Music in film: How important is it? (And other soundtracks)

Figure 1  Horse in Motion , Edward Muybridge, ca. 1886. Photography collection, Harry Ransom Center.

Figure 1 Horse in Motion, Edward Muybridge, ca. 1886. Photography collection, Harry Ransom Center.

To understand the importance of music and sound in film, we must start from the beginning. The genesis of film took root with the help of a man named Edward Muybridge and his innovation in the field of photography. The first film created was just sixteen frames played in rapid succession (Figure 1). This technique morphed into classic black and white silent films. There are a few major elements that connect these films with film today, one of the most important being music.  

In the early 1900s, orchestras played music to accompany the film; this was later replaced by recorded music and sound. The first film to incorporate synchronized sound was The Jazz Singer in 1927.

Fast Forward to today, it is hard to imagine a movie without carefully curated sound design, music, and dialogue.

Music and sound are referred to in film as the soundtrack and sound design. Together, they are used to show emotion, set a mood, inform the audience, and help with the overall telling of a story. Most films rely heavily on the use of music and sound to convey things that would otherwise be lost in translation.

Creating and choosing sound for a film is a lot like painting on a canvas. You are instead using sounds manipulated and arranged by software into a single art form that speaks volumes to its consumer. You get to create a world using naturally recorded as well as technologically created sounds. For example, sounds can be created naturally by a Foley artist.


One of the best movies to analyze on the topic of sound design is a film called Arrival. Arrival, on the surface, seems to be your classic sci-fi movie, but its layers go far beyond the typical alien invasion. Beneath the aliens visiting earth trope, there are important themes around the challenges of communication, the intricacies of language, the importance of understanding, and the beauty of humanity.

The sound design and scoring for this project was incredible. Some of the greatest sound design creations in this film are the alien ‘voices’ and the sound of their ‘spaceship’.

The man behind the music was composer Johann Johannsson who passed away in early 2018. Music silhouetted the film in a way that established the setting and created an ethereal atmosphere. This is something that is very important to the sci-fi genre, specifically, because you are bringing the audience into something they have never experienced in real life.


The sound department for this film consisted of 43 individuals. The sound designers who accepted the Oscar for best achievement in sound editing and sound mixing were Sylvain Bellemare, Bernard Gariepy Strobl, and Claude La Haye.


It is important to note and reiterate the difference between soundtrack and sound design although at times, the lines can be very blurry. Sound design can include everything from the sound of aliens to the sound of rain created by the Foley artist. A soundtrack, however, can also be the score. A score will usually be that melodic, instrumental, or orchestral music you hear in the film. Scores are usually original music that will flow the length of the film. The music created for Arrival by Johann Johannsson would be considered the film score.

A soundtrack that isn’t a film score is more of a compilation of songs that may or may not be original. Sometimes, you may even hear a song that you recognize. They both, however, serve the same purpose - to create the mood, the setting, etc.

When it comes to original soundtracks, I’d be remiss not to mention A Star Is Born. As Bradly Cooper’s first directorial role, this film smashed at the box office. ‘Shallow’, a song from the soundtrack, was performed at the Oscars this year by Lady Gaga and Bradley. This same song also won the Oscar for best original song. As far as soundtracks go, this was a success.

The music in a film has a huge impact on how you perceive what is happening. For example, watch this video showing the way music changes a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean.


The music can completely change what you assume is happening in a scene. One of my favorite examples of music creating emotion is in a scene from Beautiful Boy.


Time: 4:19 – 4:52

In this scene, all you see is the face of the main character. The music mimics the state of the main character and brings you into the emotion of the scene. Any other song would have completely changed what was being communicated. Turn on mute and you will see how different and disconnected you feel.

Music and film go hand in hand, you can’t have one without the other. Every good film has a great soundtrack, score, and sound design. The next time you watch a film, pay attention to the sound and music. What is it telling you? How is it effecting the way you feel? Why was that specific sound or song chosen?

To end, Rolling Stone has a list of the 25 greatest movie soundtracks of all time. Do you agree with their picks?