly used it following the opening to "2001: Space Odyssey".
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=2DXMVG8fo3g
3. The Rule of Montages
This technique is simple, and is also deeply ingrained in pop culture : "Where there is a montage there must be music". The reason it works so well is a matter of convenience and musical influence. A montage allows the story to progress an indefinite amount of time within a minute's span, but this is believable because the music gives you the impression that everything you're seeing is connected. Music is often the only constant throughout a montage.
4. Sound Design as Silence
It's often said that when sound design is done well, you don't notice it. This is related to Rule #2's 'perceived silence' idea. If your scene is of an interior shot, a sound designer can add ambience to the room, creating a personality for the space that influences the viewer in subtle ways. Steven Soderbergh's version of Solaris is an excellent example of this approach. There are numerous scenes when George Clooney's character is roaming the space station without dialogue or musical accompaniment. Still, when viewing these scenes, the environment feels unfriendly, cold, and hollow. This is done through excellent sound design: using machine-like hisses and hollow wind tunnel sounds that create an eerie atmosphere.
Another example comes from Julie Taymor's Titus. Raven calls are mixed into the environment just before the drama takes a violent twist. When cleverly used, sound design can imply layers of meaning and create expectations in the audience. The Russian film extraordinaire, Andrei Tarkovsky, frequently employed long stretches of sound design and silence for a surreal dreamlike effect. A hypnotic scene from Tarkovsky's The Mirror :
5. The Emotional Narrative
Often, the scores which are the most successful follow the emotional journey of a single character, and a masterfully written original score delves deep into the psychological core of the story. This rule is very different from rule #1 : 'The Musical Sweetener', which only affects surface level impressions, manipulating the mood of the visuals.
A good composer frequently weaves at least two themes throughout the scenes of the film. One can imagine it like a musical tapestry, wherein the main themes occur repeatedly during the most important moments in the story. As you are watching a film, the music themes that are repeated during particular scenes become associated with certain emotions and events in the story. Your unconscious begins to form associations between the main theme, and the emotions of the scenes in which it plays. Then, once the story is finished and the credits begin to roll, the main theme begins, and your memory / emotions immediately recall all that you experienced throughout the film, to almost magical effect.
This process is a natural consequence of our brain's associative abilities. Have you ever heard a song which instantly takes you back to a moment in your past? This is the kind of power you can wield with your film, when you collaborate with a good composer. The most experienced composers and sound designers understand that music has this ability, and to be truly successful as filmmakers, it's important to know these tools exist for your film. Considering the role that sound and music play in your films can greatly add emotional depth. A simple use of silence, sound design, or music can often be the subtle detail of a scene which engages the viewer, and separates the merely good films from the truly great films.
Milosz Jeziorski is a Polish American composer based in New York City. Equally at home working with electronic music as with orchestral music, he can often be found sampling strange instruments for inclusion in future scores. Recent work includes scoring the epic experimental film Ontologica! (2011) - a compendium of all of humanity's knowledge condensed into an hour and thirty six minutes -- and working as orchestrator on the Fox Searchlight release Conviction (2010), starring Hilary Swank. If you would like to consider Milosz for a project, or hear his music, please visit www.miloszjeziorski.com.
Music note photo by all that improbable blue