Someone once said: “if you notice the music then it’s not doing it’s job”, referring to the emotive use of the score within a production. It was in an interview with someone, somewhere commenting on the combination of moving visual images and audio. For some reason it stuck.
His statement no doubt spoke volumes of the particular job(s) that he undertook, and his role as he saw it. You may see things differently (are you wrong?) perhaps: “if the music does whatever job you decided it should do, then it’s doing it’s job” would be a better, though uglier and less impactful variation. Not exactly soundbite material, but arguably more useful. Scott Porter has much to say on the subject via the The Beat’s blog:
“With every frame, filmmakers and videographers are trying to convey a specific emotion. The lighting, the location, the energy of an actor’s delivery… these choices are carefully thought out and executed to put the viewer in a certain mindset that’s open to the creator’s intent.”
The underlying point is one of manipulation: leading the viewers to a predefined conclusion without them noticing the journey or the mechanism behind it. Rather than showing the word “applause” on an audience cue-card: show them something that’s stirring, hilarious or poignant enough and they’ll applaud anyway. OK, it’s not quite that simple, it does depend upon the nature of your audience, the material itself and even the context in which it is viewed.
For instance, content that is risqué, male-oriented and comedic may receive a better response when seen on a Friday night pub screen with your male friends, than on a Monday morning work presentation attended by senior female staff (even with a cue card). No, really? Okay that’s an easy one for free, just to make a point. The reality can be infinitely subtler and broader.
Doubt, a change of mind or character, a sudden realisation, the right or wrong choice and more can be conveyed with ‘score’ in the broadest sense, whether via 100 piece orchestra or some minimalist, industrial electronica. If this sounds like some dark art, it’s worth remembering that we are naturally wired for such minutiae. You’ve probably heard the startling claim that only 7% of the meaning of a statement is conveyed directly by the words alone. On film/video, it’s like that only more so.
There’s the whole nature of mise-en-scène to consider, where all the elements of a scene combine to convey the final “message”, intent or effect (not forgetting editing). This factors into theatre, cinema, independent and even corporate video too - everything is information after all.
Have you ever wondered why we don’t see pictures of Hitler cuddling puppies? Or why seemingly perfect families advertise domestic products? Why company product releases are accompanied by strident electronic music? Or why it (almost) always rains at dramatised scenes of funerals or emotional breakups? It’s all designed to tap into our pre-formed associations and our conscious/unconscious emotions, desires and expectations in order to prompt us to think in a certain way about what we are being shown. Even more insidiously, the trick is to get us to believe that we have arrived at the required destination ourselves, and that we genuinely wanted the conclusion to which we have been lead. Then we are sold.
A personal favourite (because it’s fun to spot, and hilarious) has to be the white lab coat of truth. Do you want science on your side? Then hand narration duties over to an onscreen presenter in a white lab coat, and behold: science is suddenly your friend, endorsing your product, your decision, your innovation - all now backed up by hundreds of years of intellectual progress contained within one crucial garment. It must be true.