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Behind the Screens: Analysing film soundtracks with zero music knowledge

To not think about a film’s sound is to not think about cinema as a whole experience. However, I’m not going to lie, I have no musical knowledge. For me, soundtracks are one of the most inaccessible elements of film. Yet I’ve learnt by trial and error (and a lot of YouTube videos) that you don’t need to understand music theory to catch a glimpse of the meanings of soundtracks. A great starting point is to simply understand how music makes you feel, and then ask yourself why. Your answers start small – this song makes me feel sad – and you can build from there, considering what this means in relation to a scene. It is in this connection, between sight and sound, we find hidden meanings, story resolutions and emotional journeys – all without a drop of musical theory. 

One of my favourite movies of all time is La La Land, and, thanks to being a musical, it possesses bucketfuls of musical symbolism. The final scene of Seb’s jazz bar is one of the most poignant scenes I have watched. The rose-tinted veneer of the musical numbers comes to an end, as both Mia and Seb got their ‘happy ending’, just not with each other. Mia’s story arc concluded with her being a successful actress, but Seb, who always reflected and romanticised the past, never quite being able to let go, is not yet finished. His final piece is a musical medley of their relationship, that turns into a dream sequence of what could have been. The music forces us to reflect, just like Seb, on their relationship and how it almost went so right for them. The music taunts its audience to hope for a happy ending. After seven minutes of montage, the music slows to only a piano, as it plays the simple melody of Mia and Seb’s theme once more. Seb plays it slower and slower, dragging out every key as if he doesn’t want it to end: the melody, and their relationship, helplessly falls through our fingers. But Seb never finishes their theme. What does this tell the audience? That he’s not ready to let go of their relationship for one, but it is also a question for Mia as to whether or not she would like to continue their song. She shakes her head, and Seb leaves the song, starting a new piece instead. Maybe Mia, Seb, and the audience could never get their happy ending of musical proportions, but at least Seb experiences closure, and the dream of La La Land can now come to an end. It’s fitting that a film about music would have its resolution in it as well. 

There’s little chance of me talking about soundtracks without talking about Shrek and how it’s a great example of how pop songs can emotionally enrich a soundtrack. The YouTuber Sideways has a whole video about this which I would highly recommend, but I will condense it for you here. When we hear All Star or Bad Reputation, we recall Shrek as happy in the swamp and then fighting people, rendering him a conventional villain. However, if we actually remember the plot, Shrek isn’t happy in the swamp, as he is lonely, and he dislikes the reputation that comes with being an ogre. The pop songs are therefore deliberately misleading; they don’t align with characters’ feelings but instead what people expect from them. Whereas the Shrek score accompanies genuine and honest character moments. 

In Shrek 2, we get Shrek storming the castle, one of my favourite scenes of all time. If you listen to the song, it actually has Shrek’s hero theme (as heard in the first film) woven into it, meaning the song represents Shrek’s desire to be the hero, at odds with society’s external pressure for him to be the villain. And as an audience rejoicing this epic moment, we feel this journey through the music. 

It’s a very similar principle to the scene where Miles Morales finally becomes Spiderman in Spiderman: Into the Spider-verse. The whole film is about Miles accepting and embracing both parts of his identity, a Hispanic-Black teenager from Brooklyn and the next Spiderman, represented in the music by hip-hop and a classical score respectively. It is in this scene, where Miles learns to embrace his role and his responsibility, that they weave together for the first time. Both Miles and the audience are finally emotionally fulfilled. While pop songs here are used to contrast to the main score emotionally or ideologically, pop songs generally are linked to a character’s emotions. Sometimes this is very simply done, other times we need to spend time thinking about what precisely the characters are feeling in a given moment. 

I’ve briefly mentioned the idea of musical themes, and this underpins a lot of film scoring. Often characters or an idea is represented through a piece of music, which is played at times in the movie when it relates to that character or idea. Star Wars is a great one to practice this because John Williams has a theme for everything, from certain relationships to the idea of ‘the force’. Musical themes are an easy element to analyse and appreciate without knowledge of music, audiences simply have to recognise the significance of when it’s played and what’s on-screen. In fact, I think is the easiest way of starting out thinking about movie soundtracks. Audiences perhaps risk losing an intricate understanding of the soundtrack by not understanding, but association is a powerful tool that everyone has the capability of wielding. Starting with association, one can begin to understand why some pieces of music send shivers down your spine, whereas others can feel stale and boring. In terms of filmmaking, audiences’ emotional reaction sits at the very centre of their experience, and everybody has access to that.

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