I am not a film maker. However, I have watched many films, around fifty films a year, not counting the ones I catch on Television. I watch TV shows as well, though I usually do this on the internet. When I watch all of these films and Television shows I think of how they use dramatic or comedic elements to their advantage, how they use tools to enhance the mood…etc.
One of the most universally used tools of film and television is Background Music. I’m just an amateur at “Drama” but I can feel when background music is used brilliantly and when it is used poorly. Knowing when it’s used brilliantly is easy. When it’s used well you like the scene and you remember how the music enhances it. Seeing when it’s used poorly isn’t always as easy because we don’t always know if a scene we are seeing would be better played with a different sort of music or with no music at all.
Background music is a most magnificent tool if used correctly. Judging by what I’ve seen and only by what I’ve seen I will now list how background music works and how it works.
Lets start with Dramatic moments.
Drama is tragic, enlightening, uplifting, depressing, thunderous and so forth. Background music can help bring people into the mood of the moment. When Siddhartha gains enlightenment sitting under the tree, the audience only sees a man sitting quietly with his eyes close. A boring scene. But with the appropriate background music the audience can at least share the sensation of what the main character is going through.
If the moment is a dramatic moment but there isn’t much happening in terms of actions (for example, someone reads a book and finds, say, a letter written by a loved one) then background music is almost always needed to enhance the scene. If the moment consists of a lot of speaking then the music may not be necessary, depending on what is being said. If the actors can put a lot of emotion in their words and act out their scene with emotional passion then music might not be needed.
Dramatic Happy moments need background music. Happiness is almost like a call for celebration for the audience and a victorious or at least pleasant background tune is useful.
Dramatic sad moments may not need background music. I haven’t worked out exactly when background music is useful and when it hinders the scene, but I have a theory. I believe it has to do with how much dialog is being said. If there is a lot of dialog in the scene then background music isn’t needed. The characters themselves are emphasizing the mood of the situation. If the scene depends mostly on facial expressions (somebody reading a letter in their heads that makes them sad or mad) then the scene will depend more on mood then the situation and will require music. Sitcoms rarely use background music in sad moments because they are situation based (hence the name). Action shows mainly use mood for their dramatic moments and are effective without Music.
Dramatic Fighting scenes…well I’ve found many ways that it can work both ways. Sometimes there was no music and I found the scene lacking because of it, sometimes I found the background music distracting. I managed to find a guideline that works, anyway. If the fight scene is from an epic tale, say, a fantasy film or takes place in history, say, the middle ages, then background music is needed to get the audience in the mood. Sometimes the music can manipulate the flow of the fighting mood (say, timing the beats to the strikes of the swords in a sword fight). In more realistic fight scene it can go two ways. Is the fight scene centered around a duel to the death and consists of weapons, or a lot of physical assault? Music helps. Is the fight scene a little void of action (say, strangling to death) and is mostly about trying to get away from somebody? Music might be best avoided. An example of the latter can be found in the scenes for the movie The Children of Man, in which most of the action scenes have little to no music.
I’ll talk about Comedic moments next time. I apologize, but as I post this it is becoming really late in the night and I can’t afford anymore unfinished drafts. Next time, I explain how I believe comedic moments use music.