Music and Meaning

I feel like there’s a hole in the way we discuss soundtracks. We talk about using certain instruments or techniques to evoke certain kinds of emotions and associations without ever talking about the specifics of how we do that and why it works. I can’t tell if there’s some big conversation going on about this I’ve somehow managed to miss or if this is just something that somehow doesn’t get talked about, and a quick google search has turned up nothing, so let’s just get into it and if it turns out this is actually its own field of study with its own terminology then I’ll just have to look like an idiot later.

Okay.

So we’ve been trying to use music to evoke complex ideas for some time. Symphonic Poems, symphonies created to evoke a given piece of art or poetry through music, stood itself apart from earlier forms of music, which were either meant to accompany the opera or ballet or were meant to be purely musical exercises, not related to evoking any emotion or idea in particular. Of course, once we had film, we found that it was kind of weird and awkward to sit there and watch something in spooky silence, so we started playing music to accompany it, and soon the music also included rough foley effects. This was the precursor to the modern soundtrack, the music that accompanied non-musical action, baked straight into the movie – not singing, not dancing, just a couple having a heartfelt conversation about where their lives are going or a man walking away from an explosion.*

Music, even without lyrics, has symbolism. The most obvious form of this is mimicry: If you want to evoke an icy environment, use crystalline sounding instruments like chimes, or thin windy instruments that sound like the wind through the snows, or abrupt snapping percussion that sounds like ice cracking. The second form of this is onomatopoetic, using sound to evoke an environment or action in a less direct way – this can be difficult to quantify, but the famous Jaws theme is an outstanding example, the slow insistent motion evoking waves and the gradual crescendo to something faster and more insistent evoking something terrifying moving underneath them. The third, and probably actually the most common, is the associative: We associate sexy ladies with saxophone solos because we associate saxophone solos with sexy ladies. Among other things, this frequently provides a handy musical shortcut to communicate what era a flashback or period piece takes place in, though anything past 80 years ago is likely to be interpreted by a modern audience as “I dunno, in ye olde days sometime.”

A curious effect of the last is that, because it’s quite easy to create an association like this, the composer can create her own internal symbolic logic. For instance, Peter and the Wolf gives each character their own musical instruments and theme. Giving a character their own theme or leitmotif is a popular composer’s choice, something that can communicate bits of plot very easily, such as by using variations on a character’s theme during a scene where they appear in disguise. This was actually used often for humorous effect in the comedy series Arrested Development, establishing a short musical sting for a particular character/plot element and then playing it at unexpected moments when that element came up later in discussion (it may have been that part of the reason for this show’s lackluster success were that many of its jokes were too subtle to register as jokes to an audience not paying attention.)

Maybe a big reason this doesn’t get talked about much is that, as with the Arrested Development example, no matter how much the composer thinks about this, no matter how hard they work on it, few in the audience seem to notice the effort. The early areas in Monkey Island 2 have a lovingly crafted adaptive score, where each character has their own variation on the main town theme, with characteristic instrument choices and a bunch of detailed musical transitions, and these are sometimes reprised in later parts of the soundtrack – it’s unlikely we’ll ever see its like again in a game, since it was such a massive effort for a result that almost no one noticed. Inception cleverly used a musical motif, slowed down progressively, to viscerally communicate an idea about how its world operated – a motif since appropriated by other films going for that ‘epic movie feel’ without any appreciation for the original symbolic logic of its use.

Maybe most audience members just don’t give a shit about soundtracks.

The thing is, if soundtracks have meaning, it’s possible for soundtracks to have unfortunate and unintended meanings. I saw the play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a play about an autistic teenager: The soundtrack seemed very intentional, using arpeggiatic constructs to evoke a sort of mathematics-tinged outlook and loud overwhelming distorted sounds to evoke the idea of being painfully overstimulated. It also had a kind of glitchy aesthetic to it, which struck me as odd. Was this intended to suggest that he was like a computer? Or, worse, a poorly programmed computer, or a malfunctioning one? Well, most likely it’s just that the composer associated these sounds with math and rational thinking, but in that specific context it had some rather unfortunate implications…

To me, anyway. I’m the only one who notices these things, apparently.

*I may be entirely off-base as to the musical history here. As I said, I wasn’t sure what search terms to use to do more research on this stuff.
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