As I sit here watching Sherlock Holmes for the tenth or fifteenth time, it occurs to me as it has before, of how cleverly the directors use music to set the mood. I am watching the dock scene, where Holmes watches in helpless horror as his lifelong friend Doctor Watson is engulfed in a blast. You might remember it. What struck me about the scene is not simply the sudden explosions, but how the director slowed the scene down, and rather than bombarding us with the thunderous sounds of the detonations, he plays instead the mournful cry of the violin. As we watch Holmes desperately try to shield himself from the flames and flying debris, we are saddened by it. We wonder if Doctor Watson will survive, or even if Sherlock Holmes will, though we know that they must. And I realize again how powerful music is as a tool to drive the emotions of the audience.
My father was the first to say it. I recall sitting with him; I was maybe five or six years old. We were listening to Bach or Vivaldi, I don’t remember which. My father had a wonderful ear for music. He could listen to a symphony in full play and tell you which instrument played at any given moment. He was always accurate. As we listened he turned to me and quite simply said, “Music is a very powerful thing. It is one of the most powerful inventions of man. This is because it can influence your mood. It can actually drive your emotions. Remember that. With music, another person can tell you how to feel.”
Think about it. Music can be sad, or humorous, or angry, or annoying. Play a minor chord and the audience grows somber and quiet. Play a stirring march, and the crowd is inspired, energetic. Writers of plays have known this for thousands of years. Singing and music is as much a part of our humanity as storytelling, and they often go hand in hand. I have often read that our sense of smell is connected intimately to our memories. Yet, our memory for sound is the most accurate, so accurate in fact that we can actually “hear” a musical phrase or tune played within our thoughts. (And we’ve all been driven batty by that annoying song on the radio that just won’t go away, even hours later.) And it makes sense. In our distant past, a sound might be the only warning we had of approaching danger. And once initiated to that sound, we would be sure to remember it. Furthermore, sound would need to be connected to our emotions, because anything dangerous would need to trigger our fight or flight response. And fear is the most powerful emotion of all.
Still, survival instincts aside, music in the modern context is a very useful tool that when in the hands of a master, can manipulate and direct the moods of thousands of listeners. Granted, only for the period of time the music is playing, and only if the person hearing it is listening. And finally, not every musical piece affects the individual listener in the same way. For while a stirring martial theme will no doubt get the heart pumping and the blood stirring for a crowd in general, individuals will be affected in varying degrees. And this is perhaps why not everyone likes or follows the same band, or orchestra, or singer. Because our tastes vary, we cannot all be manipulated the same way.
But don’t take my word for it. Think about what moves you. Is it Indie Rock? Good old fashioned Rock-n-Roll? Classical music? Opera? Country western or hip hop? Rap? Now think about your favorite movies, be it romantic comedies, science fiction thrillers, horror, slasher films, or dramas. Now think about how much better your favorite movie is due in part to the soundtrack. Try to imagine it with a different musical theme. Or no music at all. It makes a difference doesn’t it? Music in film cues us in to dramatic scene changes, sets the mood, and over all, just makes the movie watching experience better. In fact, music makes the life experience so much better. Just keep in mind how easy it is for a song or a musical chord to affect our mood. Which is why listening to sad or mournful music when we’re depressed is probably not a good idea…
What about you? Can you think of a time when a particular song or soundtrack in a movie affected you strongly, or really seemed to fit the moment? Please share.