Musical Muses: Music and the Filmmaking Process

I remember a dear friend of mine expressing his anger towards Ennio Morricone: ”I don’t understand why he always tells us when and how to feel. There is no free interpretation of the content, and the emotions are induced and manufactured”. I could understand his perspective, and I can also appreciate the kind of realist cinema he personally cherishes. What I could not understand is why be mad at one of the most powerful ‘formalist’ forces (to use a word dear to him) available in the filmmakers toolset?

In a way, I then knew I was not the only person having felt tricked and betrayed by the power of music, feeling strong emotions towards a narrative and visual content that would probably have left me indifferent if it was not for the score. Years ago, this obsession for music in film, and the filmmaking process, turned into the subject for my undergraduate research paper.

How do directors and editors use music in their work? At what point in the filmmaking process would music start to give guidance and take control. Well, it depends.

Some editors would tell you to absolutely avoid the use of temp-tracks, people fall in love with that ‘version’ of the film, and when the score is altered it does not feel ‘right’ anymore. Look into what happened to Alex North’s score for 2001: A Space Odyssey when it was set to compete with the impressions music from Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms had set in Kubrick’s mind.

On the other hand, Editors like Michael Kahn insist to always edit and show rough assemblies with some musical score attached, usually a temp-track. Music is a strong binding power for all the other elements put at work in the assembly of a film.

Some filmmakers introduce music extremely early in the process. Tarantino, for example, likes to find the music he will use in a film before starting to write the script. He seems to enjoy using popular music as a muse in key scenes throughout his films.

The collaboration that really caught my attention years ago was the one of Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone. Somehow the idea of composing the score from discussing characters and themes before even writing the script, and relying on the power of music when then writing, shooting and editing was intriguing and felt empowering. A collaboration between the ‘auteur’ and the composer based on the hidden layers of the film providing mutual guidance and inducing specific moods throughout the making of the film.

My undergraduate thesis was not as exciting. It investigated the use of music throughout the editing process. I was curious to ‘measure’ the impact different approaches would have on the quality of the edit as perceived by an audience.

The same sequences would be edited multiple times, under different musical circumstances. The results would then be presented to various audiences with the same musical score. The research was inconclusive, but the data pointed at a preference for the edits cut using either the actual score or a temp-track with similar mood and tempo as the score.

The real ‘gold’ was not to be found in my little experiment but rather in the research that preceded it. Great filmmaking flourishes out of great relationships and we must continue to nurture our relationship with music and its makers.

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