Sound for Cinephiles: Using Sound and Music in Movies

Movies are captivating – a powerful tool that can transport you to any time, in any location, in any world. One way of achieving this completely immersive experience is the use of sound and music.

There is an interactive experience at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, NY that perfectly reflects this sentiment. Located within their “Behind the Screen” exhibition, guests can use utilize computer-based programs to learn how music selections behind famous scenes affect mood and tone. By selecting a snippet of a scene, for example the incoming alien invasion from the film “Independence Day”, you can choose from a curated list of music to score that moment with. While the original score was menacing, frightening and dialed-up anxiety and anticipation – a choice of lighter fare, such as “Yakety Sax” (The Benny Hill Show theme) will cause the scene to seem the opposite of serious and quite jovial – perhaps these invading species aren’t so bad after all.

Of course audience responses are designed to be most extreme for horror and thriller genres. In fact, the University of California did a study in 2010 to measure if composers were intentionally causing a panic by mimicking sounds made by creatures in distress and found that in fact yes, purposeful choices were being made to mimic sounds that would alarm us. Instinctually, within the most primitive parts of our brain, we are wired to have a fear response to these sounds. You can’t help but be afraid, even when you know it’s a movie and the biggest factor in this fear response is sound.

Amplifying the “sound” aspect of a soundtrack is also memorable to fans. In the infamous ten-minute chase scene in the 1968 film “Bullitt”, composer Lalo Schifrin reportedly refused to score it and instead insisted that the roaring engine and squealing tires were enough to highlight the drama as Steve McQueen raced through the streets – and he has been applauded for that different approach to composing by fans and critics alike.

What instance of using sound and music in movies has been most memorable for you?

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