>Film Music & Architecture (metaphorically)


Preface: I had anticipated this to be a much longer and more involved posting for the Filmmusic blog-a-thon over at Damian’s great blog, Windmills of My Mind. But alas, life does not permit me, so I’ve decided to post more of a question than a statement. I will formulate my half-baked ideas as I go. And, of course, in typical PilgrimAkimbo style I will use the Filmmusic blog-a-thon to write about something other than film music.

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If you are not a true film music aficionado, as I am not, I would guess you do not select your films primarily based on who created the score. And yet, if you find a film compelling, if you become emotionally involved watching a film, if a film haunts you or stays with you, very likely the film’s music played a significant role in helping you to end up where you did. We all know this to be true. It may also be true that a film’s musical soundtrack actually helps one to merely understand the film at all.

I want to propose a very simple metaphor for considering the role that film music plays in our experience of films. I propose that film music is like architecture. My question: does this make sense? When I say architecture, I do not mean the structural aspect of a film, such as editing, rather I am thinking of the way the design of a building or house or room affects one as one enters that room and lives out the story of one’s life. Maybe a better way of saying it is that film music is architectural. And maybe there’s a better word.

My argument:
Consider these three images of three very different interior spaces:

I have no idea where these interiors come from other than random images I gathered from the Internet. But it is clear that each are of clearly defined interior spaces, and that each space, though photographed from essentially the same angle, produce very different feelings. One can imagine a story taking place in each one, for example a scene of a father and son arguing over an inheritance, or a romantic kiss, or a burglary – it doesn’t matter. But more importantly, if one were to visit these places one would expect different things. In other words, the spaces themselves convey meaning about their use and their purpose. They would imply different narratives.

Now, if one were to meet someone and have a conversation in each of these spaces, though the denotative content of each conversation would be the same, the connotative meanings might take on slightly different shades due to the context of the rooms. This is one of the things film music can do for a film.

This point, though I admit it is meager, just might be more profound than it appears to the casual observer. To emphasize this point a little more, I like the following quote (from The most Beautiful House in the World by Witold Rybczynski) about how architecture speaks to us and guides us:

The symbolic meaning of architecture can be profound, as it is in the case with places of worship and important public monuments. But the language of buildings can also convey more mundane messages: where to go, what is important, how the building is to be used. It is easiest to discern this function if it absent or if it is misinterpreted. The stock scene in movie comedies in which a flustered visitor wishing to leave a strange home finds himself in the clothes closet illustrates precisely such a confusion. Like all humor, it is an exaggeration of the familiar; we have all had frustrating encounters with doors – not only identifying the right one but opening it once we found it. There is a bank entrance that I go through frequently but which always manages to confound me. The door is made of plate glass, and its pristine beauty is unsullied by visible hinges or pillars; the elegant handle extends the full width of the door. I always have a small struggle going through that door – sometimes I pull instead of push, sometimes I push against the hinge. I feel like taping a sign to the door – PUSH HERE.

Could we then think of film music as being, at least in part, like the sign that says “push here”? In other words, film music is an integral part of guiding us, like architecture does in the physical world, through the mental world of film perception. In a sense, film music can tell us “how to use” a film.

Architecture, that is, the aesthetic design of the spaces we live in – not merely their structural dimensions, produces an often taken-for-granted effect on our lives. In other words, the design of the buildings we inhabit affects the way we live, the way we think, our emotions, and the way we relate to others, and it does these things in often quiet and subtle ways, and sometimes in obvious and loud ways. As we act out our lives in and around man made structures we act within a kind of context circumscribed, and even proscribe to some degree, by these structures. They give us a context within which to act. I argue that film music performs much the same function. Like the overwhelming feeling one gets when first entering a cathedral so are the opening chords of John Williams’ Star Wars theme. The music not merely gets one’s emotions going, but it also tells us a lot of critical information about what we are about to see and how we should think about/approach the story.

If this is true, then film music is not merely an add-on to dress up a film, though it can be that for some films. Rather, film music is an integral part of how a film, as a whole, conveys its meaning(s). As one’s brain engages with the constructive nature of piecing together the film’s narrative from the various clues provided, the music colors that narrative and provides a kind of context for the descriptive, interpretive, and evaluative processes. But, because film music is typically not central to the story in the same way as is the acting or the cinematography, and because film music is typically non-diegetic (not really part of the story at all), that is why I am using the metaphor of architecture. Film music acts as a kind of “space” in which a story is played out. Change the music and you affect the story.

One could say that film music, though typically non-diegetic and non-visual, is similar to the film’s mise-en-scène. Visually films cue the viewer to mentally construct the story from all the visual clues presented. Do not films also do this with music? Of course they do. But the musical soundtrack does more than merely cuing the viewer to think of a particular scene as being romantic or frightening. Music can play a role in the overall “sense” of a film, such as time period, genre, etc. And like many other things in a film, music can act like a relatively open ended set of “codes” that both support and work counter to the desires of the filmmaker.

Once, when my wife took me to see a film of her choosing, one that I did not know about, I had a strong sense of what the film was going to be about from the moment of the opening chords of the film’s musical soundtrack. I leaned over to my wife and said something like: “Okay, so I can tell this film will be about X, and then X will happen, and then X and X and X, and finally it will end with X.” All that from the film’s music combined with the opening credits. And I was right.

Maybe the most fundamental aspect of music is its connection with human imagination. Music can enlarge the imagination by drawing out of it intuitive connections to the world and experience. To keep with the architecture analogy, consider the following two images of famous architectural settings:

Both of these constructions are highly evocative. They draw one into their spaces and they draw out of one’s mind certain emotions and feelings. A film’s camerawork can do the same thing, but so can its music, maybe more so. Now imagine having a conversation with a friend in either of these locations. The same conversation would not be the same given the change in surroundings, even if the differences are subtle. It is this way because of our “aesthetic sense”, that is, our innate ability to respond, even sub-consciously, to aesthetic objects and nuances.

About 13 years ago I wrote these words:

To say that the couch in your living room or the pictures on your walls have a profound effect upon your life may sound strange. But they do. The things we surround ourselves with, from the films we watch to the color and texture of our bathroom tile, influence the way we think and feel. The nature of this influence may be enigmatic, but we know it is there. We know that the aesthetics of MTV, its look and feel, influence the youth of our world. We know that the aesthetics of an art gallery encourage quiet contemplation, whereas the aesthetics of a video arcade do not. And we know that living in an apartment with dark brown walls has a decidedly different feel than living in an apartment with white walls. The look, texture, and sound of our surroundings influences us because of our aesthetic sense.

I believe that in the mental world of film watching, the film’s musical score can be much like that art gallery or those apartment walls. If this is true, then the decisions facing the filmmaker regarding the musical score are critical.

I am sure there are some who might consider non-diegetic film music to be nothing more than a kind of wallpaper – something to pretty up a film, to give it that extra something. For some films this may be true I have no doubt, but in general I think this position is wrong, for fimmakers and for viewers. On the other hand, film music is there to serve the film. For most films the story comes first and all the rest follows, often with the music being included last. I personally believe that filmmakers should not think of music as an “add on” to a film. Film music should do more than merely prop up existing scenes. Rather, film music should be a fundamentally integral part of film. Maybe directors should have the composers be a part of the scriptwriting process. I’m sure some do.

And there it is as promised: some half-baked ideas on architecture for the film music blog-a-thon. I only hope it isn’t so half-baked as to be like a pancake that is burned black on the outside and still runny gooey on the inside. But maybe it’s still just a pancake nonetheless.

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