Music is the most underrated aspect of filmmaking, nevertheless, it is one of the most crucial. I keep seeing newbie filmmakers who don't understand how music in movies affects emotions or they even forget about music. They think that they'll just stick some random stock music at the end of the editing process and that will do. Then, they arrive at the end and they realise that no stock music fits their film, and without the right music their film is very unprofessional. Some filmmakers don't even think about music at all, and they arrive at the end realising that their film is very dull without music.
Why Music in Movies is so Important
Music is essential in films. Amazing music can transform a dull film in a blockbuster. People in Hollywood know it well, and that's why they spend 5-15% of the total budget of the film in music (we're therefore talking about millions invested in the soundtrack). They know it's essential! Imagine seeing Star Wars with just dull stock music in the background... Without the famous themes that we all know by heart. It would be a pretty average movie. Or imagine Pirates of the Caribbeans, without that unforgettable theme! A film without a memorable theme will be way less popular and will stick less in the mind of the audience. On the other side, movies with memorable themes stay famous forever. Think of all the big films that after decades are still extremely popular. You probably remember the soundtrack of all of them.
But music in films is not just about the theme. It does a massive subliminal job, that no one realises, but they would realise if the music wasn't there. Most of the times you are aware of the music in a movie when the composer wants you to (themes). But then there is music in more than half of the scenes, that you will never remember. That's music working subliminally in your mind.
Visuals normally are great to communicate a message, but the emotion that they want to communicate is often not that obvious. If you watch a film without music, it will be quite clear what it is about and the message it wants to send you, but you will find it hard to understand if a scene is happy, sad, tense or cheerful. Most of the times it will just seem a dull, plain environment. That's why films have music! Music creates the mood of a scene, affecting your emotions. It tells your brain that you need to be sad in a specific moment and happy in another. Thrillers and horrors, for example, rely heavily on music. Imagine watching a horror scene with, instead of that extremely tense buildup music, a Taylor Swift song... It wouldn't be that scary.
Have a look at this video. Do you think that this famous scene has this mood because of the cinematography or the acting? Well for sure that helps, but have a look at what happens if we change the soundtrack...
Incredible, right? And I did this experiment multiple times when learning how to compose film music... Find a scene with a clear mood, change the soundtrack, and the mood will be completely different. No matter what actually the scene is about.
So, how does music in movies affect emotions? How does a composer tell your brain that you need to be sad/happy or whatever other emotion?
How Music in Movies Affects Emotions and Creates Moods
Film music is applying music theory to psychology. A film composer is more or less like a therapist: he has to understand how your mind works and how to trigger different emotions in you. The only differences are that a composer uses music instead of words as a "therapy" and he doesn't actually want to "cure" but to "empower". Every aspect of music has an emotional impact on our brain and our emotions, and a composer needs to know them. So here are the elements that influence how music in movies affects emotions.
Harmony: Chords have a massive influence in the mood of a piece of music. Generally, major chords are happier, minor chords are sadder and diminished chords are scarier, but that goes way more complex than that.
Melody and scales: the scale of a piece of music is extremely important in setting the mood. A major scale is generally happier, while a minor scale is sadder. But then there is a scale for everything: want to create an oriental vibe? Use a double harmonic scale.
Rhythm and speed: the obvious ones. Make a song slow and it will be more intimate or sad, make it faster and it will be happier or more action focused. 3/4 rhythms are normally more nostalgic, while irregular times like 7/8 are perfect to unsettle the audience.
Instruments: the choice of the instruments playing the piece of music is essential in affecting the emotions of a scene. Big loud and deep instruments will have a very different effect than light and soft ones. Or, for example, if you want to create a baroque vibe, use a Harpsichord, but if you want to create a Chinese vibe use an Erhu!
So, next time you watch a film, try to focus on the subliminal music in a scene. Even if you don't realise if you don't pay attention to it, you will realise that if it's a sad scene, chances are that there is a sad bespoke music, built for that scene, to perfectly communicate that mood.
So this was how music in movies affects emotions. If you need music for your film, we are experienced film composers, and we are currently looking to expand our network of filmmakers. You can learn more and have a look at our past works here.