25 September 2020
Have you ever seen the 1979 Woody Allen movie Manhattan? IMDB calls it a rom-com, which of course it is, with the usual Allen touches of social awkwardness and misunderstandings. But it is so much more than that. The stunning black and white cinematography makes this movie come across as almost a love letter to New York’s most famous borough. And then there’s the music…
Allen said at the time that it was the music that was the inspiration. Listening to a George Gershwin album, he thought what a beautiful romantic movie it could make. It led to both the romance between Isaac and Mary, and the romance of all those monochrome shots of the city. All flowed from that Gershwin score.
Manhattan is, perhaps, an extreme example, but it demonstrates how concepts like “backing music” can be so much more than incidental to an experience. In Manhattan, there are three aspects, the music, the cinematography and the plot – take any one of these away, and the experience becomes a shadow of itself. But the music that accompanies a movie, or a video game, or even a sporting event, can amplify the experience in other ways, too.
The above example is unusual in that it was the music that drove the movie. More commonly, a filmmaker will have the plot and the script prepared, and then look to add an appropriate score. But what does “appropriate” really mean in this context? Intuitively, we know the answer to that. Think of Psycho, that famous shower scene and the shrieking, discordant glissandos from a single violin. Initially, Hitchcock wanted no music at all in the murder scene, but composer Bernard Hermann persuaded him to at least listen to his idea. The director liked it so much, he doubled Hermann’s salary.
Clearly, the music intensifies the experience of what’s happening before our eyes. Those discordant sounds feel “wrong” like nails down a blackboard. But that is actually the second movement in the overall piece. The first is when the killer approaches, a barely glimpsed shifting of darkness through the semi-translucent shower curtain. This is accompanied by a series of short, staccato runs. It’s a technique that John Williams used even more famously 15 years later in Jaws to give the listener a sense of impending danger.
Music in the movies isn’t just about ramping up the horror of murder, mutilation and shark attacks, however. Sometimes a song can tell us more about a character or a situation that five minutes of awkward exposition. Let’s return to the world of classic romcoms for a perfect example. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s we meet socialite Holly Golightly, and we see from the party scene that she is quick-witted, flirtatious and possibly a little eccentric. But it is not till later, when she sits out on the balcony with her guitar and quietly sings Moon River that we glimpse her sadness and vulnerability, and we are compelled to learn more of her backstory.
Psycho, Jaws and Breakfast at Tiffany’s use music to direct and intensify our emotional responses to certain scenes. But sometimes, the music sets us up for an experience before it has even started. In the James Bond franchise, the music has always been a huge part of the experience, from the calypso rhythms of Dr No through the 80s syntho pop of A View to a Kill to the orchestral power of Skyfall.
Yet it is those opening bars from Monty Norman’s original Theme from James Bond that generate the biggest emotional response. It’s a little like Keith Richards playing the opening riff to Start Me Up at the beginning of a Stones gig – all these years on, we know exactly what we are going to get, and we can’t wait.
That concept of using music to “start us up” – a message delivered with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer by Richards’ Telecaster – has also been carried across into the world of gaming. Think of some of the arcade classics like Space Invaders or Pac Man. Those simple electronic melodies immediately strike a psychological cord of what is to come. But it is when you walk through the doors, either literal or virtual, of a casino that you really see this effect in action.
To make money, a casino needs to keep people playing games. While some play casino games just for fun, the possibility of a big win is definitely an incentive to try one more spin of the reels. When someone hits the jackpot, the musical fanfare engenders a feeling of excitement and leaves other players with no doubt as to what has happened. Some slot games take this concept to another level – Casinoblox.ca has an interesting article on slot games that are completely based around music. These include titles like Motörhead, Jimi Hendrix and Guns n Roses.
Music enhances the experience in other aspects of gaming, too. Look at a couple of the most popular titles of all time. In Grand Theft Auto, you can approach the sprawling open world from different angles, whether you choose to complete challenges or simply explore the streets, selecting from different in-game radio stations to go with your mood. Meanwhile in John Madden, those familiar opening bars get you in the mood for a footballing showdown for the ages.
That brings us to one other area where a song can amplify an experience to the next level. If you’ve ever been to a Chicago Bulls game, you’ll be well acquainted with Sirius by Alan Parsons. Music lovers appreciate the piece in its own right as the opening track to the wonderful Eye in the Sky album. But for Bulls fans, it means the players are about to enter the field, and pulse rates escalate around the stadium as that familiar melody rings out.
Music touches our psyches in ways we have all experienced, but that are very difficult to explain. One thing is certain. Without the music, some of the great movies, games and sporting spectacles would not have quite the same place in our hearts.