Music and Story

Every movie or TV show I like is partially because of its music. And every piece of music I like is linked back to the imagery that accompanies it.

It might be my somewhat musical background, growing up playing the piano and saxophone or my family regularly frequenting musical theater, but for me there is always and indelibly a connection between music and story. They have a symbiotic relationship, strengthening the other, and making the whole greater than its parts.

Take an artist like Taylor Swift, for instance. I’m not a admirer of hers, but her music connects so well to fans partly because they know her story; they know the heartbreak and experiences she’s gone through, making each lyric that much more painful and emotional, for them.

The same goes for visual media, like film and television. The Lone Ranger (which I reviewed several weeks ago) is not particularly good, but its moments of emotional poignancy and weight are provided by the musical score by Hans Zimmer; the action taking place is almost subsidiary to our emotional reaction to the music.

Furthermore, there’s something incredibly valuable to a solid film soundtrack – it heightens the narrative experience by expanding the “universe,“ if you will, by stretching it out into something greater than the original work itself.

A film like American Graffiti, often considered one of the first postmodern soundtracks for using standard pop songs rather than an orchestral film score, is a perfect example of this. Watching the actions and dialogue and the film take place with the late 50s / early 60s pop under it work great on their own, but following through by listening to the soundtrack and lyrics on their own, and mentally matching them up to which scene it coordinates with, is a great extension to the filmic experience. Why this song for this scene? How do the lyrics express what the characters are feeling, or are doing, or what is going to happen?

You can drive yourself nuts doing this kind of thing, and not all works may be “worth” this kind of effort, but a lot of them are.

The HBO series True Blood blew and continues to blow my mind in terms of how much depth the songs they use are. In the very first episode “Strange Love,“ the song “Still Beating” by Josh Ritter plays as an underscore to a scene in a bar. It’s a mellow, folky country song with dialogue layered over it; upon first viewing it’s probably just noise. Throughout the scene, we see various characters interact and you can quickly pick up who wants to be with who, whose relationships haven’t worked out, etc. – a perfect match to a song with lyrics like, “You’re not the fastest draw in town now / How many times you been shot down?“

The experience of listening to the True Blood songs after the fact is a great way to further explore the characters and action taking place in the TV show, as well as to strengthen the songs on their own. This is music that, for me, can’t even be separated from the story and emotions behind its usage in the visual work, making both media stronger because of it.

This type of study also allows you to mentally stretch out particular moments. One of the most memorable scenes from the excellent Simon Killer (which I’ve discussed at length in earlier posts) is probably 4-5 minutes long, and is visually tied very strongly to the background song. (You’d know it when you see it.) The song itself clocks in at almost 8 minutes, so the experience of listening to this song longer than its corresponding scene gives the audience time to further reflect or expand the universe of the work in his/her mind to supplement all the feeling derived from that song.

Like most aspects of film and television theory, this is a postproduction element that you can really run away with. It might lead you to some dead ends, but you will probably be surprised by how much it enhances the experiencing of studying, and finding satisfying fulfillment, with film and television.

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