I Like to Recognize the Tune: Why Film Scores Are Important

mgm orchestra

Virginia previously discussed film scores, so now I’m taking a crack at it. The background music of a film is very important as it often provokes pathos from the audience. The scores of modern films seem to be very subtle and hardly memorable. Of course some films in the ‘90s have had some memorable scores such as Jurassic Park (1993) or even, later, the Harry Potter riff, but, overall, in the past few years there really haven’t been a number of truly stand-out scores. It seems almost old hat to have a strong, emotional score, but it didn’t hurt classic films any. Think about the rousing music that occurred when you found out what ‘Rosebud’ was or when first seeing Elsa Lanchester as the Bride of Frankenstein (1935). The score of a movie can often be an underrated factor, but it’s really an important element in making the scene effective and memorable.

Scores are particularly import for silent movies or else they really would be silent. Since recorded music didn’t become a thing until Don Juan (1926), when you watch a lot of silent films, there’s an accompanied score done by a modern musician, which can often be very inventive. Sometimes, it’s noticeable when they add the melody of a well-known song in the background. For instance, I remember hearing such songs as ‘Stranger in Paradise’ and ‘If You Are a Dream’ for some silent films and suddenly singing along with them. But, when recalling the scores of such late silents as Sunrise (1927) and The Man Who Laughs (1928), they were quite effective.

A major flaw of some early talkies is that they don’t have scoring. It’s understandable, since sound was still in its young stages and a score could have easily drowned out the dialogue since it was sometimes difficult to hear the script in the first place. Some films, however, such as Dracula (1931) suffer from this. While it’s still an engrossing film thanks to its acting and directing, some scenes such as where Bela Lugosi creeps into Frances Dade’s room to kill her, feel kind of flat due to the lack of booming music. Compare this to any scene in The Bride of Frankenstein where the music remains one of the loveliest of the time. While beautiful, it also builds tension. When a score was added for Christopher Lee’s turn as Dracula, it made the scene of him killing a young girl more stand-out and sexy as well as frightening.

Sometimes with scores, they take already published songs for the background of nightclubs and other public places. If you’re a fan of old music, however, this can occasionally be distracting as when you hear a familiar melody you try to figure out what song it is since you don’t have the words to help you. This can often bring you to drown out the dialogue in order to listen to the music. Or, in another instance, when watching Nora Prentiss (1947), I was suddenly distracted in a scene when I heard in the background ‘There’s a Small Hotel’, so it made me think of the lovely song rather than listen to the dialogue at that moment. This is often done in musicals, but the songs used are often ones you just heard or are about to hear. Sometimes, however, like in Irving Berlin musicals, they use other Berlin songs for the background and sometimes that brings you to listen to the background rather than the characters.

Overall though, imagine watching such films as Laura (1944), The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), Rebecca (1940), Gone with the Wind (1939), The Song of Bernadette (1943), and Now, Voyager (1942) without the scores. It feels empty, flat, and almost boring since it’s easy to provoke emotions through music and you’re just naturally more inclined to feel more with music accompanying the dramatic moments. Sometimes a score needs to be the star of the scene; it needs to be noticeable rather than subdued in the background like a lot of modern ones. They make the scene more vivid in your memory. When you think of such scenes as Vincent Price in a string of candles backing him up in Bernadette the already fantastic scene (the best in the film) is indented in your mind, but that breathtaking music makes it stand out even more as you recall the emotion and angst you felt. Music is a big gateway to our emotions and classic films knew that and used it to their advantage.




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