The Importance of Music In Cinema, Television, and Video Games

If you’ve ever watched a movie, T.V. show, or played a video game, you’ll notice that there’s music interspersed throughout most of them. A lot of times, the music will be written expressly for the project it’s being included in. Many times, popular songs by famous artists are included in the soundtrack. The majority of creative projects will include a mixture of both.

The question is, why? Why do visual stories require music at all? The answer is that music has a special way of provoking emotions in our brains. Certain songs can make us experience a wide spectrum of feelings, and even recall certain memories. This can get our imaginations working and truly assist in painting a scene when paired with something visual.

Now, a project’s soundtrack should not be confused with what is known as muzak, which Oxford Languages defines as "recorded light background music played through speakers in public places.” An example of muzak would be benign piano music that plays in an elevator or a hotel lobby to provide a calming atmosphere. It’s not something that you listen to enjoy per say, but rather acting as a “white-noise” that seeks to prevent any awkward silences. Unlike muzak, the soundtrack of a movie, show, or game is specifically placed at different points throughout the story to help us, the viewer, feel certain emotions to help better understand and appreciate the scene.

** Even though most of the following samples have been out for multiple years, WARNING: spoilers ahead. **

Video by Thomas Fath. Music by Howard Shore.

Our first example comes from The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, directed by Peter Jackson. As the men of the West prepare to attack the armies of Mordor, they are intimidated by the sheer size of the opposing force. Their king and leader, Aragorn, played by Viggo Mortensen, attempts to muster them with an inspiring speech. As he starts talking, the orchestra behind the dialogue is slow, warm and uplifting. As the speech becomes increasingly invigorating, the orchestra begins to crescendo more and more into a glorious blaring. At the end of the speech, the soldiers of the west are galvanized and are no longer afraid to face their enemy. The music of the scene helps embody the epic sense of hope and glory that the dialogue and visuals set up.

Video by Pixar.

For our second example, we have one of the most iconic scenes from the Pixar movie, The Incredibles, directed by Brad Bird. The scene stars the superhero Frozone (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson), preparing to take the night off from fighting crime, and instead enjoy a romantic evening with his wife. The music playing in the scene is a smooth jazz tune that presumably Frozone is listening to while getting ready. He suddenly notices a battle happening outside his window. Scrambling for his superhero costume, he finds it to be missing, eventually discovering that his wife has hidden the “super suit” so that they focus on their date. Comical bickering between them occurs, all while the city is getting destroyed. The scene maintains the fun, smooth jazz track in the background as a total juxtaposition to the stress of the situation. It lets the audience know that the consequences of the scene aren’t supposed to be taken too seriously, and that it's funny that a married couple could absolutely have a petty squabble even when danger is going on outside.

Video by L1NTHALO.

Up next, we have a scene from the pilot of the Netflix drama, Ozark. In the scene, a cartel enforcer named Del, played by Esai Morales, believes that some of his business associates are skimming money from the cartel, including the show’s star, Marty Byrde (played by Jason Bateman, who is also the show’s writer). As he interrogates the room, the music is a series of drones and waning soundscapes that provide an uneasy atmosphere, which only gets more and more eerie as Del’s tone gets increasingly grim when he doesn’t get the answers he wants. Thanks to the great performance paired with the perfect music, by the end of the scene, the tension in the room is so thick you could cut it with a knife.

Video by clockner.

Next we have a clip from the video game Doom (2016) [1:29-2:02 mainly]. Written by Mick Gordon, the intense soundtrack of this game provides a stellar and incredibly fitting experience to the overall plot. The player controls a character known as Doomguy, a powerful super soldier who is trapped in Hell. Your goal? Escape eternal damnation and take out as many demons as you can along the way. The dark and extreme heavy metal music infused with elements of techno helps provide the perfect backdrop to graphically shooting, punching, ripping, rending, annihilating, and obliterating any every monster that stands in your way.

Video by Ryan.

Sometimes, the intentional absence of music can also make for great storytelling. In this scene from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the film’s villain, The Joker (played by the late great Heath Ledger), barges into a fancy soirée. Most of the dialogue in this scene has no music behind it, as the suspense of the drama is all that is needed to provide a compelling narrative. Only once The Joker’s adversary Batman (played by Christian Bale) arrives and a fight breaks out does the music kick back in, changing to a fast paced and exciting orchestral track to help emphasize the action.

Video by Aaron Bauer.

The scene from The Dark Knight showcases the impact of choosing the right time to exclude music. Helping to prove the whole point of this article is a wonderful video made by Aaron Bauer, which shows just how boring, awkward, and lifeless certain scenes would be in a world without music. Aaron Bauer removed the music from this scene from Steven Spielberg’s E.T., replacing it with just the ambient noise of the background.

Video by Movieclips.

Compare this to the original, featuring a score written by composer John Williams. The original scene is endearing, climactic, and sad, as we see E.T. and his human friend Elliott part ways. The ambient version is drab, leaving the watcher truly unsure how to feel. The prolonged silence without a spoken word or a music track almost makes what is supposed to be an emotional scene feel almost borderline creepy.

In conclusion, music has almost as much to do with a story’s telling and success as the characters and script do. The next time you’re enjoying a movie, show, or game, pay attention to the soundtrack. Try to imagine what the scene would be like with no music, and especially during moments with no dialogue, try to see if the emotions that are trying to be expressed would even be possible without the score. It should make you appreciate and feel grateful to be living in a world filled with the lovely sounds of music.

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