Movie Soundtracks: What Sorcery is This?
Guess what? We all listen to soundtracks. With our faces pressed to our screens while binging on Netflix, or with popcorn in hand at the cinema and maybe catching the faintest whisper through the roar of the train in rush hour. But there it is. Accompanying car chases, the dawn of new kingdoms, great battles, and difficult farewells. It creates atmosphere, builds tension and meddles with time and space. But what happens when we delve ears first in to this mysterious and magical niche?
Welcome to the world of soundtracks, full of subtle dun-dun-duuuuns, tah-dahs and Ba dum chhhs (the accurate technical terms). In fact, if a soundtrack was a person it would most likely take the form of a crafty melodramatic oracle brandishing a stick cackling ‘Aha – I told you so. You should have spotted my well-disguised foreboding.’ Probably.
Over-active imaginations aside, sometimes the mark of a great soundtrack is the ability to not always notice it. You see, if you have a dialogue heavy scene, the soundtrack probably isn’t going to be doing anything too distracting to detract from the overall viewing experience. It must be synchronized. Dancing around the actions and dialogue of the characters, providing emphasis like punctuation marks. There has to be rise and fall, the ability to recognize when it must take the back seat and let the visuals speak for itself – but also when to step up to claim the center stage. Loudly. Switching between the force of a singular triangle to that of an ear-splitting fog-horn, soundtracks are well crafted and complex pieces of work. So let’s take notice…
It all boils down to the story.
Take the music of Hans Zimmer, specifically his soundtrack for The Dark Knight. The protesting chromatically ascending cello for ‘Why So Serious?’, marking the opening of the movie. A bank robbery. And Zimmer divulges a great deal about the character of the Joker before he has even revealed himself. The music is incredibly syncopated, with a heavy use of audio panning and an atmosphere of rising tension, as formed through dissonance. He even attacks piano strings with razor blades. This tension mounts, keeping the viewer constantly on edge and subsequently introduces the theme of the movie: chaos. There is not a shred of conformity here. The incessant tapping of percussion, octave interval jumps (and falls), drones and the deep pit formed by the bass guitar. It is unsettling, violent and cannot be contained. Step forward the Joker.
Elsewhere, John Williams’ iconic Jaws soundtrack has broken free and continues to swim circles in the collective cultural consciousness to this day. Da-dum. That’s all it takes. E – F. Two notes played from the depths of an orchestra and we have beachgoers refusing to go into the water. The ascending direction of the interval summons the driving physical movement of being pursued. This unstoppable force is what essentially powers the movie. We only catch occasional glimpses of the shark and so Williams’ soundtrack effectively becomes the shark. From an ominous threat left hanging in the air, the sound of inevitability thunders in your ears – until suddenly … (Exit pursued by shark)
Soundtracks have a tight hold over us and this is something that I dare you to embrace. They may have the magical ability to delve into the broad spectrum of moods – to compliment your mood, or even change it. But most importantly they have the potential to make any situation seem epic. Shove the Interstellar soundtrack on and you are no longer doing your taxes, you’re saving the planet.