Soundtrack Secrets: The Underlying Lessons in Your Favorite Films

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A wise man once said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture (whether that man was Elvis Costello or Frank Zappa is up for debate, as is whether or not that hurts my feelings as a music writer). Maybe the sentiment is a little harsh, but the underlying principle can be useful: sometimes it’s better to just experience an artform rather than dissect it.

As we set our sights on the art of the film soundtrack, it seems best to do a little bit of both. Every great instance of music in film is great for a reason, and there’s no better way to come to understand what works and why than by simply listening to it for yourself with an analytical ear. Fortunately, the lessons we’re gleaning from these iconic examples are ones that can be readily useful to any filmmakers looking to up their game, whether or not they have access to a full orchestra or Hans Zimmer himself. The musical resources at a filmmaker’s fingertips in 2020 put an incredible amount of sounds within reach without breaking the budget. The real challenge is understanding how to make the most out of it.

Lesson 1: Be willing to let your music clash with what’s taking place on the screen

One of the easiest mistakes to make when scoring a project is assuming that the musical choices will take care of themselves. Of course, there will be those times when the breakup scene calls for a moody piano ballad or the shootout at high noon demands a good “womp, womp, womp”, but there are just as many instances where going with the obvious choice will make the scene feel bland, even cliche. This classic sequence from Scorsese’s  Goodfellas is a great, relatively subtle example of what contrasting music can do to make a scene feel that much more impactful and important. Clapton certainly didn’t have corpses hanging on meathooks in mind when he penned that piano outro on “Layla”; yet, somehow that bittersweet, almost heartsick vibe of a love song fits such a morbid scene better than your typical mafioso funeral march would, and turns what might be a somewhat standard mob movie scene into something more emotionally intriguing.

Lesson 2: Find the sound that manages to capture exactly who your characters are at heart

If you’re not of the mind that Napoleon Dynamite is on par with a Scorsese flick, that’s fine, we don’t have to agree on everything. But what the cult classic is undoubtedly a masterclass on is creating devastatingly quirky characters who are nothing if not unique individuals. The movie’s opening scene portrays not only that steel-strong sense of character through Napoleon’s absurd behavior, but also how some matching music can pull a character’s personality out into the world around them and make us see it through their eyes. After all, what is Napoleon Dynamite in essence if not a bizarre synth dueting with a dinky e-piano?

Lesson 3: When the music is a part of the actual story, take the time to choose a song that’s worth being included

Maybe your film has a spot where music plays a role beyond just setting the mood, wherein your characters are actually interacting with a piece directly. Usually, it’s not going to be so central to the plot that it has to be something very particular, but simply a song to fill a storytelling need. Taking a look at Shawshank’s incredible opera-over-the-PA scene, the music that Andy plays for the prison could have been absolutely anything, with a lot of genres other than opera making a lot more sense on first glance. And yet, the entire scene hinges on the mystique of “Le Nozze di Figaro”, as can be summed up by Red’s classic line, “I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know”. There’s a great lesson to be learned here about how much emotional pull and character insight can  be coaxed out of a scene with the right choice of song.

Lesson 4: Don’t be afraid to commit to a genre or style if it fits the film just right

It seems intuitive to strive for a score that’s diverse – after all, films are certainly diverse in the scope of feelings and themes that they portray. However, sometimes less is more in that regard, and a project might be best served by a soundtrack that dives deeper into a single musical style, rather than one that skims the surface of many. Since Drive came out, it’s been hard to even mention it without calling to mind the neon, 80’s-tinged, vaporwave aesthetic that’s become a part of the film’s identity. This clip of the opening scene really embodies the harmony between the film’s visual aesthetic and the electronica-centered score that was used to reinforce Drive’s nocturnal mood.

Lesson 5: Let the music do all of the talking every now and then

Most of the music you’ll ever use in your projects will be there to serve a supporting role. But if music is such a powerful tool, even when it’s there just to set an atmosphere, what would happen if it was right in the forefront, telling the story in place of dialogue?In the case of this example, one of the most tear jerking cinema-moments in recent memory is what happened. For everyone who loves this famous scene or hates what it does to them,  it’s obvious that the impact comes from the story playing out between Ellie and Carl, one that doesn’t even need a word of dialogue to be beautiful and devastating. In its place is the music, adapting and transforming to the ups and downs of an entire shared life story being told in less than five minutes. To prove that the music is in fact at the heart of this scene, try this fun science experiment at home: watch the scene as you normally would, watch it again muted, and compare the amount of tissues needed. For me, the muted watchthrough only yielded about half of my normal 20.

The most important lesson of all: Where to find everything you need to nail your next film’s soundtrack

All of the examples we’ve looked at are instances where a film’s score has served to elevate everything else around it. And yet, none of them make use of any strategies or principles that are out of reach for even the newest filmmaker. The secret to elevating your soundtracks isn’t by killing your budget with licenses for well-known songs. Like we saw in each of these examples, it’s a sharp sense of things like contrast, characterization, and good old storytelling that make for successful musical moments. That’s not to say that a well-stocked arsenal of music isn’t a crucial tool for filmmakers. The last thing you want is to figure out what kind of song will turn your film’s climax into an award-worthy moment, only to realize you don’t know where to get that music. With a royalty-free music service like Jambox, you never run the risk of having a great idea for your soundtrack with no way to execute it. Our massive library of music is crafted with love by some of the best composers and producers in the business, and is curated to be the answer to every question of what track a scene needs. For every laughing, crying, and “Oh, wow” moment in your next project, give Jambox a try, and make some noise they can’t ignore.

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