The Score: Music’s Impact on an Audience

Some years ago when I was still in college I took an online film studies class.  One of the books I read for that class had an interesting little aside about music in movies.  Apparently some in the indie community feel that music in mainstream movies is too manipulative and artificial.  They feel that it basically tricks the audience into feeling an emotion instead of letting the rest of the movie do that for them.

I suppose in a way they do have a point.  Music is definitely crafted to get people feeling a certain way, especially when it comes to movies or television shows.  Have you ever been watching a TV show where the music becomes subdued and faint?  Chances are you’re watching a horror show or at least a scene where the intent was to instill tension and suspense in the viewer.  These soundtracks are definitely meant to evoke certain emotions at certain times.  But I wouldn’t really call it manipulative.  That just makes you sound like a bitter and cynical person who enjoys sucking the fun out of things for everyone.

Let’s use the movie Gravity as an example.  The soundtrack to Gravity was strange, unique, and to some, annoying.  But it served a very important purpose.  The music uses a lot of distorted horns and other strange noises to help give you the sense of motion and objects impacting each other, because in space there is pretty much no sound.  Without the musical score, the movie would feel a lot different.  It would probably feel a lot more distant than it does.  As it stands, the music helps pull you in and helps you grasp the dire nature of the situation the characters are in.  Space is not always a beautiful place.  It is also terrifying, vast, and very cold.

Check the piece below for an example of what I mean.  This song is from the beginning of the movie, when the first wave of debris comes through (hey the song is called “debris” as well, how about that).  You can actually hear the moment in the music when Sandra Bullock’s character detaches from her harness (about two minutes, fifty-eight seconds).



Interstellar, another science fiction space movie, has a soundtrack that manages to carve its own path as well.  I’ve heard that Hans Zimmer actually didn’t score the movie in the traditional way.  Usually, from what I know, they would play movie scenes in front of the composer and the composer would craft music based on what he had seen.  For Interstellar, Hans Zimmer was basically given a list of the themes and told that Christopher Nolan wanted “something different”.  The main thing I really enjoyed about the movie’s score was the use of organs, especially during the docking scene (if you’ve watched the movie, you’ll know what I mean).  But I also appreciated the ties into the themes of the movie.

The piece below comes from a scene about midway or so through the movie.  The main characters have traveled to a distant galaxy and have landed on an alien planet searching for a team of people who came many years before them.  But there’s a hitch with this particular planet.  A massive black hole sits nearby, close enough to affect the planet with its intense gravity.  This means that while they’re down on the planet, time moves much slower than them, and actually years pass back on Earth before they manage to leave.  So they land on this water covered planet and begin searching for signs of the other team.  All the while, this little score is in the background, building up tension until you-know-what hits the fan.

Of particular note here is a strange little noise that sounds like an otherworldly ticking clock.  It chimes in every couple of seconds in a very rhythmic pattern, underscoring the fact that the seconds they spend on this planet are far longer for the people back on Earth.  It’s a very neat tie-in to one of the main themes of the movie.  Give it a listen.



It’s very effective at generating tension for that scene, because you know something’s about to go down.  You can actually feel it as you listen.  Not only does the ticking remind you of the subjective nature of time, but it gives you the sense that it’s counting down, that when the invisible clock hits zero something will happen, something big.  I won’t spoil the scene for you if you haven’t seen the movie, but I will say this: it certainly does a great job with hammering home a sense of scale.

But let’s move on to a different tack.  The examples I’ve shown you thus far are very much dependent on the fact that they want to raise your hackles, to make your skin break out in goosebumps.  The next example goes for a different kind of mood.

Sometimes, the musical score just wants you to drift away or zone out.  This is especially true in video games.  Many video games rely on pieces of music looped over and over again, music that is designed without a coherent sense of beginning or end.  These pieces are meant to immerse you in a different way than normal.  They want you to lose yourself in the game, to fade out the world around you until there is nothing but the game.

Many adventure-type video games use this kind of music, and one of the more effective scores I’ve seen was the one for Myst.  I’ve talked a lot about this game in the past, but I only briefly touched on the music.  The score in this game is meant to be strange and ethereal sounding.  I’ve sure someone with an ear trained for music could pick up on some of the instruments they use in the soundtrack, but a lot of it sounds downright otherworldly, which is of course the point.

The particular piece I want to point out from this game plays while you are in the tower on the game’s main island.  It carries the weight of mystery, with a strange, hollow chime sounding in the background during the entire piece.  It’s almost like the music itself is echoing off the metal walls as you explore the tower’s interior.  Take a listen.



It sounds a little spooky, doesn’t it?  It surrounds you with the hint of mystery as you try to work out the tower’s purpose.  It’s a very well-done piece of music, and definitely sells the atmosphere of the game.  I actually consider it to be one of my more favorite game soundtracks, because it sounds so unlike anything else.  With most games you have a fairly typical array of battle music for fighting, quiet music for sneaking around, dissonant music for tense moments, things like that.  Myst has a feel to it that I feel no other game has touched.  It’s just one of the many reason I consider it to be one of my favorite video games of all time.

Music makes us feel.  Does it do that by manipulating our brains?  Technically yes, but “manipulate” is such a pessimistic sounding word for it.  Music evokes.  Music touches.  Music creates memories that can last a lifetime.  Music is just one of the many art forms human beings use to express themselves, and when combined with other forms of expression it can become truly mesmerizing.  Not everyone will be affected in the same way by the same piece of music, but everyone feels something when they hear a musical score.  Sadness, anger, happiness, all emotions that can be stirred up by something as simple as the stroke of a guitar.

In many ways, music is pure emotion.


Well that’s all I’ve got for you this time.  Thanks for reading, and have yourselves a wonderful week!


2 thoughts on “The Score: Music’s Impact on an Audience

  1. I really enjoyed reading this! I especially liked a story I read about how Hans Zimmer based the Joker’s theme in The Dark Knight around the idea of the audience hating the piece, and therefore, the character. I think your points are very interesting, especially about how music can “manipulate” our brains. I also think that visual effects can do the same thing. I look forward to reading more of your posts; keep it up!

  2. Pingback: Into a New World: How Different Media Immerse Their Audience – Rumination on the Lake

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