The Fundamental Elements of Film Music

The Fundamental Elements of Film Music

This Filmmaker IQ Lab is proudly sponsored by FilmStro: Music that Moves Hi John Hess from Filmmaker and in today’s lab we’re going to look at some of the early history of film music and break
down the elements of music to give you a bit of a musician’s insight into how music works
for the screen. The term Silent Film is a retronym, a term
that only came to be after sound was synchronized to the picture – for sure no one in 1910 taking
his best gal on a date to a movie palace was there to catch the latest “silent picture”. To them it was just a film. The truth is Silent Film as we call it was
never really experienced in silence. First of all you had the noise of the projector
– which if you think about it, is kind of like a sewing machine. It’s not a particularly pleasant sound so
exhibitors wanted something musical for the audience to focus on. In what is commonly considered the first movie
showing in the Paris Cafe by the Lumière Brothers on December 28, 1895, the musical
distraction probably came in the form of a guitarist hired to play over the ratatat of
the projector. When Edison moved away from the peep show
style kinetoscope to the Vitascope with first projected motion picture in the United States
at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall in New York City, he set a precedent for having a full
orchestra accompanying a motion picture. In this poster for Vitascope from 1896, we
can clearly see an conductor and a pit orchestra in front of the motion picture screen. But not every nickelodeon in the infant 20th
century had the same resources. In this burgeoning industry, music may have
taken all shapes and sizes from orchestras to solo organists and pianists to player pianos
and even carnival style music. Some exhibitors may not have had music at
all, or just had musicians play in between screenings while the projectionist was changing
the reels. But these were really short bits and pieces
of film. As the industry became more organized and
films became less novelty and more a narrative vehicle to tell a story, music became that
much more essential. By the mid 1910s the music for film came in
basically three varieties. The first was purely improvisational – what
we now come to associate with silent film – a soloist piano or organ who just makes
up music on the spot to go with the screen. As a personal side note, that was what my
grandfather, a civil engineer, did on the side as a hobby. Some films came with cue sheets – basically
a cheat sheet of what music was to be expected at certain points. These were just lists of published popular
songs of the day or even excerpts from classical repertoire. Cue sheets would also note specific sound
effects that might be required. Around the 1910s several publishers like Sam
Fox Music and Academic Music began issuing books of “Photoplay music”. These books contained short compositions useful
for establishing different moods. One example of such a piece is Mysterioso
Pizzicato, which appeared in a 1914 photoplay music collection compiled by J. Bodewalt Lampe…. I’m sure you’ve heard that before. Some of the earliest composers known for photoplay
music include John Stepan Zamecnik and Gaston Borch. The last variety of music you might hear were
pieces specifically scored for the film itself. This was really rare and reserved for bigger
films. Even then, not all of it would be original
– some composers would would compile already published work with their own original compositions. Examples include Joseph Carl Breil’s score
for D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation… and
Gottfried Huppertz’s scores for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis… Music was instrumental the movie going experience. By the mid-1920s a survey of 10,000 movie
theaters reported that approximately 50% used theater organs, 25% used piano only, and 25%
used orchestras that included more than one player. So it’s ironic that, when silent film began
to transition to sound, it was music NOT dialogue that spearheaded the transition. The first synchronized sound Vitaphone film from Warner Bros in 1926, Don Juan featured the New York Philharmonic performing the score. Sound in film was about delivering high quality music to the masses – and the change-over about to take place would leave thousands
of musicians unemployed. But It wasn’t until a year later in 1927
with Al Jolson’s impromptu speech in The Jazz Singer did Hollywood and the public realize, “Hey this sound thing can work with speech too” Just as music has been a key part of film,
it has been a key part of my life as well. I’ve been in and around band music for nearly
my entire life as a trumpet player and when I fall, I fall for a songbird… but that’s
a tragedy for a different video. A lot of editors I’ve met also have music
background – there is something about music that trains you as a filmmaker to feel rhythm. In the remainder of this survey and demonstration
I want to lay down the groundwork for understanding music. If you’ve never been played an instrument
or been in a band, this will serve a solid grounding in the elements and language that make up music. If you’re a musician hopefully none of this
will be new but it might be a nice conceptual review. No one watching this will be able to master
the intricacies of music immediately but I hope to give you some tools and concepts to think about when you’re working with a composer or selecting needledrop music for your film Tempo to me is the first and foremost thing
you consider when talking about music for film. Tempo and editing go hand in hand as Sergei
Eisenstein would tell you. Most western music styles are centered around a beat. The tempo is the speed of the beat. This is described as BPM or beats per minute and we judge the feel the beat by comparing to the human heart. The average heart rate is around 80-100 beats per minute. In music, tempos in this range have a relaxed, easy going sometimes called “walking” feel. Slower than 80 can be perceived as calm, solemn, lethargic or even deliberate – such as this introduction to Pachelbel’s Canon which
gives a very stately deliberate sound… On the other side, tempos between 100 and 140 are considered lively. Many marches including the band favorite,
Stars and Stripes Forever, sit around 120 BPM. From 140-160 and above, music is thought as
fast paced, quick and exciting. Of course all these are generalizations and
tempos can and do often fluctuate in a piece of music. A piece of music can accelerate to create
a feeling of urgency or it can ritard to create a sense of finality. Humans being the pattern seeking animals that we are, don’t weight each beat equally. Tempo in western music comes either in a duple feel of two alternating beats, a triple feel of one major beat followed but two minor beasts, or any combination duples, triples and even alternating duple and triple beats. The most common time signature is 4/4 – so
common that it’s actually called common time. The first or top number states how many beats
there are per measure – in this case 4 – two sets of duple 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4. The bottom number states which note value
gets the beat – in this case – the quarter note – but I don’t want to get too deep
in music notation here – just focus on the top number. 3/4 is often called a waltz. Here we have 3 beats per measure with the
quarter note getting the beat – it sounds like this: 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3. Three has to me a cyclical feel, of music
that rolls along – which is why you hear it a lot on merrygoround. Perhaps the most famous waltz of all time
is Blue Danube by Johann Strauss. Then there are the complex meters like 5/4
which aren’t so common. Five four is a combination of one triple and
one duple so it goes 1 2 3 4 5, 1 2 3 4 5. David Brubeck’s Take Five is a classic example of this complex meter. With tempo as our temporal anchor so to speak, we build patterns over the beat to create rhythm. Going back to my favorite classical repertoire,
Pachelbel’s Canon, the notes at the beginning follow strictly the beat, but soon the high
voices begin to subdivide the beat and create new and interesting rhythms inside the beat. Notice how these subdivisions create a new
dimension of expression and momentum in the music even though the beat stays constant
– that poor Tuba player just has to play the same eight notes over and over again. A different feel can achieved by insert and emphasizing notes that are OFF the beat – something called syncopation. A great example of this styling is Ragtime
Piano from phrase “ragged time” – in this player piano roll of Scott Joplin performing
Maple Leaf Rag – you the strict beat in the lower notes or left hand, while the right
sort of answers with the off beats. Lastly, there are times where there is no
tempo even in traditional western music – the Rubato solo is a common feature in solo and opera pieces which give the performance a bit of drama and chance to show off. Sometimes whole pieces can be in “Free Time” with no discernible or free flowing beat like Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No 1… Beatless music can range from ethereal and calming – to downright suspenseful and creepy like Krzysztof Penderecki’s ‘De Natura Sonoris No.2’ which was used extensively in The Shining… Melody is perhaps what everyone thinks of
when it comes to music. Melody is the musical sentence – just as a
sentence is made of words, a melody is made out of pitches sometimes ascending in frequency, sometimes descending and sometimes just jumping up and down These frequencies aren’t random – they are
built around a scale structure based on Octaves. An octave is the halving or doubling of the
frequency. In Western music the interval between octaves is divided into 12 half steps called a chromatic scale. From these half steps different kinds of scales
can be created using different combinations of whole and half steps. Musicians starting out begin by learning the
major scale or major scale which is a 7 note scale with the 8th being the octave – hence
the term octave. This creates a happy sound. By changing the combinations of whole and half steps we can construct minor scales that sound sad like this melodic minor. Scales don’t necessarily need 7 notes. The Pentatonic scale utilized just 5 notes… Many musical traditions from European, to
African, to Asian and Native American stem from this pentatonic scale – most folk songs are based around these series of notes. Scales are the building blocks of melody – every musician learning an instrument or learning to compose has to understand how scales work. Related to melody is overall pitch. Most melody is written around the same frequency of the human voice. Having the melody in a higher frequency and give the sound a smaller and more petite sound as we associate higher frequencies with smaller animals. Moving the melody into lower octave gives
the sound a bigness and heft. When we combine the high and low frequencies together we get a sense of depth – giving the sound more weight and gravitas. Which brings us voice. There’s not a lot of instruments that sound
like a sine wave created by a tone generator. That’s because real world instruments don’t just vibrate at their fundamental frequencies – they vibrate in a range of harmonics called overtones. Some of these overtones aren’t quite in
tune with the fundamental frequency, it’s the combination of all these overtones that
make up the inherent sound of a musical instrument – which is why a Trumpet sounds different
than a French Horn despite the fact that they are playing the same fundamental frequencies. So far we have tempo and melody – to fill
out the musical landscape we need Harmony which is created when we play any two notes at the same time. Harmony can have different sounds based on the interval between the notes- it can sound pleasant or dissonant. If we build up 3 or more notes we create a
chord. The way we build up these chords create different
effects. There’s the major chord which is happy…
a minor chord sounds sad… here’s what’s called a dominant seventh inversion which
has a jazzy sophisticated sound. Western music is built on moving these chords around in a progression that matches melody. In many songs the progression consists of
3 chords – the root chord, the fourth chord in the scale and the fifth with minor seventh. Ultimately everything will want to resolves
back to the root chord. Of course there are many many variations of chord progressions but the purpose of progressions is to lead the ear to hopefully a resolution. One of my favorite demonstrations of this
is something you’ll hear at the end of many hymns… Your ear naturally wants that middle note
to resolve into that nice happy major chord in the end. Now where we want to put our root chord and center our chord progression also matters. A song with a progression based on C major will have a different sound than a song that’s based around E major. Throughout history composers have written guides as to which keys were suppose to be used for which moods or styles but the fact
is there is absolutely no consensus on the subject. Most composers have their own favored keys that sound good to them. As a wind ensemble player, I was used to what’s
called the flat keys – Bb, Eb, F, Ab. But when I started playing in pit orchestras
for musicals I started seeing the sharp keys like E, B and A which are more suited for
the range of vocalists. I know we’re gettting into the nuts and
bolts of music theory but when you’re shopping around for needledrop music you will usually see what key the track is centered on. We’ve buzzed through some huge topics so
far: Tempo, Melody, Voice, Harmony and Key. But that is just the schematics for music
– the final and perhaps most important element, expression, is also the hardest to classify. It’s the difference between a world class
concert pianist and a MIDI performance – even how a note is struck – the attack can alter
the perceived power of the note. Other elements that play into the performance
include vibrato, bending of the notes, how the beats are divided – are they straight
or swung like in jazz, whether the performer is consciously playing ahead or behind the
beat. There are an infinite number of ways that
a musician can alter what’s written on the page of sheet music to create new sounds and new music. Expression along with all the elements previously
mentioned become part of a musical culture. Compare the sound of the Haydn Trumpet Concerto
from Austrian royal courts, and the sound of the Mariachi Trumpet, and the sound of
soulful Jazz Noir. Same exact instrument but expressed in completely different ways all in service of that particular culture. Through Expression even new musical cultures
emerge. From Rhythm and Blues and Gospel Music comes Rock and Roll and from Rock and Roll we get Rockabilly, Surf Rock, Pop Rock, Acid Rock,
Heavy Metal, and even Disco. Each of these musical genres constitute their own completely separate culture that dictate how music is expressed despite using more or less the same instruments and chord progressions. Now the lines separating one genre from the next are completely arbitrary but a source of constant debated among music fans. So now that we have a general idea of the
elements that constitute music, how does music work for film. Well it’s really impossible to make any
blanket statement about the role music plays in film – some composers claim the role of
film music is only to support everything else – but sometimes through use of leitmotif which uses a melody to associated with a particular person, idea, or situation the music becomes
inseparable from the star. Sometimes music is just used to push and heighten
the emotion. Sometimes music is there to serve as a counterpoint
to what’s going on the screen. Whether you are working with a composer or looking for needledrop music for your film, keep in mind the different elements of music we talked about today. Is the tempo right for my scene, is the melody
right if there is one, is the progression landing where I want it to. Even subtle changes to the very same piece of music can make a big difference. To demonstrate let’s take the ending from
Georges Melies A Trip to the Moon – we’ve got this musical track at 130 BPM in the key of Bb, it features a children’s choir and high organ. It’s a nice pastoral positive happy feel. Now by adding in a string section playing
repeated notes in a syncopated rhythm with a little harp that original 130 BPM has more
momentum – a more driving feel, not quite as pastoral To further change the sound, let’s add some adult voices and lower strings on that same syncopation. The result is increased depth giving us a
grander feel just by changing up the voicing. If we add some a couple countermelodies including a heroic french and put more emphasis on the striking of lower bass notes by mixing some low brass hits – we get a more powerful celebratory sound which is more fitting for this ending
scene where our heroes have returned from their journey to the moon. Going back to our original children’s choir
and comparing you can hear how much a difference can be made by introducing subdivision of
the tempo, layering voices and countermelody. There really is an infinite number of ways
you can alter music to get the feel you want. Music has been a part of the cinematic experience since it’s inception. In this survey of the elements of music we
have covered a tiny tiny portion of what is around and available in the world of music. Ultimately music is just one more voice in
the filmmaking process – just like camera angle, framing, dialogue, lighting, editing,
acting, casting, story structure, I could go on forever. To make any blanket statement about the role of music in film would be a foolhardy thing Everytime I come up with a trend I can think of at least one prominent movie that breaks it. The best thing to do is to be forever a student – always listening, always learning. Be open to experimenting, Be open to new ways of hearing, open to where the music takes you – that’s the only way to making something great. I’m John Hess and I’ll see you at Filmmaker

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  1. Finally! When I started watching your incredibly insightful videos a while ago I was hoping that one day you're gonna release one about music. Turned out fantastic!

  2. I was like, oh another video by Filmmaker IQ, I'll check it out. Not something I'm really interested in, but let's see what he says. Twenty five minutes of utter captivation later….

  3. The opening is getting more epic every time!! Love this content so much!! 馃幀馃 wow your grandfather sounds really cool!!

  4. I miss Jerry Goldsmith's music. He was always doing something new for the films he scored. Now where stuck with the likes of Hans Zimmer.

  5. fun fact, the blue danube wasn't supposed to be in 2001. So far as I know, there was an original score written for the scene, but Kubrick liked the waltz so much that he swapped it and the composer found out on the night of the screening.

  6. The amount of knowledge I gained from watching your channel is incredible! Amazing what you can condense into a 20min video…

  7. Brilliant stuff. Jazz fans would appreciate the fact that Count Basie and Fats Waller also played music for movies "back in the day!"

  8. Here's a fun link for non-musicians:
    You decide the rhythm, but the melody is fixed. It's surprisingly fun!

  9. I've been waiting for a new video for a long time, and this is the subject I have been waiting for. I appreciate it very much. There is so much information in here. Can I ask a question? When it comes to music in a movie, what do the words "themes" and "cues" mean?

  10. I am amazed that I found this channel. Hess, you're doing one hell of a fantastic job explaining and broadening my vision in the film making world. What I like the most about all of this is how you explain history/theory/practise – Guide us through examples and really teaches the viewer (At least for me) How to use the knowledge beyond what you're telling us. It's like you're teaching me how to learn. I absolutely love it.

  11. John, great job on this program. I have been a fan of your channel for a while. I am a composer and write for media of all types. This program is one the best structured in teaching basics of music in media/ film I have seen. I will use this to help guide some of my clients to understand the role of music in there works. Thanks again.

  12. I swear I remember seeing you touch the topic of mockbusters. I wanted to come back to see it in full, but it was gone.

  13. Amazing lesson to a father of a brilliant musical daughter…. I am grateful for your channel in that it informs me of how a musician and cinematographer becomes so inspirational to us laymen/laywomen. Thank you and keep doing these lessons in film making.

  14. Extremely valuable videos at your channel, good combination of theory and practical examples. Thanks!

  15. I have a question. Do you know of any software that can take band music and transcribe it into sheet music? This would help us a lot.

  16. Great lesson. Sometimes I question myself about which one could I not live without; music or film? Then I tell myself, which part of my body could I not live without, my brain or my heart? Well that's how I feel about film and music.

  17. Just saw this, and WOW! I haven't quite finished yet, but what a great breakdown of music theory, and in just a few minutes. This is going to be something that I watch over and over. The best explanation of music in films I've seen yet. Outstanding.

  18. Hi john my survey of media class watches your videos almost every week. We love you so much you are a class room hero.

  19. Every time I watch your videos I gain more appreciation for the art of filmmaking. Now when I go to the cinema I sit there thinking about how many people over the last century or so have dedicated their careers to perfecting the technologies bringing those images and sounds to my senses, it enhances the experience a thousand fold.

  20. Hi John. I just uploaded a video I would love your input on. (I gave you a shout out and informed people to check out your video in there) I took what I learnt from you, and Tony Northrup, and tried to combine the info with some illustrations to really wrap up the whole Crop factor/depth of field argument, (that is still not understood by many)… Please let m know what you think.
    (I won't add a link here as thats kind of rude) 馃檪

  21. Mr Hess,

    Another over the top AWESOME video presentation! I was amazed how you condensed the subject of film music down to something less than 1/2 an hour! These Filmmaker IQ video's ARE video's to be studied on how to short videos!

    BRAVO !


  22. Shouldn't all keys sound the same in equal temperament? I was first trained in Indian music which uses an entirely relative scale, and switching over to western music I absolutely cannot hear a difference between keys haha. Never understood the mood thing

  23. Expression; something I wish more desktop composers and musicians in general would understand better. People have asked for advice on countless scores, usually frustrated that their scores have no impact or "just don't sound right." They're almost always sample libraries either played on keyboards or sequenced via MIDI. Most ask about using different samples, more processing or some kind of specialty hardware device but I always tell them that won't work. One of my proudest achievements in working on a movie was regarding some incidental MIDI "orchestral" music. The composer said he was about ready to give up on the piece he wrote and start again, but gave me free reign to do what I want with it. I simply brought in some string players to replace most of the MIDI tracks with real musicians and it worked beautifully. As the great Victor Wooten said "I can program a computer to produce any note I want but it can't make music."

  24. Film score enthusiasts should familiarize themselves with The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky. This influential musical composition was decades ahead of its time and shocked the audience when it was first performed in 1913 causing a near riot. Audience members expecting to hear yet another melodic waltz were plunged into the deep end of the pool of 20th Century music as this ballet and orchestral concert work tapped into their subconscious. All film score composers get their musical cues from The Rite of Sping . Michael Tilson Thomas gives a good analysis of The Rite at

  25. As a bumbling musician I am very enamored with this episode, although I must admit, I disagree with one statement. Overall I really love the wonderful musical overview and summary regarding how these elements are used in film. On the other hand, I do not feel the music chosen for the fight scene in A Clockwork Orange was chosen entirely as a contrast or juxtaposition. That piece, in its day, was a lively and engaging dance number. In the cultural context of the milk club gangs violence was almost a form of dance. Whether the director intended or not, this musical selection was very appropriate for the scene, consciously or unconsciously.

  26. Just to add that the consensus is that different keys used to have different moods but don't anymore. For instance, as late as Beethoven's day C and Eb genuinely sounded different, but in modern equal temperament they sound the same, just lower or higher.
    A key is generally chosen to match the overall range of the instruments and voices, with some attention to what lies well on the majority of instruments. So a woodwind/brass dominated piece (eg marching band or jazz) will tend to use flat keys, a string dominated piece (eg folk or classical) will often be more to the sharp side. Of course pros should be able to handle anything, but there are considerations such as where the breaks are on winds, natural valve positions, open strings, finger positions, and on and on. Composers and arrangers also tend to treat each instrument as several in one depending on the register.
    And of course, there's modern pop – requiring limited harmonic motion and being mostly written on keyboards by people who don't have much classical training, it tends to be conceived with as few black keys as possible and then automatically transposed to fit the singer's range.
    Oh and John, please! Falling for singers? Schoolboy error, my friend…

  27. And Kubrick showed up three times in this video. Goes to show what a genius he was when it came to scoring film with already existing music.

  28. Pachelbel Canon has been know to bore Cellists to death鈥

    obv joking, but most players are really bummed out when they hear they have to play pachelbels bass voice, while everyone else is super existed about those higher voices, which are really fun to play

  29. I鈥檓 a musician/composer/songwriter who decided to pursue my film making quest. This episode of your channel really made me realize why I chose to pursue my film making desire. Thank you Jon

  30. Music in a movie can be, and sometimes should be, the key identity of genre, plot, the whole idea behind the film. Even more, music could play a main character in movies. Think about "Singing in the rain" in the famous scene of "Clokwrok Orange": The music just express the action of characters or dictate what it's necessary to do? It's depends on the general view of the director. Music could be a simple "effect" or tel us the story on its own.The famous scene of "The Exorcist", without the master piece of "tubular bells" it's fair creepy but non less, but music give us and anticipation of all the suspense and horror.

  31. Do you have a download link for that Yangtze song? The one you put it over the Georges M茅li猫s clip.

    Or at least the composer's name.

  32. I seem to be rewatching all your vids I saw a year ago. Yay for me! I'm happy to recognize this time that your description of 50 BPM was accompanied by an old Canadian Brass clip. (Chuck on the tuba!) [I'm a band kid myself, French horn, which is a wonderful instrument in film scores – my band director (who happened to be my mother) used to say that the horn was used for the hero – that's how she convinced me to play it rather than the flashier trumpet.]

  33. This really seems a good lecture on music theory for the first 20 minutes. The last 5 show how different music works in film (and it's very instructive). Now that we've got a foundation in music theory, I hope we'll get commentary using actual examples – though, I suppose, rights might be a problem. We all want to know why Kubrick highjacked music, or how John Williams's scores have made many films better ("Jaws" is a great entry point).

  34. Filmmakers IQ, I found a incidental music for the movie "Alien", composing Howard Hanson's called "Symphony No. 2 (The Romantic)" which is played over during the closing credits.

  35. I love you guys, for such a educated channel in film, production and video I'm surprised you don't use a full colourspace video recording to clean up your greenscreen. Otherwise fantastic

  36. Thank you so much for this! Cannot wait to quote some of your arguments in my dissertation! SO HELPFUL THANK YOU!

  37. This is not very useful. Leave the choice of chords and their meaning to the musicians. A better idea for a video would be "how to talk to the film composer". And you know what, film composers don't want to discuss musical devices (which is their field of expertise), they want to understand the desired emotional content of the film, and be treated just like an actor, to be able to understand their role. They don't want to hear "I want minor chords" or "I want an oboe" because concepts in music theory are frequently misunderstood, misused, and misapplied, or applied in a tremendously unsophisticated way, by non-musicians. Leave compositional choices to the composer and don't talk about music, talk about the film.

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