Great Movie Music Sets Mood and Leaves Lasting Impression

by Kelly Davis

From Leonard Bernstein’s On the Waterfront and West Side Story to classics from Stanley Kubrick’s films and the wizarding world of Harry Potter, three of our upcoming concerts feature well-known scores from popular films past and present.

Great movie music has the ability to set the mood, engage the audience and leave an impression on the viewer long after he or she has left the theatre. Neuroscientists have conducted studies on the physiological responses to music to better understand how the different systems in the brain process different aspects of music from tone to tempo.

“Score:  A Film Music Documentary,” released in 2017, offers an intimate look into the history of film scores and a glimpse into composers’ creative processes. The film shows how composers look at a movie, decide where the music is going to go and what kind of music it’s going to be. Composer Tom Holkenborg (Mad Max:  Fury Road, Batman v. Superman and Deadpool) noted, “You can ask 50 composers to read the same script [and] they will all have different musical ideas.”

Film historian Jon Burlingame notes that music has always been a part of the cinema-going experience – as far back as 1895. So-called silent films were never truly silent. Organ music was added with the original intent of covering the sound of the projector. Max Steiner’s score for “King Kong” in 1933 was the first orchestra music used in a movie.

Composers aim to write music that supports the scene and complements it in an unobtrusive way, often observing sounds in the environment and recreating them with both mundane objects and unusual instruments. J. Ralph (The Cove, Man on Wire, Lucky Number Slevin) says, “There’s music in everything … I’m always trying to distill what the world sounds like into music.”

One of common elements used in film scoring is a motif – a group of notes used to highlight a common theme in the movie and to cast those themes in different lights. Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit composer Howard Shore points out, “By using motifs, it helps you to understand the relationships in the story. When you hear a certain motif, you connect it. It actually helps you follow the story.”

Think of Close Encounters of the Third Kind or John Williams’ scores for the Star Wars films as offering recognizable motifs related to characters and storylines.

Dr. Siu-Lan Tan, Professor of Psychology at Kalamazoo College says, “Music is so multi-faceted, so multi-dimensional … we are having some sort of physiological response that the body is showing, and goosebumps are just a sign of what’s happening in your body.”

We hope that our concerts this spring will evoke memories, cause goosebumps and generate physiological responses as you recall your own favorite moments in the movie theatre.

Join the SC Phil and Music Director Morihiko Nakahara in our celebration of movie music at our Masterworks concerts at the Koger Center on January 13 (West Side Story) and February 3 (Kubrick Classics) as well as our Pops series concert featuring music from the Harry Potter films and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them on April 8 at the Harbison Theatre.

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