How the music in our favorite films is changing before our ears

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Hans Zimmer Live/File

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Films, on the whole, are becoming more visceral.

That’s not a surprise — much of the marketing around, say, Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” was related to the fact that it was shot mostly in IMAX. And indeed, sitting in front of an IMAX screen during that film is an incredibly immersive experience.

As cameras and screens have worked from 2K to 4K to upwards of 12K in resolution, computer-generated imagery, or CGI, has made its own leaps. Now, we have rendered motion capture in films that looks realistic and emotive, even in close-up, such as in “War for the Planet of the Apes.”

In short, visuals have gotten a lot of the credit for what is making films more and more immersive. Less obvious is the way sound design and score have changed the way we engage with films.

How we got here

Sound design has always been one of the most “magical” aspects of film production, and the most deceptive.

What we hear as something simple, say, the sound of a bridge exploding in the early battle sequence of “Apocalypse Now,” is actually the amalgamation of dozens, if not hundreds, of individual sound clips, including some of bowling pins falling. The famous “Law & Order” clang — you know the one — is an amalgamation of more than a dozen sounds: a jail cell slamming shut, a gavel striking and, reportedly, five hundred Japanese monks walking across a hardwood floor.

Furthermore, every movie we watch is an imperceptible mix of sounds recorded on set and later in studio — a process known as automated dialogue replacement. For a particularly intense example, check out this video of Hugh Jackman recording the grunts and shouts for his fight scene in “Logan”:

 

It’s been a long journey to that level of seamless integration. The birth of sound in film — synchronized sound, that is, rather than orchestral accompaniment — began in earnest in the mid to late 1920s.

We’ve come a long way since then. In particular, we’ve gotten better at mimicking realistic sounds and at augmenting them — the famous “Hollywood punch,” for example, which sounds far more impactful than an actual punch, comes to mind.

But I’d like to argue that in the last 20 years, we’ve seen another minor revolution in the way films utilize sound — in particular, in the relationship between sound design and score.

What’s in a score?

Diegetic sounds aside, a film’s score was its primary conduit into your emotions for the majority of the 20th century. Swelling, beautiful orchestral numbers tugged at heartstrings during emotional speeches, while screeching, violent violin bowing connoted horror.

Often, a film’s score would become synonymous with the film itself — an emblem of the film’s identity.

Perhaps no composer has produced more scores with this quality than John Williams. His musical accompaniments to films such as “Star Wars,” “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “Harry Potter” and “Jurassic Park” have ingrained themselves into the cultural psyche. To hear a single note of those pieces is to bring back a flood of images and emotions associated with those films.

But, around the turn of the century, things started to change.

Sound design at the fore

Check out this video by Nerdwriter, in which he demonstrates the way that Steven Spielberg ratchets up the tension in a scene from his 2005 film “Munich”:

As Nerdwriter notes, this scene actually doesn’t have music at all. All of the tension, all of the emotion Spielberg wants to build in this scene is accomplished via sound design. Rather than representing reality accurately — portraying the sounds that a person standing next to the camera would hear at a given moment — the sound design in “Munich” subtly selects sounds to emphasize in order to place the viewer somewhere else in the scene or make them feel a certain emotion.
Sound design takes over what would have been accomplished via music in previous decades: building suspense.

Let’s come back to “Dunkirk.” It’s a film whose score, penned by Hans Zimmer, bites viscerally into your brain to impose an ever-building, never-ceasing ticking tension that refuses to let go for the entirety of the film. But could you hum it to yourself while walking down the street? Can you bring the melody or main theme of that score to mind now?

This video, released by Vox, highlights some of the effects — namely, the “Shepard Tone” — which make Zimmer’s score so powerful:

In short, Zimmer has started trading recognizable melody for scores that behave more like sound design.

Compare the difference between the original “Pirates of the Caribbean” score (which was co-scored by Klaus Badelt) and Zimmer’s score for the third film in the franchise. While themes from the original (the famous “Pirates” melodies) aren’t thrown away, most new additions to the score are atmospheric and amelodic.

And then there’s “Inception.” While it does have more traditional score elements — like this theme — its most famous sound by far is the “BWAAAHHH” foghorn effect that has been oft reused and even parodied prolifically since its release.

The now-iconic cue was created by slowing down Édith Piaf‘s “Non, je ne regrette rien,” the “kick” song in the film designed to raise people from dreams. It was a transmutation and transformation by which music actually became a diegetic sound design element of the film.

Immersing ourselves in sound

We are now in a new era for sound in film — one that started in the mid-2000s.

We’ve seen the iconic, recognizable, melody-driven scores like those Williams produced in the ‘90s and early ‘00s recede somewhat into the background, to be compounded by scores which are intertwined with the sound design of their films.

Do all films now do this? No, plenty still utilize traditional scores, such as those composed by Michael Giacchino or most recently, Jonny Greenwood’s “Phantom Thread” score. But those films which are pushing the barriers of the medium (and winning awards for it) seem to be moving toward soundscapes constructed for their subconscious effects.

Why?

I argue that, as we inch ever closer to some zenith (or hell, depending on your opinion) of virtual-reality immersion, the role of sound in some films has moved to mirror the trends in increasing film resolution and CGI realism.

Like newly impressive visuals, sound design — always the secret hero behind the scenes (the “Dark Knight” we don’t deserve, but need?) — is shouldering an ever-larger responsibility for constructing the viscerality of the films we are watching. This is particularly true for those films which, rather than leveraging both camera and music as an artistic perspective, try to place you inside the action and space of the narrative.

Rather than attempting to establish a recognizable sonic brand for films, music, at times, is moving to augment the sound design — or occasionally become part of it.

That’s not to say that music has lost its place in cinema. The ability to leverage sound design and subtle scores alone to craft immersive realism is both innovative and impressive. But immersive realism isn’t the goal of every film — in fact, it’s explicitly not the goal of many of them. And film is a shockingly new endeavor, when placed next to the history of humanity’s relationship with music and sound.

So whether by leveraging amelodic sound, music from popular culture or carefully constructed scores, film will always rely on its symbiotic partner to remain impactful and emotive.

Contact Imad Pasha at [email protected]. Tweet him at @prappleizer.