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What role does cinematic music play in creating tension?

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´╗┐David Cartwright LVI, General Studies Music In Film 26/11/2012 Music in Film ________________ What role does cinematic music play in creating tension? In a time in which films were better known as ?moving pictures?, the atmosphere in a 1900s theatre was one of awe-struck silence, interrupted only by the drone of the kinescope spinning through hundreds of metres of film reel and the occasional rustle of the ?intertitles? as viewers followed events with the aid of written notes. Today, more than a century after the projection of The Berlin Wintergarten Novelty Program (1895), the first motion picture to grace a cinema?s screens, audiences are able to enjoy not only the actors? voices, but also the film scores: arguably one of the most valuable assets in a film director?s arsenal. However, ?real life? is not accompanied by epic soundtracks, which leads to the question of how pivotal music really is in film. The titles that have left a sizeable imprint in cinematographic history, ranging from the iconic Psycho (1960) to Monsters Inc. (2001) all contain, to many, the most memorable type of scene: that of tension. Whether they were intended to leave audiences in a cold sweat for the duration of the screening (and the following nights), or simply to give viewers a momentary instance of edge-of-seat suspense, the most successful films have employed music to maximum effect to play on paranoia, evoke fear and elevate pulses. ...read more.


Set in a child?s bedroom at night, the scene opens with the click of a light-switch, followed by a still shot of the child?s toys. The absence of music in the film, which has almost constant score throughout, suddenly becomes prominent; prompting listeners to strain their ears is search of sound, in the same way a frightened child would at night. Once again, anticipation is married perfectly with the music; it is not difficult to predict that this scene (bearing in mind the film?s name) will be one of fright. As the camera pans over the dozing child, the reassuring long, drawn out notes of a horn sound to reflect steady breathing, putting both the audience and on-screen character at ease, although it should be noted that the progression that the horn undergoes is not in a major key, suggesting- as it did in Psycho- that the scene has a climax of tension in store. The soft notes are high and regular, which makes the sudden jarring of the camera towards an open door all the more shocking. A single low staccato note designed to scare the audience at this point stops the edgy legato, forming a complete contrast with the opening tune. Such a leap to an ?innocently? open door is the first step up this scale of tension, and the camera apparently recovers, reflected by the lighter, more playful version of the initial long notes. ...read more.


In the references to this essay are the links to the 3 films that have formed the basis of the discussion. Watching the clips through with sound, as they should be seen, will almost certainly evoke some form of fearful psychological reaction from the viewer. However, what would happen is one was to watch the clips again on mute? Music can no longer perform its magic and Psycho becomes a low-budget clip of a woman writing, a plughole, and that woman being slain in an almost humorously unrealistic fashion by a man that suddenly appears. Monsters Inc. devolves into a series of random shots of toys, a boy in bed, a sudden cut to an open door and a the abrupt appearance of a monster, with the comedy that follows completely marred by the fact that it has no preceding suspense to make light of. American Psycho: well, if this scene didn?t include music, it would have fared slightly better than the others due to Christian Bale?s admirable performance, but it would have degenerated into a calculated murder, rather than the impulsive display of insanity that it was meant to portray. Without the underlying threats, hints and unspoken explanations that cinematic music provides, these titans of the big screen would be nothing, relegated to the recesses of our memory for their laughable dullness. ...read more.

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