Films are not only visual- The importance of music in film

I found the third fallacy of Thomas Leitch’s “Twelve fallacies of contemporary Adaptation Theory”  very interesting. The claim “Literary texts are verbal, films visual” seems to be a very true statement, and I wondered what the discrepancy would be in it. Leitch writes, “Films since the coming of synchronized sound, and perhaps even before, have been audio-visual not visual, depending as they do on soundtracks as well as image tracks for their effects.” Leitch’s statement seems so “obvious”, that I didn’t even think about it, but it is true. The power of music can emphasize the plot of the movie, not only instrumentally, but lyrically. I think of a movie like Peter and the Wolf, where particular instruments are represent certain animals. There aren’t any lyrics in the movie, but the music participates in the story telling process.

The movie “Once” also comes to mind, where the performers of the movie are also singing the soundtrack of the movie. Although this movie is not an adaptation, I think intertextuality of this sort works really well.  “The script is a performance text- a text that requires interpretation first by its performers and then by its audience for completion- whereas a literary text requires only interpretation by its readers”, argues Leitch.  In the case of Once, the actors and actresses are interpreting the screenplay, and the songs on the soundtrack are interpretations of the performance in a particular scene.

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5 Responses to Films are not only visual- The importance of music in film

  1. Dana Choit says:

    It’s really interesting that you bring up the notion of lyrics and how they work to tell the story as well. While the songs are picked with a purpose, we don’t always notice (or maybe at least on a first viewing) that the lyrics might match up to precisely what is happening in the narrative. While I definitely think this happens, the fact that Leitch mentions that often soundtracks work to promote the film and vice versa points back at money as the (or a) motivating factor, and makes me think that the genre and film target audience, can often play a role in precisely what is chosen for a film soundtrack. Perhaps there are a few options on the table and a song gets picked because they make the best deal, sounds cynical I know. Regardless, your example of Once is particularly unique since the lyrics and songs are sung by the actors themselves and are truly a part of the narrative itself. Kind of like musical theatre in a way, although it has a completely different “real” feel with the way it was filmed.

  2. It’s funny you should bring this up- my paper proposal was about Wuthering Heights, and in my research the director of the most recent adaptation of the novel (the one we watched the trailer for in class two weeks ago) talked about how she didn’t include a soundtrack in the film beyond the natural sounds the mics picked up from the moors where the film was shot, but she asked Mumford & Sons to compose an original song for the end credits of the film (which, from what I understand, she decided to actually start before the credits began rolling). Arnold, the director in question, stated that she did this because the film was so tough to get through (both shooting and watching) and she wanted to sort of reward the viewer with something really lovely at the end. But the song also fits the film/story pretty well. (E.g.: “And bury me beside you”- Heathcliff is, in fact, buried beside Catherine in the novel, although I don’t think they show his death in the film- I haven’t seen it yet!)

    The point is, Arnold didn’t want to include a soundtrack that would intentionally (and perhaps artificially?) tug at the heartstrings of the audience, but instead considered including one song at the end a sort of treat- meaning Arnold sees the songs included in a film as an enjoyable part of the experience. (And from what I understand, not having seen the film yet but from reading various interviews with Arnold- the film is not intended to be a pleasant/enjoyable viewing experience, but rather a painful one.)

    So, to avoid getting totally off base: I very much like and agree with your point that “the power of music can emphasize the plot of the movie, not only instrumentally, but lyrically.” I also think it can sometimes do so artificially. (Whenever this topic comes up, I think of that funny moment in the tv show Scrubs, when the main character, a doctor, jokes that a swell of emotionally manipulative music should come up while he shares a moment with his mentor. happens around the 2:10 mark.)

  3. I love this point. The idea that music, either through score or lyrics, can truly impact film. Though the Ive blabbered of the obvious examples (Jaws, Star Wars, Superman), there are a lot of films that use music to indicate tone and plot.

    One film that comes to mind immediately is Like Crazy. The film is not an adaptation, but like the example of Once, it falls into the category of performance text as the actors have to interpret before viewers. In this the film uses a mainly piano based score to express change in time, emotion, and relationships amongst the main characters. A good portion of the film is spent showing the main characters exchanging looks without dialogue. In doing this the music serves as a way to set the tone and further their relationship plot.

    Leitch’s designation of film as being audio-visual is brilliantly obvious. I too never saw it as such, but films use music for a lot of different things. Now, even trailers do that (i.e. the somber tone of the lackluster teaser trailer for Man of Steel).

  4. Most of my favorite films have absolutely stunning soundtracks, which is probably not a coincidence. Usually, films that show a mastery of directive talent have an amazing soundtrack because that’s what a good director does. I’m sure my psychotic love for Goodfellas is already abundantly clear, so I’ll only briefly mention that, whenever ranting to some poor soul about how much I love this movie, I never fail to mention how Scorcese has the most acute sense of what popular song will be the perfect fit for a scene. Who knew Layla would go so well with a montage of murder victims? Certainly not me.

    Another movie that has an iconic soundtrack is Requiem for a Dream. The music is as powerful and inimitable as the visual style of the movie. In fact, the main theme is used in a variety of other things, like commercials and movie trailers. I even heard it played at a football game once. That’s an adaptation in and of itself, which is interesting to think about. Consider Leitch’s point of a film being audio-visual, not only visual. It is definitely both audio and visual, but the two also can exist entirely independent of each other. Although the Requiem for a Dream soundtrack is too personal for me to associate it with anything else, I can definitely see why its used as the epic theme of the decade in a bunch of other things. Likewise, the visuals of a film are single entities when it comes to posters, images, memes, screencaps, etc. You can even detach them from their original meaning by just having a screencap, the same way the music can be appropriated to something else when it’s lifted from the accompanying image.

    • Interesting too because the examples you give seem to be about re-appropriating songs from other contexts. It’s not a brand-new song on the soundtrack, but one you’ve heard elsewhere and which is now being used in a unique way.

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