DURING THE mid-1800s, a change started happening in the musical world. Until that point, music had usually been considered to be its own art form, with no connections to the other mediums. Opera had been around for a centuries, but it was a different kind of storytelling medium, one where the music provided emotional force, but the story was still driven by words. It will sound strange to our music-saturated modern culture, but there was quite a split in musical communities when, on the forefront of the new movement, Franz Liszt invented what he dubbed the “symphonic poem.” Instead of adhering to a strict musical structure, the new form would tell a story—in Liszt’s case, usually previously written poems by Shakespeare and Dante. The story would dictate the structure. As Richard Wagner followed in Liszt’s footsteps and popularized the use of the leitmotif—musical themes pinned to specific characters or ideas—a new type of storytelling came to life.
Though often culturally overshadowed by the productions it accompanies, the spirit of Liszt’s controversial musical storytelling lives on in the form of the modern film score. Film score loyalists—some of few who appreciate film music for its great history and extraordinary emotional power—participate in a unique, rich world of storytelling that’s all the more enticing for the effort it requires to be a connoisseur. Film music is my passion; I like to talk about it, and have discovered a scarily large number of people to whom I must explain that someone wrote and performed original music for nearly every movie they’ve seen. But I’m tame compared to some devotees of film music.
Consider the incredible ordeal involved in collecting John Williams’ complete score for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace after it was ruthlessly cut and pasted into near unrecognizability by the infamous George Lucas. (Lucas is one of film score fans’ all-time greatest frustrations). Williams’ complete score ended up being about four CDs in length, and each cue is usually made up of at least three—sometimes six or seven—separate sections of music. These fragments came either from one of the two commercial album releases, from a direct rip from one of the rear sound channels of the DVD, or from a Star Wars video game that somehow got a 10- or 20-second clip from the original score. The pieces were all painstakingly cut, pasted and faded together in the effort to create the most complete, clean and confluent listening experience possible. The discussion on what went where is literally hundreds of pages long, and rivals the Council of Nicaea in depth and complexity.
That’s a rare example; most of the time, such a complex cut-and-paste operation doesn’t happen. There is almost always more music written for a film than can fit on one regular-length album, and the film score fan base is not large enough to make releasing multiple-disc editions of most scores commercially viable. So there is no end of work to be put into creating a complete listening experience of one’s favorite scores. For the dedicated film score fan, it is a labor of love that allows you to become familiar with the particular score in a way not otherwise possible. Music that I have put a huge effort into compiling and arranging means more to me than a polished, commercially-curated album that lands in my lap a finished work.
But the preservative work of loving and studying film music is only part of its allure. The bigger reason has to do with the way film music subtly combines music with storytelling. Through music, one can actually learn things about characters that a movie doesn’t show, and in a way that is much more organic and open to interpretation. In modern filmmaking, where it’s common to see a conglomeration of art forms joining forces to tell a story, sensual overload can strip storytelling of its magic. When watching a movie is a one-way experience—a big screen deluging you with sound, light, music, and effects—there’s little work left for the imagination.
Film scoring takes storytelling to a subconscious level, one reason I can love a score from a film I have never seen. I never saw The Water Horse, but the soundtrack inspires a wonderfully intricate, imaginary story in my mind that I love to revisit frequently. I couldn’t tell you the story in words, but the music connects at a level I doubt the movie ever could.
More often, the music and picture are taken together, and when a great score comes together with a great film, the music expands and completes the story in ways the screenplay cannot. Besides obvious employment of leitmotif, which film score buffs love to dissect, a composer can subconsciously tell you a good deal about a character through the character's thematic representation alone. The theme for Aragorn, for example, in The Lord of the Rings begins with a somewhat wandering melody line, always reaching for nobility, and slowly, as the story unfolds, attaining more and more of that nobility the character does. The music itself is not one of the trilogy’s better-known themes, but, on a subconscious level, it moves the story forward and develops the character. As we feel the emotions in a character’s musical representation, we develop a deeper understanding of them than we would by simply watching more scenes or hearing more dialogue. The way a musical theme progresses through trials—sometimes weakening, sometimes dying, and often emerging much stronger—is just one way a score can subtly draw a story’s arc.
We are obviously far past the time when people debated whether or not music should tell a story. Almost every movie employs the technique in some form, and the number of musical masterpieces written just for Hollywood is enormous. But storytelling music rarely gets the notice or acclaim it deserves; usually when someone tells me that a movie “had good music,” I expect they’re referring to the interspersed pop songs. Film scores are not just “the background music.” They’re one of the most participative forms of storytelling in existence, with immense capability for conveying both subtlety and great emotion.
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