Telling Sound: What Makes Music in Film (Part III)

Music is like breathing in a film, it gives life, but it also acts as a kind of metronome for the story. An orchestral score can ultimately decide whether a scene works or not. They are designed for the film, but also designed for whatever emotion or style that film hopes to convey. It’s why certain directors have replaced their scores mere months before their film gets released. If the score doesn’t bring the film together, then everything threatens to fall apart. I learned this firsthand recently while working on my short film. I was having trouble with a scene until I added the score, and only then did things feel cohesive. The score went on to guide my editing process, and I imagine if a director is lucky enough to have an early composition before or during filming, it guides their filmmaking. There is an initial assumption that orchestral scores arrive with one disadvantage, they are without lyrics. My previous discussions for this series have focused on soundtracks and scores which include lyrics, and I spend much of these posts examining how lyrics add a further layer of meaning onto the narrative. Certain lyrics may convey something about a character, or the song itself may evoke some nostalgia from the audience, both of which extend the viewing experience. Orchestral and instrumental scores do the same, but in a slightly different manner.

Unlike a well-known song added to the film, or an original song with lyrics, these instrumental scores, specifically designed for the project, move with the film in a way that doesn’t always announce itself. There are certain scenes where the score blends so seamlessly with the action that a viewer may very well forget that it is playing, because it has become so synonymous with what they are watching. The score moves just as the camera does, and so they become linked. I am not suggesting that the audience entirely forgets that there is a song playing, just that they are so involved with this union between visual and audio that the two collapse onto one another.

Since audio intensifies certain films, it follows that those visuals would not be as intense or successful without that audio. What about audio without visual? Does this relationship go both ways? There are countless legendary scores which are synonymous with the films or scenes they were designed for. Take any track from the Lord of the Rings series, I know people who start crying if it pops up while shuffling through music. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) is the same, although I have seen several TikTok accounts using the soundtrack to sell certain pastel products, essentially marketing off Studio Ghibli fans and their associations with this sweeping score. Many Ghibli songs appear in several variations within their own film, so the songs tend to haunt the characters throughout the film. Sometimes it’s played with a more sorrowful expression, like “Merry-Go-Round of Life”, or the refrain picks up speed and becomes joyful, like “A Walk in the Skies”. There are also quite beautiful and have gone on to define an entire aesthetic category for cottagecore enthusiasts, those who dream of living in Sophie’s hat shop or Howl’s castle.

One recent revelation I had about Ghibli score came from a non-orchestral song. I have been repeatedly listening to the track “Don’t Disturb Me” from the latest Ghibli film, Earwig and the Witch (2020), and was initially drawn to it because of how distinct it is versus previous Ghibli soundtracks. Even the name, “Don’t Disturb Me” lies in stark opposite to other Ghibli scores, which have names like “A Town With an Ocean View” and “One Summer’s Day”, and are quite happy, welcoming, or sincerely melancholic. It marks just how different the Earwig film and characters are, and I find it quite refreshing that Earwig creators are so aware of how the production company’s previous scores operate inside and outside of their respected films. Earwig, by comparison, is about rebel figures who aren’t the best people and don’t share the radical moral growth that other Ghibli protagonists do, but that is part of the point. They learn to trust people while maintaining that “Don’t Disturb Me” tone.

Instrumental scores can be enjoyed without having seen a film, like the other songs mentioned in this series, but once you have, it alters the way you hear it. Not having lyrics has nothing to do with the power of these scores, in fact, in many ways it is another toolbox, another advantage. My aim for this post is to discuss two of my favourite instrumental scores, and why I find them so impactful. It is hard to describe music, especially without being able to quote lyrics, but I shall try my best. For the purposes of this discussion, I will not be highlighting non-original scores here, as that warrants far more attention. As such, I will not address well-known classical music or other contemporary examples that exist prior to their films.

Legend (1985)

I can vividly recall the first time I saw the waltz sequence in Legend. In fact, I have already described it at length in an early post. One of the reasons I decided to call this blog You Remind Me of the Frame is because my parents had a tendency of starting films and then realizing halfway through that they might be slightly age inappropriate. I wasn’t watching Saw or anything, but as often happens, they would just forget that a certain scene exists, or they would suddenly realize that the film is more terrifying than they remember. Legend was one of those films, and they turned it off right as this scene ended. It became a fragment, because I couldn’t remember what happened before, and I didn’t know what happened next. I couldn’t even remember the name of the film; I just remembered the frame. I became interested in film and filmmaking because I wanted to track down fragments such as this, like a treasure hunt. I never knew when I would find them, but when I did, it brought me immense joy. Until then, I would create whole narratives around these fragments, and sometimes I would prefer them to what I eventually discovered was the actual plot. I think I have managed to track down all these fragments by now, sadly, but they still have this haunting quality to them. This dance scene, for instance, defines much of my thinking on doubles and identity, and it’s still one of my favourite sequences ever put to film. But what is noteworthy is that I can’t remember what score I initially heard.

Legend has a notorious production history, everything from the entire set burning down to score changing after some test screenings. Like Blade Runner (1982), Ridley Scott’s more recognized film, there are multiple cuts of Legend, and each fan has an opinion about which one is better. The two scores are radically different, and thus offers something to the film and changes the way you watch it. Jerry Goldsmith’s version, which is what was originally written for the film, has a sort of dreamy quality to it, far more like a traditional fairy tale film. It’s quite classical and was released along with the European edition and later Scott’s Director’s Cut. Along with a few extra scenes, this score comes with a few original songs like “My True Love’s Eyes”, sung by Lily. This was the first edition I found after tracking down the film, and so I initially believed that this was the only score. It’s nice, certainly atmospheric, and it does show its influences. You can tell that Goldsmith is borrowing from other classic fantasy films, which is appropriate, but it doesn’t offer anything new. That is where it and Tangerine Dream’s score differ.

It was only after I watched this other version that I began to suspect that the first time I saw the film, the time which had left this huge impression, had been with this techno score, especially in this dance sequence. There is this carnival quality to it that keeps building until Lily accepts her dark self and transforms. It’s less glamourous, more frightful than Goldsmith’s version. That could also be said of the rest of Tangerine Dream’s score, as it departs from earlier fairy tale cinema and is more techno than classical. The film works with both scores, and I ultimately believe that fans should watch each version. I tend to enjoy a blur of the two, as certain scenes lend well to one score and then the other. I love Lily’s song, and the way Goldsmith’s score adds to the unicorn chase sequence, but I also love how Tangerine Dream’s score intensifies Lily’s time in Hell. Each score reads the film in light of different things, and yet despite that, they operate through the same events. There is a fundamental vein between the two, so although they stylistically and thematically differ, they move with the same pulse. If you are interested in learning more about these scores, I highly recommend Musical Hell’s explanation video, as they illustrate how certain scenes sound with one score and then the other. If I had to choose, I prefer the Tangerine Dream version overall, but again, it really depends on how I am feeling about the film and what tone I am seeking from it.

Twin Peaks (1990-1991)

Twin Peaks, to me, is about grief. Arguably, it’s about a lot without really specifying anything, but I find that it’s the most sincerely sympathetic series I have ever seen. It has terrifying moments, and funny ones, but it still respects the character’s grief throughout its storyline, and all the shapes that grief takes. I have a problem with series which refuse to give death a reasonable weight, or at least, those which use it just for shock factor. Certain Marvel films, for instance, have huge death tolls that take place off-camera and are never discussed. While there has been some recent reworking on this formula, where series try to revisit this invisible violence, it has yet to be successful given the extent of this tradition. In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021) series, for example, there is a huge plot point where Wyatt Russell kills someone in front of crowd and is suddenly unworthy of Captain America’s shield. What is ridiculous about this scene is that even within that very episode, multiple ‘bad guys’ have been killed by the ‘heroes’, so to turn around and say only death matters is ludicrous. The same goes for series like Law & Order, those where a person, almost always a woman, is brutally murdered at the beginning of the episode. Audiences become numb to this, as although the episode focuses on catching the bad guy, that search is contained to a single episode. There is truly little grief in shows like this, as death is merely there to hook the audience, to get them curious and engaged. The victims exist only to die within the first few minutes of the show. That is their entire character, and the only thing that matters about them is how they were killed.

Twin Peaks follows a similar outline but with drastically different intentions. Yes, it’s about the death of a girl, Laura Palmer, and yes, we meet her after she has died. But the show isn’t some crime drama, not in a traditional sense. Agent Cooper is investigating the town, but what happens there isn’t typical. The characters are each dealing with Laura’s death, and there are moments where that grief is overwhelming. We learn about who Laura was through these characters, so we see multiple sides of her. Lynch went on to expand her characterization in Fire Walk with Me (1992), which explores Laura Palmer’s final days.

The opening score of Twin Peaks is perhaps the largest indication that the show will approach its subject from an alternative perspective, compared to a traditional crime drama. Angelo Badalamenti’s score is not something you would generally associate with a murder show, as they often come with these very quick and dramatic openings that scroll through the production names just to get to the narrative. Take the Law & Order opening, it has these loud “Bump ba” beats to shots of the city and lead characters. Its goal is to alert the audience that they have entered a world of right and wrong, or to put it plainly, law and order. Its music is about as certain as the definition of law and order in the show, which occasionally talks about corruption and injustice in the police system, but still operates with an extremely specific moral set and law. The opening to Twin Peaks is the opposite, as it is drawn out and shows nature rather than its characters. Each episode has the same opening, and although it shares the kind “bump ba” phrase as Law and Order, it’s slow, more like “bump….bump…ba”. It’s a beautiful score which perfectly accompanies this landscape, and it’s both sorrowful and happy somehow. It balances these things just as the show does, moving between. It almost feels like a nature documentary, introducing the great forests of the West Coast, and it some ways it is. The show is called Twin Peaks, which is the name of the two mountains overlooking the town. The town is defined by its landscape, and so it follows the show is likewise introduced through this landscape. It also goes on to trouble this forest, to suggest that there is something truly dark and frightening inside it and this town, but never in an outright way.

The darkness featured in the show exists within seemingly normal places and people, meaning that it’s often multiple things simultaneously. The score is such a fantastic canvas for that, because the audience will hear different things depending on how they watch the show. You might feel very apprehensive about it if you just finished a disturbing episode. You might wonder why the score remains so consistent and calm, despite what horrors are in the show. So, the score does change, or rather, we change our impression of it, just as people come away with radically different interpretations of the show. What you hear and feel while watching this opening is perhaps a reflection of yourself rather than just the show.

Want to read more? Check out Parts I and II of my music in film series. If you are interested in reading more on Earwig and the Witch, here is my article on Studio Ghibli’s latest film. I have also written about David Lynch and Twin Peaks here.