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Understanding the Score: Film Music Communicating to and Influencing the Audience Author(s): JESSICA GREEN Source:

Understanding the Score: Film Music Communicating to and Influencing the Audience Author(s): JESSICA GREEN Source: The Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 44, No. 4 (Winter 2010), pp. 81-94 Published by: University of Illinois Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/jaesteduc.44.4.0081 Accessed: 15-09-2017 02:43 UTC

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Understanding the Score: Film Music Communicating to and Influencing the Audience



When most people sit down to watch a film, their focus usually stays on the very dynamic images that move onscreen. The dialogue, as a form of diegetic sound, is probably the next piece of the film they concentrate on, but this only imitates actual experience, since most people understand com- munication by both watching and listening. Christian Metz, in his influen- tial text Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema, describes film as “Born of the fusion of several pre-existing forms of expression, which retain some of their own laws (image, speech, music, and noise),” to which he later adds “written materials” as a fifth component. 1 Of these five channels of infor- mation included in film, music is the most artificial because in many films the majority of music is nondiegetic. For the audience, it is also the channel most removed from everyday life. While people do interact with images, the spoken word, text, and sound in the normal course of a day, people do not walk around constantly supported by a sensitive soundtrack that follows their emotions and thoughts. Yet despite the artificiality of the musical score in comparison with everyday life, audiences have come to accept film music as an integral part of what it means to watch a film. Films that fail to use much music or fail to use it well often have a problem involving the audience as completely as films that embrace music as a tool that can expose the inner feelings and thoughts of characters and can shape the way that viewers feel about what’s happen- ing on screen. To understand the importance of film music, Stam, Burgoyne, and Flitterman-Lewis further explain why it is important to examine music as a significant channel through which the audience makes meaning of the film: “Metz’s definition of the cinema’s matter of expression as consisting of five tracks—image, dialogue, noise, music, written materials—served to call attention to the soundtrack and thus to undercut the formulaic view of



the cinema as an ‘essentially visual’ medium which was ‘seen’ (not heard) by ‘spectators’ (not auditors).” 2 By distinguishing dialogue, noise, and mu- sic—all auditory channels of information—as important pieces of film, Stam, Burgoyne, and Flitterman-Lewis support Metz’s assertion “that the cinema possesses various ‘dialects,’ and that each one of these ‘dialects’ can become the subject of a specific analysis.” 3 Once audiences and critics consider music as one of the fundamental “dialects” of film, it then makes sense to under- stand music as an essential part of communication and argument in film. But is the film score more than just a reflection of a character’s sadness or the exciting chase music that exhilarates audiences? While most audiences would certainly be able to cite numerous instances of music reflecting the feelings of characters or the general mood of the film, some people might be surprised by the extent to which film music shapes and affects meaning in film. Stam, Burgoyne, and Flitterman-Lewis define several types of music that can be used in scores: redundant music, which reinforces the emotional tone; contrapuntal music, which runs counter to the dominant emotion; em- pathetic music, which conveys the emotions of the characters; a-empathetic music, which seems indifferent to the drama; and didactic contrapuntal mu- sic, which uses music to distance the audience “in order to elicit a precise, usually ironic, idea in the spectator’s mind.” 4 Though these terms can be limiting because music often fulfills more than just one role in a scene, they do demonstrate that music is making an argument or working to convince or persuade the audience, proving that film music is behaving rhetorically. Though film music does often fulfill the basic roles of conveying emotion and suggesting connections or themes in the film, film music also works in more complex roles to affect the meaning in film. Through music’s devel- opment of specific leitmotifs, themes, and cues, the calculated use of film music in conjunction with the other channels of information helps to create the narrative and control the way that the audience interprets a film.

Music’s Basic Functions

Convey emotion

To start with the simple functions of the score, one of music’s most basic roles in film is to convey emotion to the audience. Current research points to the fact that audiences can understand the emotions or qualities that music is portraying even when the music is divorced from the image it was created to accompany. In a study designed to prove whether or not listeners would uniformly associate a selection of music with abstract qualities, research- ers had listeners write down their responses to ten different musical film and television themes. “For example, the theme to the TV series Miami Vice was played to 105 respondents, who produced a total of 328 verbal-visual associations. While no one reported recognizing the tune, the music

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Understanding the Score


indicated aggression, speed, and urban environments to most listeners. No one heard qualities like reflection, love, ritual, religion, or animals.” 5 It is sig- nificant that even without the visual images that would generally accom- pany such musical themes from television or film, diverse listeners were able to come up with similar responses to what the music represented to them. Though some music or some listeners might resist such uniform responses, this study proves that music written to project specific feelings or ideas really can communicate with listeners. As Anahid Kassabian concludes in his book Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Hollywood Film Music, “A comparison of the respondents’ associations with those in a mood music catalogue points out the stability of film music’s meaning system.” 6 In almost any film, the power of music to communicate emotion is heavily used. In one scene from The Last of the Mohicans (1992), a group of three men come upon the homestead of a family that they knew well. Outside the cabin, however, lie the bodies of the wife and children, killed and left where they lay while their home was torched. As the men creep around the cabin trying to ascertain the damage, sustained low notes played by the orchestra communicate the sadness of the men at seeing friends killed in such a brutal manner. This example shows music’s ability to illustrate the point that the men regret what they see, a simple expression of emotion through music.

Power to suggest connection or themes

One of music’s advantages over other channels of information (image, dialogue, text, sound) is that it has the power of suggestion concerning what a character may be thinking about or considering, whether that be a previ- ous action, a person, or a place. Larry Timm writes that “music is used to create ‘unspoken’ thoughts of a character or unseen implications of a sit- uation. Music can be used to transfer subliminal messages to the filmgoers where we can feel what the main character is feeling or where the music cre- ates the conditions of the atmosphere on screen.” 7 Beyond getting audiences to identify with what the character is going through, however, directors use music to create and connect the overarching themes of the film and help audiences understand the purpose or meaning. One of the overarching themes of The Last of the Mohicans is that of duty, and music is the tool that is often used to convey how this theme affects characters. For the officer Duncan Hayward, thoughts of duty are often por- trayed with music that references his military duty. As he journeys to begin his service, the audience hears the strings imitate the jaunty military tune that a soldier marching on his way to battle might hear. At other times, the simple beat of the snare drum reminds the audience of soldiers marching to service, again bringing to mind thoughts of duty. Filmmakers have long exploited music’s ability to provide unity and emotional reinforcement to the image on the screen. Beginning with accompaniment to silent films, such as Erno Rapée’s Motion Picture Moods

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for Pianists and Organists, music during films ranged “from lullabies and love themes to exciting chase music and the sound of sinister and grotesque themes guaranteed to frighten even the strongest viewer.” 8 Later scores were written for specific films, and finally sound (including music) came packaged with the film. Though some might argue that music simply reflects the drama on screen, because the audience is listening to the score as they are watching the film, the music automatically affects how viewers interpret what is hap- pening. Veteran composer Leith Stevens taught that “Music must assume an attitude of partnership with the other elements concerned in the story.” 9 In its most basic functions, film music works with the image to help the audi- ence feel the emotions of the characters and to understand the larger themes at work in the film. By working with other channels of information, music moves beyond the role of simply reflecting or filling the background to the role of actually affecting and creating meaning in the film.

Music’s Ability to Identify and Suspend Reality

How important can music be in the development of the film if, as often happens, the music is unconsciously heard and easily forgotten? Instead of trying to understand music’s purpose while other channels distract us, Kay Dickinson suggests we rate music’s importance in terms of what the film would be without it:

The majority of film-goers would not be able to tell you much about movie scores. Even if you were to catch a group leaving a movie the- atre and ask them about the score they had just heard, many would admit to not really having noticed it. However, if the same ensemble had been asked to sit through that material minus the music, they would probably feel frustratedly disconnected from the film and its characters precisely because of the lack of musical prompts to guide them towards a set of expected responses. 10

It is this tendency of audiences to use the score as a tool for understanding the meaning of other channels of information that makes film music so integral to the film-viewing experience. When using the music to help de- termine the meaning, the audience becomes less questioning, and more ac- cepting, of what is happening on screen. In her book Unheard Melodies: Nar- rative Film Music, Claudia Gorbman argues that film music “functions to lull the spectator into being an untroublesome (less critical, less wary) viewing subject.” 11 How does the music accomplish this? By helping the audience make the “correct” interpretations of the words and actions of characters, especially when other channels of information might be hard to under- stand. Gorbman further argues that “the classical film score encourages identification: emotional proximity through the use of culturally familiar musical language and through a matching, an identity of sound and image

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Understanding the Score


which masks contradictions and posits a wholeness with which to identify unproblematically as subject.” 12 Gorbman is here arguing that music has the power to connect potentially dissimilar images and music into a whole that creates meaning from their combination. In the same scene mentioned earlier from The Last of the Mohicans, the audience might initially be confused by the Mohican party’s cold handling of the dead bodies of their friends. As evident from the women’s objec- tions to their proposal to leave the bodies behind unburied, a spectator might wonder at their refusal to bury the bodies or to set the farmstead in order. In contrast to the men’s closed faces and cold actions, the music for this scene clearly communicates their grief. The unresolved chords that sound as the men look over the property show the audience that the men feel uncertain about the course of action they must take, and quiet wood- winds mournfully play in the background as the men decide that they cannot bury the bodies for fear of a Huron party following them. As the audience sees a wide shot of the party leaving the property, there is a slow progression of lowering notes that communicates their resignation at leav- ing their friends behind. Though their actions seem cold, by adding in the mournful dimension of the music, the audience can correctly identify the Mohicans’ sympathy. Another important function of film music is its ability to suspend reality for the audience. When movie-goers sit in a theatre and hear the opening strains of the title theme, they have been conditioned to accept the music as part of the cinematic experience; indeed, many films use opening music to situate the story in a time, place, or context that will help the audience more readily accept the film. In the book Movie Music: The Film Reader, Gorbman states that despite the fact that music is not actually part of the fictional world, “The returns on the investment of a musical score are enormous, considering that the film normally ‘gets it forgotten.’ Music greases the wheels of the cinematic pleasure machine by easing the spectator’s passage into subjectivity.” 13 Music helps the audience locate themselves in scenes or events that may be unusual, exotic, or even far-fetched in the context of their lives. Instead of judging every action or conversation in the film in terms of real-life experience, music helps the audience suspend reality and skepti- cism by creating a sense of unity and unreality. The opening scene of The Last of the Mohicans depends heavily upon music to transport the audience into the world of the Mohicans. As the film opens, the audience watches as Hawkeye, Chingachgook, and Uncas chase down a deer to the music of the title theme. Heavily beaten drums with low brass playing an ominous melody begin the title sequence, symbolizing the men’s stealthy hunt of the deer. The music then breaks into harmony and crescendos into the full orchestra, where trumpets lead the melody, as the hunt becomes an open chase. The music ends and silence reigns after the shot from the rifle that kills the deer. Though this may seem like just a deer

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hunt, the music creates an atmosphere where the audience can quickly realize some important facts. Through the unity of the strong brass title theme, the audience realizes that Hawkeye/Nathaniel is one with Chingachgook and Uncas despite his white heritage. The proud trumpets proclaim that the Mo- hicans are experts and can exert dominance over the wilderness. Modern viewers might initially feel distanced by the unusual clothing or the fast- paced experience of hunting for deer in a vast forest, but the music draws the audience into the foreign world of pre–Revolutionary War America. To fully enjoy the cinematic experience, the audience must first set aside their demands for reality and accept the fictional world of the film, and music functions as an important part of this process. Gorbman writes that “Music lessens defenses against the fantasy structures to which narrative provides access. It increases the spectator’s susceptibility to suggestion.” 14 Kassabian agrees with this notion, stating that music “crosses over the boundaries between unconscious and conscious processes; it contradicts or shifts what seem like heavy-handed meanings in the visuals.” 15 Though it would only take an image of the Mohican party hunting for deer to com- municate to the audience that the film is set in the past, by combining these images with the title theme, music bridges the gap and helps viewers situate themselves in the grand wilderness of the Mohican world.

Musical Conventions

To understand how music creates meaning in film, the audience must understand how musical conventions shape film. Kassabian reports that musical “[c]ompetence is based on decipherable codes learned through ex- perience. As with language and visual image, we learn through exposure what a given tempo, series of notes, key, time signature, rhythm, volume, and orchestration are meant to signify.” 16 In the same way that even chil- dren can understand a change from color to black and white as representing a flashback in time, film audiences can also analyze the ways that music can signal different responses. Dean Duncan, in his book Charms that Soothe:

Classical Music and the Narrative Film, writes that “The specificity of these cues, and the specificity of their identification, are very important. They can cause us to interrogate our affective responses as they simultaneously en- gage our intellects and increase our knowledge, so that feeling and thought can profitably coexist.” 17 To understand how music is functioning rhetori- cally within a film, audiences must stop listening passively and begin to unravel what differences in tempo, rhythm, and volume mean in terms of the plot or character development.


In musical scoring, repeated themes have a specific term: leitmotif. A concept derived from Wagner’s use of themes in opera, the leitmotif could be

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Understanding the Score


defined as “a theme in a film [that] becomes associated with a character, a place, a situation, or an emotion.” 18 Justin London, in his article “Leitmotifs and Musical Reference in the Classical Film Score,” explains that “in filmic contexts the introduction of musical leitmotifs is highly conventionalized. Usually this introduction involves the simultaneous presentation of the character and his or her leitmotif, especially when we are given a striking presentation of both early on in the film. The conventions of opening title cues can also serve to fix the reference of a leitmotif.” 19 One basic way that leitmotifs create meaning, then, is by constructing identifications that are easily recognized within the film. London further explains that

Another constraint on the sound-shape of names and leitmotifs is that they must be reasonably stable so that every time they are uttered or performed they remain recognizable tokens of their name/leitmotif type(s). In musical contexts this means that while a leitmotif may be varied in a number of parameters such as orchestration, dynamics, accompanimental texture, and some small melodic or rhythmic varia- tion (especially tempo), one cannot radically alter the basic shape of the musical leitmotif without risk of losing its designative function. 20

Most of the time, leitmotifs can be identified as a simple melody, usually only a few measures in length. In order to establish the leitmotif with the ob- ject of its identification, the leitmotif is usually repeated a few times to firm- ly engrain its essence with the audience. In order to create these themes or meanings, composers repeat the same or slightly altered themes, which the audience learns to associate with characters, places, or emotions. “Themes accumulate meaning to varying degrees,” Gorbman argues. “The theme can be assigned a fixed function, constantly signaling the same character, locale, or situation each time it appears, or it can vary, nuance, play a part in the film’s dynamic evolution.” 21 One of the keys to understanding the score for the film Braveheart (1995) is to understand the composer’s use of leitmotif. Of the changing leitmotifs in this film, Murron’s theme is one that develops and takes on new meaning throughout the course of the narrative. The basic melody of the theme is first heard when, as a child, Murron gives Wallace a thorn in sympathy after his father’s funeral. The flute hints at Murron’s strong sense of compassion and understanding, and the plucked notes of the harp sound resolute as the pipes work out into the foreground, closely echoed by the orchestra. The scene closes with the lone flute again, mirroring William alone by his father’s grave. Murron’s theme is more fully developed in the scenes where William courts her and when the priest marries them in secret. This leitmotif symbolizes the quiet dignity of Murron’s gentle nature through the harp, woodwinds, and French horn that all play the basic melody at some point. The composer’s calculated use of pipes and an ominous ending of low brass that resolves unhappily seem to represent the fact that Murron’s own end- ing will be unhappy. Even the oboe that resonates after the marriage seems

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to warn the couple that life will not be kind to them through its minor tones and the orchestra’s rapid crescendos and diminuendos.

Thematic transformations

Once basic identifications are made with different themes, however, the leitmotif can be modified or altered in order to reflect the changing status of the character, place, situation, or emotion. Roger Hickman discusses the importance of the changing leitmotif in his book Reel Music: Exploring 100 Years of Film Music: “Thematic transformation helps to create variety and gives support to dramatic situations. In the simplest terms, a leitmotif can be altered when it recurs during a film. The alteration can be a change of instrumentation, tempo, or harmony. Through these transformations, the changing mood or state of a character can be depicted.” 22 Changing leitmo- tifs, then, signal development in characters and situations. Murron’s theme changes significantly throughout the film as Wallace both mourns his wife and seeks to redress the wrongs done to his family. At Murron’s burial, the phrasing of the repeated theme varies from mourning (slower oboe), to rage (more forceful brass orchestration), to resignation (fluctuating volume of the string-dominated phrase), to eventual peace within himself (plucked notes of the harp that resolve). It is apparent from the number of times that the theme is repeated throughout the film, though, that Murron is not forgotten in Wallace’s thoughts. Though the notes of Murron’s theme stay consistent enough that they are easily recognizable, each time the theme is played, the music represents both the changes in Wallace’s thoughts and concerns as well as his unswerving diligence to duty. Music often illustrates the complex changes that point to transformations of character. “One means of assessing the relative importance of music,” Scott D. Paulin writes, “is to consider the melodic ideas or leitmotifs and the extent to which they are linked to texts that thereby provide them with associative meanings that are then retained or developed on the motifs’ sub- sequent appearances.” 23 Although one leitmotif may be introduced with a specific character, when it is combined with another character’s leitmotif, the audience should wonder what is trying to be communicated with the combination. Is the character beginning to resemble the other character, is he experiencing the other character’s most prominent emotion, or is he sym- pathizing with what the other character is feeling? Murron’s theme is also an example of a leitmotif that is used to portray two characters in Braveheart. Despite the fact that Murron is killed relatively early in the film, Murron continues to be a significant force both in the course of Wallace’s life and after his death. One example of Murron’s theme taking new meaning is when the Princess and Wallace meet together at the cottage, and the Princess becomes Wallace’s love interest. The leitmotif that had represented Murron now adapts to suit the Princess. As she watches Wallace ride away, the woodwinds and strings transition from Murron’s

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Understanding the Score


traditional theme into a more worried, quickly paced orchestration than Murron’s leitmotif had ever been. As the orchestra fills out the theme, it swiftly changes into the title theme, once more returning the audience’s thoughts to the duty to country that is so important to Wallace. The Princess’s adaptation of Murron’s theme is continued in the scene where the Princess pleads for Wallace’s life before the king. At first only sad flutes that mourn her unsuccessful cause are heard, but toward the end of the scene, when the Princess realizes that the king is incapable of mercy, the harp slowly picks out Murron’s theme, contrasting not only the two women but also the difference between the caring and giving Murron and the selfish and tyrannical king. While it is fairly simple to understand why Murron’s theme would become the Princess’s theme after she becomes the principle love interest, more complex questions arise as the audience considers the timing and changes to the theme. Why, for example, would Murron’s theme play when the Princess is telling Longshanks that his line will end forever? Is it because it should be Murron who is carrying Wallace’s child, or is it because Murron should finally feel revenged for her death because of the king’s helpless state? Transformations of theme can bring to the audience’s attention the complex issues that are at stake in both the development of the plot and the development of characters.

Defining character

Another important role that leitmotif fulfills is to define and distinguish character. Leitmotifs establish early on which characters the audience should be supporting and which are the villains of the film. Timothy E. Scheurer, in his book Music and Mythmaking in Film, writes that “Just as the topics and gestures that accompany the hero and the lovers are meant to get our hearts to swell and to stir our blood to noble action, so the gestures for the villain are meant to remind us of untrammeled violence and fill us with uneasiness.” 24 Though critics may call the score’s identifying of heroes and villains too simplifying, in reality, the score doesn’t simply leave the audience with identification, which would be redundant in most cases because the image of the identified is already on the screen. Instead, the score works to amplify and interpret the changes and emotions that are driving each character’s course of action. In a scene that marks a crossroads in Braveheart, Robert the Bruce shows what his true feelings are for Scotland’s future. After the battle that he has in part caused, he walks the battlefield, examining the dead of his countrymen with haunted eyes that seem to take responsibility for his betrayal. Dark strings and low brass combine as Bruce falls to his knees on the battlefield, the regret for his choice clear in the musical choices as well as the framing of the shots. Bruce makes a vow to never be on the wrong side again, a vow that defines him throughout the rest of the film. At later points in the film, when he is forced to take sides, noble, strong music reminds him of his pledge to his country and to himself.

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Playing counter to the image

In relating the music to what is going on in the images and dialogue of the film, one of the most basic distinctions is whether the music is playing with or against the image. Gorbman states that “Either the music ‘resembles’ or it ‘contradicts’ the action or mood of what happens on the screen. Siegfried Kracauer, for example, writes that counterpoint occurs when music and picture convey ‘different meanings’ that meet in a montage effect.” 25 Larry M. Timm, in his book The Soul of Cinema: An Appreciation of Film Music, also

discusses this technique of “music play[ing] against the action

ally, this occurs when the composer uses music that opposes what is being seen on screen. For instance, a director may wish to tone down an extremely violent segment of his or her movie by accompanying it with an opera aria or a slow ballad.” 26 Though this might seem like a fairly simple distinction, by hearing music that seemingly opposes the mood of what is happening on screen, the audience must make sense of the contradiction and what pur- pose it serves. Though many of film music’s conventions are learned simply through watching a variety of films, often a film will teach its audience what specific musical cues and prompts mean within that film. In understanding a poten- tially confusing scene,


music serves to ward off the displeasure of uncertain signification. The particular kind of music used in dominant feature films has con- notative values so strongly codified that it can bear a similar relation to the images as a caption to a news photograph. It interprets the im- age, pinpoints and channels the “correct” meaning of the narrative events depicted. It supplies information to complement the potential- ly ambiguous diegetic images and sounds. 27

Functioning in much the same way that a caption narrates a photograph, Gorbman argues that music tends to shed light on the meaning that the di- rector would have you glean from the film. Instead of stringing together words to communicate, music creates meaning through a multitude of vary- ing factors such as instrumentation, tonality, key, and phrasing that work together to create a mood or feeling that suggests or emphasizes something that the audience might not have paid attention to or realized. Though it might be difficult to come up with the narrative solely based on the film music, with the help of other visual or auditory channels of information that direct the meaning, film music can comment on the drama and even per- suade the audience to feel a certain way about the action or characters. One example of music working on many levels is the final scene from Braveheart. The audience listens as a single flute plays the outlaw theme while the Scotsmen assemble with Robert the Bruce at their head. By us- ing this particular theme, the audience recalls all of the other instances of this theme, both the failures and the successes that the Scotsmen have

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Understanding the Score


experienced in attempting to free their country from England. An oboe joins the flute as Bruce pulls out Murron’s wedding cloth, calling to the audi- ence’s attention the real reason for Wallace’s fight against the British. In this one simple duet symbolizing the duty of the men to unite in battling for Scot- land and the purpose for their fight, the audience experiences the cumulative effect of all the instances of both themes that have led to this critical point in the narrative. Just as the audience watches the men on the field evaluating their reasons for being there and their chances for victory, the audience, aided by these two very different themes, will be mulling over the same issues. As Bruce rides forward with the other nobles, trumpets join the initial instru- ments, indicating a convergence of peoples and ideas. When Bruce mentions Wallace, the trumpets soar out in a war theme, but they are quickly overrid- den by the sound of the drums and pipes that foreshadow the victory of the Scots at Bannockburn. Finally, Robert the Bruce and William Wallace have ac- complished their design to free Scotland from English rule. Pipes resonate on a final note as a single sword waves in the wind on the field of battle, symbol- izing freedom, the overarching theme of the film. Depending on how a particular member of the audience interprets the music in conjunction with the images or dialogue, the score may not sway everyone to exactly the same meaning. Kassabian comments that “No film can force a perceiver to engage in a particular way. Even the most rigidly assimilating of film scores cannot guarantee the cooperation of perceiving subjects.” 28 In the example above, though the music points to the freedom of the Scots, because so many themes are compressed into such a short span of time, different members of the audience may identify and emphasize spe- cific parts of the score. “But music,” Royal Brown states, “of all the many separate components that make up any given commercial film, plays one of the strongest roles in what has been and continues to be a world-wide ten- dency in commercial cinema to encode the visual/narrative amalgam with the mythologies, both political and extrapolitical, embedded in a particular culture.” 29 Music more so than image seems to appeal to more general cul- tural narratives such as family, home, friends, and enemies through broader conventions that work in a variety of mediums. So while it would be very hard to misinterpret the basic functions of music in expressing emotion or identifying characters or themes, because the more complex functions of music invoke the broader, more universal themes of life, different mem- bers of the audience will be able to use the music to bring the story or message of the film closer to their experience and issues. This proves to be more of a positive than a negative aspect of music, since it allows viewers to take a more personal approach to films presenting even very foreign concepts. In giving additional meaning to film, one of the most important roles that music has is to work with the other channels of information (image, dia- logue, text, sound) to comment on what is happening. Musical narration can

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coincide or differ from the mood being portrayed by the image, can allude to ideas not explicitly stated in dialogue, can reveal the purpose of words or objects displayed on screen, or can work with sound effects to explain what is really happening. An important principle to remember is that mu- sic is “a cogenerator of narrative affect.” 30 Leith Stevens advises that “Dur- ing dialogue scenes, for example, music should promote an understanding of the characters’ motivations, give color and depth to their mood, help to explain reactions and attitudes by reminding the audience of some earlier dramatic development that has bearing on the present scene, or emphasize some quality of the character’s background which has bearing on his reac- tions in the scene.” 31 Such a partnership between music and other channels of information will not only clarify the purpose and meaning of the scene but also influence the audience’s understanding of the action. Through the same way that the editing of images affects the audience’s interpretation of the film, so the way that music helps to create the narrative of the film will change how audiences respond to the film. Music works in conjunction with the other channels of information (image, dialogue, text, sound) to give the audience a more complex understanding of what is happening in the char- acter’s minds and how decisions are being made. One of the scenes most affected by the contribution of musical scoring in conjunction with the other channels of information is the climactic resolu- tion of The Last of the Mohicans. During the discussion of the Huron wise man and Magua that will determine the fate of the two Munroe girls, no music plays, the lack of music pointing instead to the focus on the words and arguments being presented. As Hayward volunteers to take Cora’s place at the burning stake, a steady drum beat begins, marking the begin- ning of events that cannot be reversed. As Cora is traded for Hayward and Alice is dragged off by Magua, a lone fiddle begins to play the same eight measures over and over again. The unusual 12/8 time signature drives the fiddle tune and gives the audience the feeling that all the characters are being pushed forward into courses of action that were unforeseen. Low bass notes are added as the repetitive music sweeps the characters along, Uncas chasing after Alice with Chingachgook, Hawkeye, and Cora following behind. The tempo and beat of the music are working here in conjunction with the montage of images that indicates the quick speed of the action taking place. One by one instruments are added to the mix until the whole orchestra sounds together as the camera cuts to a panoramic view of the mountain, slowly moving until at the bottom left corner we can see the cliff face that the Huron party is crossing. Trumpets dominate this majestic view of na- ture, but as the camera cuts back into a closer shot, the trumpets drop out and once again the fiddle dominates, with countermelody played by the low brass. At this point Uncas attacks the Huron party alone, cutting down several men before he in turn is cut down by Magua. As the focus of the

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Understanding the Score


camera comes down upon the individuals fighting, the music diminishes in volume so that the sound effects can become more prominent, emphasizing the very physical nature of this clash of peoples and beliefs. The volume increases as Magua first swipes Uncas, but then the harmony develops more strongly as Uncas falls and the attention is turned to Alice. As Alice steps away from the Hurons and closer to the edge of the cliff, the fiddle and drum finally fade away to simple pitches played by high strings. Alice has always been viewed as the younger sister, the school girl who hasn’t quite grown up enough to take on real responsibility. In ear- lier scenes of distress, it is her older sister Cora who has supported her. Yet with all of her friends stripped from her and what seems like her final hope in Uncas failed, Alice has come to a definitive decision. By also stripping away both the melody, harmony, and percussion, the music represents the point that Alice seems to have no alternative left. As the camera centers on her face, the string pitches resonate back and forth while she steps out onto the cliff. Switching back to Magua, also centered by the camera, the drums thrum back and forth, helping the audience register his disbelief at her resis- tance of his command to come back to the safer path. Just before she steps over the edge, the strings come together in a chord and the timpanis beat out a mourning for her eminent choice. To close the scene, the fiddle comes back in but is quickly eclipsed by the brass that represent Chingachgook and Hawkeye’s revenge on the Huron, especially Magua. Though the fiddle tune that dominates this climactic scene may at first seem inappropriate for the deaths and difficult choices that it works with, the sweeping rhythm clearly represents the choices that each of the charac- ters must make. Although the tune doesn’t extensively work with leitmotifs established earlier in the film, by changing the instrumentation, tempo, and phrasing of each character’s portion of the scene, the music differentiates each character’s choices and decisions. Although this film may be deal- ing with the global issues of war, race relations, and change, it is the per- sonal motives and decisions that the music emphasizes, as reflected in the very personalized themes of the film music that work with the channels of image and sound effect to create a powerful message that speaks to viewers without dialogue.


As evidenced by the strong use of musical scores in modern film, film music has come a long way since the initial silent film’s piano or organ accompani- ment that simply marked general emotions or moods. Though film music has retained its basic functions of reflecting emotions and moods in the im- ages, the film score has progressed into actually shaping the narrative. By establishing specific leitmotifs, themes, and cues within a movie, film music fulfills the more complex role of working in conjunction with the other

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channels of information to rhetorically influence the audience’s interpreta- tion of the film and the message that the viewer takes from the film.


1. Christian Metz, Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 58.

2. Robert Stam, Robert Burgoyne, and Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics (Routledge: New York, 1992), 59.

3. Metz, Film Language, 93.

4. Stam, Burgoyne, and Flitterman-Lewis, New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics, 63.

5. Anahid Kassabian, Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Holly- wood Film Music (New York: Routledge, 2001), 19.

6. Ibid.

7. Larry M. Timm, The Soul of Cinema: An Appreciation of Film Music (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hill, 2003), 5; emphasis in the original.

8. Ibid., 60.

9. Leith Stevens, “Film Scoring: The UCLA Lectures,” Journal of Film Music 1, no. 4 (2006): 345.

10. Kay Dickinson, introduction to Movie Music: The Film Reader, ed. Kay Dickinson (New York: Routledge, 2003), 13.

11. Claudia Gorbman, Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 58; emphasis in the original.

12. Ibid., 108.

13. Claudia Gorbman, “Why Music? The Sound Film and Its Spectator,” in Movie Music: The Film Reader, ed. Kay Dickinson (New York: Routledge, 2003), 40.

14. Gorbman, Unheard Melodies, 5.

15. Kassabian, Hearing Film, 9.

16. Ibid., 23.

17. Dean Duncan, Charms that Soothe: Classical Music and the Narrative Film (New York: Fordham University Press, 2003), 137.

18. Gorbman, Unheard Melodies, 3.

19. Justin London, “Leitmotifs and Musical Reference in the Classical Film Score,” in Music and Cinema, ed. James Buhler, Caryl Flinn, and David Neumeyer (Mid- dletown, CT: Wesleyan, 2000), 87.

20. Ibid., 88.

21. Gorbman, Unheard Melodies, 27.

22. Roger Hickman, Reel Music: Exploring 100 Years of Film Music (New York:

W. W. Norton, 2005), 43.

23. Scott D. Paulin, “Richard Wagner and the Fantasy of Cinematic Unity: The Idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk in the History and Theory of Film Music,” in Music and Cinema, ed. James Buhler, Caryl Flinn, and David Neumeyer (Middletown, CT:

Wesleyan, 2000), 61.

24. Timothy E. Scheurer, Music and Mythmaking in Film: Genre and the Role of the Com- poser (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008), 121.

25. Gorbman, Unheard Melodies, 15.

26. Larry M. Timm, The Soul of Cinema: An Appreciation of Film Music (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hill, 2003), 10.

27. Gorbman, “Why Music?” 40.

28. Kassabian, Hearing Film, 138.

29. Royal S. Brown, Overtones and Undertones: Reading Film Music (Berkeley: Univer- sity of California Press, 1994), 30.

30. Ibid., 32.

31. Stevens, “Film Scoring,” 345-46.

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