The importance of music and other sounds in movies can’t be understated.
It is the sounds that move us, that make us cringe in a horror movie, that make us weep in a drama and that make us laugh in a comedy. It isn’t only what we hear the actors say that dictates our emotions, it’s also the little things like a sudden thud, a creak or, of course, the musical score. Whether it is opera music setting the tone for movies such as “Fatal Attraction,” or if it is classical music playing in the background of classics such as the “Godfather” trilogy, music can make or break a movie. In this essay, I will detail the various forms of music and the role they have played in some of our favorite movies, followed by an analysis of the role that sound effect s play in film.
Opera in Movies
Classical opera has also created a presence in film. Composer John Adams’ music has appeared in the soundtrack of “I Am Love,” which is an Italian film from 2009. But it isn’t just Adams that has is work featured in film, and it’s the emotional quality of opera that has made it such a valuable tool in storytelling, not just in the past, but today as well. Opera can help invoke strong emotions in the audience members. While the story might not be understood through the words, the tone that is added to a film though opera instantly reaches the audience and captures the feeling that the director is aiming for. One of the most famous films that features opera is “Wall Street.” The film represents the 1980’s culture of greed and excess. Opera is used in this film to add drama to the scenes at a critically emotional stage. Another well-known film that has used classical opera to convey the story is “The Fifth Element.” In this film, the use of opera is certainly an unusual combination, and it is more poetic, as this is an action-filled movie that has little emotional quality to it, though there are certain points when emotion is present. The alien character in the film actually sings opera at a time when she wants to be with her lover. However, she has murdered her husband at the time that she is singing this. “Fatal Attraction” is yet another film that features the classical opera. In this film, a female stalker “is enthralled with the opera Madam Butterfly and several arias are included in the film,” (Top, 2012). She is listening to the song when she attempts to kill herself. Perhaps the most famous of all the films that uses classical opera is “Apocalypse Now.” This is an extremely emotional film that uses opera when the U.S. troops attack a Vietnamese village for the simple reason that the beach is good for surfing.
Classical opera has carried with it an amazing ability to jar emotion in the audience. This way to produce emotion is one of the oldest ways to augment a story and communicate it fully to the listener. Opera has taken on various forms throughout history, but its use in entertainment will live on forever. The passion that it evokes is unrelenting and too tempting for a director to turn down. Its use has gone from simplistic operatic presentations on stage, to being incorporated into plays and musicals, and then to film. Whether it’s through operas that are performed at festivals, such as Mileva, or it use in the aforementioned films, opera is here to stay, and the audience is ready to be captivated by it, again and again.
Music isn’t always used in movies to set an emotional tone. It is often for the purpose of marketing a musician to the audience. While the movies that use music as part of the art form are perhaps more common than those that do not, movies using pop stars or simply there pop music are also a common tool to appeal to the target demographic. For example, pop music is often used to appeal to a teenage crowd. Prior to the philosophical onslaught of realism, the Catholic Church was largely responsible for dictating the attitudes and behaviors of society. However, music and other forms of pop culture, such as movies and television, have taken the role as the example-setting for the way people behave – whether it was Elvis setting the stage for controversy in the 1950s, which made its way into his films, or the African-American music leading the way of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, the rebellious tones of the 1970s, the representation of life in the ghetto that was depicted in rap music in the 1980s, or the grunge rock that gave a demographic a voice – music is a guiding force in everything that is American culture. Quite often, the way this music presents itself is through movies.
Elvis provides the perfect example for a music star whose tunes made into the movies in which he acted. Rolling Stone Magazine called Elvis “an American music giant of the 20th century who single-handedly changed the course of music and culture in the mid-1950s,” (Gnader, 2011). The movies in which he appeared and sang are part of that major cultural phenomenon.
Elvis has been such an influence on culture that many people emulate him today. Entire careers are built on the hip shakin’ butt wingglin’ styles of this unique performer. But the affects go far beyond just his dance moves. Elvis was such an icon that his original hairdo inspired a generation of men to rock the greased-out look. That type of influence wouldn’t have been possible if his music and image wasn’t featured in film. Honorable mentions of the decade include Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, but it was Elvis that stands out the most, partly because of the role his music played in movies. He had to ability, popularity, magnetism and impression that makes him the King of Rock. “Actually, Elvis is more than the King of Rock and Roll; he is a cultural phenomenon who has affected our entire society,” (Moore, 1998).
Despite being dead for more than 25 years, Elvis is very much alive. Millions of dollars are spent each year on Elvis products and the economy of Graceland is driven much by the fact that Elvis was born there. This cultural phenomenon is largely driven by the box office. He enticed millions of people on the big screen. And it was Elvis who created the consolidation of musicians and movies, (Kellner). Incidentally, this combination of music star and film actor, which persists today, has been the product of some of the worst acting performances and it has even led to the combination of sports stars accepting movie roles, an unfortunate by-product of great entertainment.
His impact is largely due to the appeal of his music, and through his appearances in film. The songs Elvis performed were original, with influence from African American and rhythm and blues, blended with country, gospel, classical and kicked up with a new form of music: rock ‘n’ roll. “It was Elvis who most distinctively blended white and black musical traditions, who created the most special and singular music and personae of the decade and that therefore he deserves the serious attention from those of us engaged in the project of seeking a deeper understanding of the intersections of media culture and society,” (Kellner).
Elvis was also one of the first people to be marketed in the movies, a phenomenon that is commonplace today. He was an ideal product to turn into a commodity and circulate to the masses. But he must be more than just a product, considering even today he is a cultural icon. His music and personality must be what keeps his impact on society (Kellner).
The use of the term rock ‘n’ roll carried almost no meaning by the 1970s. The Beatles broke up and Elvis died, taking away two major cultural influences – though these greats found a way to live on through film. The genre influenced movies of its time and fell into an array of categories, including soft rock, hard rock, folk rock, punk rock, country rock and shock rock, which are music genres almost as differing as the many film genres in which they appeared. As pop music became more commonplace in films in the 1970s, it became a decade that produced some of the biggest names in rock ‘n’ roll and many of these groups still perform today: Aerosmith, David Bowie, Elton John and Rod Stewart, all of whom have made relatively recent appearances in film. The decade also produced a few easy listening greats, such as Bob Marley and the Carpenters. It was also during the 1970s that Michael Jackson’s career launched, and even landed him appearances in film, (American, 2008).
While music in movies is a powerful agent, there are other mechanisms relating to sound that are used to convey the meaning of the film, and to set the tone. Movies follow a sound motif, which completely sets the tone of the movies. Instead of describing the various sound motifs throughout a series of films, it draws a clearer picture to walk through a single film that uses the sound motif. “Fight Club,” a 1999 David Fincher film, is a psychedelic journey into the mind of an insomniac (Ed Norton) who forms a relationship with Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). After the insomniac’s home explodes, destroying all his worldly possessions, he phones Tyler, a soap-selling nihilist – who he had recently met on an airplane during a work assignment – and asks to meet for a drink. The insomniac implies he needs a place to stay and Tyler offers him a room in his dilapidated home; Tyler then asks the insomniac to punch him as hard as he can. This is when the story takes the men on a journey, with Tyler teaching the insomniac how to be nihilistic. The men form a fight club, which catches on throughout the country before it is eventually discovered that the insomniac is imagining his best friend, Tyler.
From the very first sound cue in the film, Fincher begins the chaotic journey, which is not only fueled by the actions and dialogue of the characters, but also by the use of harsh sounds, on which this essay will be focused as the film’s motif. Because the two lead actors play the same character (Pitt as nihilistic Tyler Durden and Norton as insomniac Tyler Durden) the actors’ last names will be used to refer to each character.
During that first bit of sound, Fincher begins with about a second of classical music before it is stopped – like a needle harshly being pulled off a record player – and then a rushing chaotic electronic rock song invades the tempo of the movie, much like how Pitt invades the life of Norton. During this opening scene and first example of the sound motif, the camera tracks what appears to be the inner working of the human brain. This links nicely with the theme of the movie, which is Norton’s mental condition. The shot pans out from his brain and rests at the trigger of a gun. It is later discovered that Norton’s mind, or more specifically his imagination, has caused the gun to be there, which immediately identifies Norton’s mind as the cause of the chaos.
But Norton finds relief from his insomnia when he attends support groups, during which Fincher plays soft classical music. This provides a construct to which the audience associates good and bad: when pleasant sounds are played, good is happening, and when harsh sounds are played, bad is happening. But when Marla Singing appears in one of the support groups, a character that would interfere with Norton’s ability to sleep, a high pitch string sound that resembles something that would be heard in a horror movie, reverberates in the background.
But the sound motif is even more impactful when Norton is about to meet Pitt. Just after Norton explains to a fellow airplane passenger about the car business in which he works, he imagines an airplane crashing a few aisles in front of his. This causes a sharp sound when a hole is blown through the plane, much like how Pitt will blow a hole through Norton’s life. This crash is a sign of the destruction that Pitt will impose onto Norton with his nihilistic lifestyle. Immediately after Norton wakes from this dream, he meets Pitt. Throughout the men’s initial conversation there is an eerie airplane noise in the background.
The second time Pitt and Norton speak, sirens are heard in the background as the two talk on the phone. This is like a warning to Norton that Pitt is a destructive character in his life. The eerie background noise continues after the two men leave a bar and crickets are heard. Later, when Pitt asks Norton to hit him as hard as he can, a harsh train horn is triggered in the background. These background sounds set the tone for the movie, gelling with Pitt’s nihilistic view of the world and the outlook he presents to Norton. The sounds represent the chaos in Norton’s mind, and the insanity that will manifest itself in his life after meeting Pitt.
Most of the rest of the movie is full of fists slapping against flesh, as the men start a fight club. This is where the warning sirens, and eerie crickets and airplane sounds, come together in the hard packing sounds that continue the motif that ties the film together. But the pounding doesn’t stop during the fighting. Once Pitt meets Marla, the two hook up and Norton must come home to them having sex. Even when Norton is in bed, trying to sleep, the entire house is falling apart from the rough sex that is going on in Pitt’s room. Marla screams and the bed squeaks, adding to the harsh sounds of the film and building on the chaos in Norton’s mind.
Later, when Pitt pours lye onto Norton’s hand and burns it, a piercing electronic sound resonates. This is the point in the film where Norton is hitting rock bottom, to which Pitt is guiding him. To this point, it is perhaps the most pain Norton has experienced and, thus, the darkest moment on his nihilistic path. The music also plays a key role in creating a steady motif throughout the film and tying it together. For example, during a homework assignment that Pitt asks the members of his fight club to complete, harsh fast-tempo electronic rock plays – it matches the pace in which Norton is becoming nihilistic. Shortly after, harsh sounds resembling a guitar pick scraping the string of an electric plays as Pitt talks about his nihilistic outlook – the camera distorts as well, shaking violently.
As Pitt and Norton are driving along the freeway and Pitt releases his hands from the steering wheel, veering into oncoming traffic, horns blaze and wheels screech. At this point, Norton learns to “let go,” and this is when he appears to hit rock bottom during the journey on which Pitt has sent him. The audience later discovers that his morals won’t allow him to fully hit bottom. When Norton suspects after a conversation with a bartender that he could be Tyler Durden, a high pitch winding sound is cued, providing a final link to the sound motif that ties the nihilistic philosophy of the movie together. This finishes the harsh sound motif nicely at the end.
While the sound often conveys the meaning of the film, it doesn’t always match its image, and it isn’t always continuous, such is what was seen in “Fight Club,” with its eerie tone throughout. Sound can be used to create bridges in film to lead into or out of a scene. It is valuable in providing smooth transitions, which makes sound not only a valuable emotional tool, but also a create way to help the flow of a movie. Sound can also be used to depict various periods of a film, or various characters. This helps bridge any gap that might occur in the film, as the scenes aren’t always linear. The uses of the sound technique are extensive, but what should be made clear is that it isn’t only through the music, but through the interaction of the actor with the objects around them that help the director tell the film’s story.
Music can generate a different reaction, depending on which person is listening. These various reactions and emotions that are generated by music make it the perfect combination to put with film. But as we have seen in this essay, it isn’t only for the purpose of the art that music is used in a film, it is also used to sell the film itself – or more specifically, it is used to sell the musical performer of the film. The type of music used in film depends on the movie in which it is used. However, movies like “Final Destination” use the music for poetic purposes, perhaps to add to how bizarre the film is. But usually film accents the emotions that the director wants to create. The affect music has on a person often can often be anticipated, which makes it to perfect tool to create a different world, or to tell a story. Music and other uses of sound bring out a physical response, whether the reaction is in disgust or whether it is in approval. The true test of whether a song or other sound effect appeals to a person is whether it makes the hairs on the back of their neck stand up or if it sends a jolt through the person’s body.
Gnader, M. (2011, March 13) What Music Gives Me. The Hawk Eye. Hawk Eye News Online.
Kellner, D. (N.D.) The Elvis Spectable and the Cultural Industries. University of California, Los
Angeles. Retrieved from http://pages.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/kellner/essays/elvisspectacle.pdf
Moore, W.K. Scott, D.L. (1998. Jan. 29). Elvis: Truly the King of Rock and Roll. Voldosta State
University. Retrieved from http://www.valdosta.edu/~dlscott/elvis/elvis.html
“Top 10 Best Uses of Opera in Movies.” (2012). Listverse. Retrieved from
Top 10 Best Uses of Opera in Movies