Functions of Film Music Source Music

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Functions of Film Music

  • Source Music

  • Score upon which an entire film is based

  • Main title and character music

  • To provide a touch of realism

  • Underscore

  • “Mickey-mousing”

  • Commentary

  • To involve the viewer on a deeper level

  • Commercial functions

Source Music--diegetic

  • Music whose source is logically located within the story space. Source music is generally inserted into a scene, making the characters and the scene aware of it.

  • Example from Sense and Sensibility; score by Patrick Doyle

Score As the Basis for a Film

  • Most complex and rare use of film music in which the narrative is completed through the use of music

  • Example:

    • Close Encounters of the Third Kind—John Williams
    • The five-note motif is an essential narrative feature without which the film cannot stand.

Main Title & Character Music

  • Music during the opening credits that represents the essence of a film and its characters.

  • Example:

    • Vertigo—Bernard Herrmann.

To Provide a Touch of Realism

  • Music can be used to identify ethnicity, location, and period

  • Examples

    • Braveheart—James Horner
    • The Age of Innocence—Elmer Bernstein

Non-diegetic Underscore

  • Parallels the action of the film as a frame-by-frame musical match with the visuals;

  • Gives the viewer only what is already known by the visuals;

  • Some film scores are entirely underscore, like The Rock.

“Mickey-mouse” style

  • The meticulous, cue-by-cue scoring of a film, ala cartoons

  • Some feature film scores are approached in this manner as well, such as Jerry Goldsmith’s score to Planet of the Apes.

  • These scores require quick and fluctuating music gestures.


  • The association of a character with a specific melody or motif.

  • Variations of the melody can be used to show different facets of the character’s development

  • Example:

    • Star Wars—John Williams

The score as commentary

  • Overture

  • To describe a location

    • Enables a place/location to become subjectivized
    • Example: Legends of the Fall—James Horner
  • To show character development

    • Luke Skywalker’s development

To Add Emotional Depth

  • Music can intensify and relax the pace of a film;

  • Music can add emotional depth to characters, places, and ideas;

  • The cultural codes that musics carry can add layers of subtextual meaning

Extra-musical Functions

  • Commercial functions

    • Concert suites
    • Soundtracks
    • Songs that enhance a film’s visibility
      • “The impact of the success of [Dimitri] Tiomkin’s song to High Noon on a financially strapped film industry was immediate. Producers saw in the success of Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling, a means of making additional money from their films.” (Roy Prendergast)

Summary—Film music functions

  • To intensify or relax pace

  • To reflect emotion

  • To create “unspoken” thoughts

  • To parallel or underscore the action

  • To create atmosphere of time and place

  • To create comedy

  • To provide unity or coherence

  • Source music

  • To play against the action

  • To speed up or slow down scenes

  • To provide a neutral background

Operational aspects of the Film Music Industry

  • Producer

  • Director

  • Film editor

    • Assembly cut
    • Rough cut
    • Outs and trims
    • Fine or locked cut
    • Answer print

The music

  • Temp track

  • Spotting the film

  • People

    • Composer
    • Orchestrator
    • Copyist
    • Librarian
    • Contractor
    • Studio Musicians
    • Music supervisor
    • Agents
    • Publicists

Developing the Concept for the score

  • Consider the film’s historical period

  • Location and ethnic background of the movie

  • Major characters of the film

  • Overall dramatic theme

Synchronization methods

  • Punch and streamer

  • Newman system

  • Stopwatch method

  • Click track method


  • Wild recording

  • Tracking

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