When discussing who is responsible for making a good film, the average audience member will either site the director, actor, or sometimes even the film’s writer. However, the one position that often gets overlooked even though they contribute largely to the mood and tone of the film is the composer. While audiences are dazzled by cinematic set pieces or memorable monologues, the background music that accompanies these moments are largely responsible for their success yet, they are often omitted when discussing such moments. Other than possibly John Williams, who is one of the most prolific filmmakers with fifty Academy Award nominations, the average filmgoer could not name another sole responsible for film compositions. After pondering where audience’s disenchantment with composers originated, I have come to the conclusion that maybe it has to do with the fact that the best compositions subconsciously affect the audience’s emotions while viewing a film and as a result are not noticed. Who better to explore this concept through than Bernard Herrmann, one of Cinema’s most prolific composers?
It is my theory that the core function of music within a film should be to evoke a certain emotion, or range of emotions in the viewer. If this is done properly, then the sequence in which the music is used is heightened in every way. While the addition of a soundtrack is almost crucial in making a good film, it is also one of the most difficult tasks as a lot of music’s power rests on subconscious tendencies. Interestingly enough Bernard Herrmann, one of the best film composers, used the physiological attributes of sound to improve films and television shows in the psychological genre such as Vertigo, Psycho, Taxi Driver, The Twilight Zone, in addition to sound effects in the music-less film, The Birds. While many may attribute the success of the films Herrmann worked on to the legendary directors of them such as Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles, I think it may actually be the opposite. The reason audiences love these director’s cinematic moments so much is because Herrmann’s compositions are able to place the audience into a certain mindset when viewing the film. It is no secret that Hitchcock’s films lived on suspense, however Welles magnum opus Citizen Kane also contained may of the same elements of suspense Hitchcock would later build his career on and if we go back to the structure of Herrmann’s compositions we can see how they helped pushed these elements.
The hardest part about having your film rely on suspense is keeping the audience on the edge of their seats for the length of a film even if you are constantly teasing them with small reveals of information. Now this is where Herrmann’s compositions come in handy. Since audiences are only given small amounts of information at a time during a thriller, the illusion that the plot is not progressing fast enough or at all is a real issue. However, the short repeating patterns Herrmann injects into his compositions removes the stalled plot problem. If you listen to any of the themes of Hermann’s thrillers then you will notice that they contain a short repeating pattern that evokes the feeling of progression by mimicking a person progressing forward in some manner. By having this melody playing in the background of scenes no matter what is going on in the film, the audience is subconsciously being rewarded with the idea that they are making progress and not being stalled to build suspense. In order to make sure that this tactic does not become trite, other provisions are also made. While the slight alterations of the melodic rhythm as the song progresses give the audience the illusion of transformation occurring, it is actually the repletion of the film’s theme throughout the film that affects the audience’s subconscious the most. Since the theme is also played over instances where the audience learns key elements about the film’s plot when it is played again later in the film, the connection to the plot advancing remains and triggers the same response in the mind of the audience. Therefore, by combining all of these elements that work on the audience’s subconscious, Herrmann is able to help the director keep the audience engaged even when suspenseful moments should signal as too long to the audience.
Hopefully one day the type of admiration that exists around actors and directors will extend to the composers of films as well. Ironically, the ones that supply the film with most of its audio are the ones that we hear about the least. Not only should Bernard Herrmann be held in a similar regard to the director’s who’s careers greatly benefited form his compositions, but many other composers also deserve to be acknowledged for their contributions to Cinema as well. Next time you head to the theater or catch one of your favorite films on television listen to see how music impacted you during the film.
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