I Think, Therefore, I Jam: How Music Impacts Film and T.V.

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Naaaants ingonyamaaa bagithiiiii Babaaaa sithi uhm ingonyama.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the actual translation of the lyrics to the song that famously accompanies the opening scene of “The Lion King.” Now you actually know the exact lyrics and don’t have to make them up if you ever feel strangely compelled to sing it, i.e. “Iiii see Kenyaaa a mighty chihuahua.” (Fun fact, it actually translates to “Here comes a lion, Father, oh yes, it’s a lion.”  A tad less epic, if I may say so.)

Now imagine said opening scene ... without that song. The YouTube series “How Music Affects Film,” (which was literal music to my ears when I stumbled on it making this blog) shows what that would be like in their seventeenth installment. Per their usual routine, they take several types of music and dub them over the scene or, in one case, not having music at all. Watching the scene without music is like seeing a wet koala. Go ahead, look it up. The illusion of the adorable koala is cast into the shadow realm and replaced by something ... something terrible. And that’s exactly what happens to the scene. It just ends up being a bunch of bored-looking animals glancing at the sun. Not the most powerful stuff. Or, in another case, the original Kenyan lyrics are replaced by “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede. Obviously, the tone is a little looser. It ends up looking like the hippest gathering of wild animals you’ve ever seen since Mowgli and Baloo got crunk to “Bare Necessities.” The series goes through a few other musical choices and, unsurprisingly, they have a serious effect on the tone of the scene.

Music is, in some ways, taken for granted when we’re watching television or film. If a scene gets you pumped, makes you sob, evokes a giggle or two or a shriek of childlike terror, you’re probably so caught up in what’s going on that you don’t even realize that music is a major driving force behind those feelings.

Sweet Emotion

Now you can go anywhere on YouTube and see hilarious examples of how wildly different a scene can be perceived emotionally by changing the music, but let’s focus on this one, the scene from “Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl” where we get introduced to the drunken rambling genius who is Captain Jack Sparrow. In the clip, we see the exact same scene in four different ways thanks to the use of four different scores, those being triumphant and victorious, scary and foreboding, comical, and sad and thoughtful. It’s literally the exact same scene, replayed four times, but with each change of music the emotion conveyed radically changes. You could have a close-up of me standing in a field with a totally neutral expression, and the music playing in the background would really be the only thing you have to go by as to what the mood of the scene is supposed to be. If it’s emotional and powerful music, maybe I’m getting psyched to do something bold or courageous. If you hear shrill and piercing violins, I very well may be about to be stabbed. If it’s some funky music, I may have just spotted a devastatingly attractive woman. Music is essential to understanding a film or television production’s tone.

Sometimes, however, in a method used by the much more skilled, this notion can be totally thrown out the window. Take Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette.” In a scene where Marie and two of her homies are just hanging out, eating some evidently fancy candy, the song (and I’m not kidding) “I Want Candy” plays. That’s right, a 1982 pop hit by the band Bow Wow Wow is used in a biopic about the last Queen of France in the 18th century. A pretty wild choice, but Coppola wanted to present the subject matter almost as what a teen movie would look like two hundred years ago so, ultimately, it’s the right one.

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Another great example of this is the master himself, Stanley Kubrick, maybe the greatest film maker of all time (disagree and I humbly request you alienate yourself from your involvement with Trove). His use of music is widely considered the best, as he both utilizes and defies convention at every turn. Take “A Clockwork Orange” for example. In his adaptation of the classic novel about Alex, a teenage psychopath in a dystopian future, Kubrick presents grandly staged scenes of a bit of the old ultraviolence to classical music such as Beethoven (or Ludwig Van, as Alex calls him). The result is a tone that is one of just plain chaos.

For The Longest Time

These are particularly good examples (if I may say so myself) of skillful defiance of musical convention for another reason as well, as they don’t just defy tonal tradition but also the tradition of another function music is commonly used for -- to create a sense of time and place. You would think Coppola would choose the classical music for a biopic on Marie Antoinette, and Kubrick would choose some techno music that sounds a bit more futuristic. Both filmmakers do at one point employ these tactics, and it works, evoking a real sense of when and where the story is taking place. How many movies, shows, or commercials have you watched about the 1970s America that just have an incredible soundtrack? Even if the quality may fluctuate, the only constant about productions made about that era is that their music is awesome because ... well, because some awesome music came out in the '70s. If you’re watching something that takes place in 1920s New Orleans, there’s a good chance you’re going to hear some jazz. 1990s California, maybe some grunge. If you’re watching a clip of a dude eating some bratwurst in Berlin in 1983, it probably going to be accompanied by some “99 Luftballoons.” Regardless of where and when what you’re watching is taking place, music is an extremely effective method of taking you there.

Leitmotifs (You Try to Come Up With a Creative Title With that Word)

While we’re on the topic of “luftballoons,” let’s address another German word, this one being “leitmotif,” another pivotal factor in what makes music so important in production. Some of you are probably familiar with the word “motif,” which basically means a recurring theme in a story. A leitmotif, however, is essentially a recurring theme song, commonly associated with a specific person or event that you’re going to end up seeing repeated quite a bit in whatever you’re watching. Take for example one of the truly great cinematic badasses of all time: Darth Vader (until the petulant man-child that is Hayden Christensen whined his way into the franchise). Every time that man shows up in a scene, the classic Imperial March score plays, and you know every time you hear it that some bad, bad business is about to go down. Same thing with Bruce, the shark from “Jaws.” Yes, the crew actually called him Bruce. Terrifying, I know. Every time Bruce is about to get his munch on, we hear that famous score, and, much like Lord Vader, we know that things may not turn out too well for those involved in that scene. Villains aren’t the only ones that have leitmotifs though; whenever Indiana Jones does something of an obscenely heroic or adventurous nature, his token jam accompanies him. When any of the four charmingly whimsical hobbits of “The Lord of the Rings” do anything of particular charm or whimsy, we get ... you guessed it, some charming and whimsical music!

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Even in everyday life, when you’re just watching television, leitmotifs present themselves in the form of a jingle. When you drink Folgers, it’s hard not to remember that, apparently, the best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup, as the jingle decrees. Or when you go get some Meow Mix for your starving cat, who doesn’t think of the utter and ceaseless onslaught of musical “meows” that invade your ears when one of their commercials would come on?

Music is influential on so many levels. Without music, your favorite movie may not be your favorite movie; “So King Kong fell off the building, big whoop.” That episode of T.V. you watched that one time may not have moved you to tears; “Ned Stark? Really? Are you kidding me? Why?!” Or that commercial wouldn’t have been anywhere near as effective in seducing you to buy their product; “You know what? I think I will buy the world a Coke.” An amazing musician who passed away just two days ago, a Mr. Tom Petty, once said that music is “pure and it’s real. It moves, it heals. It communicates and does all of these incredible things.” Couldn’t have said it any better myself, Mr. Petty.

Was this particular blog your proverbial “jam” this week? Well we have quite the playlist of similar tunes on our website, check it out! Thanks for reading!