WHY MUSIC – Part 10: Music and Film
“The eye takes a person into the world. The ear brings the world into a human being. ” – Lorenze Oken
Ever since my childhood in Detroit – immersed in the sounds of Motown and classic Rock and R&B, music had been at the center of my life. With live music being my attraction of choice, I didn’t spend as much time going to movies as other kids. Music was far more than a source of entertainment, however. As a teenager in a city crushed by the collapse of the auto industry and fraught with drugs, crime, and a flailing education system, music was a vital source of sanity and balance. So, when I set out on my career path to help other people overcome challenges and improve their lives through music, I never really considered the possibility of working in the movie business.
Then, one day, that all changed. I was in the heart of Hollywood working for one of the top record producers and taking all the steps to fulfilling my lifelong dream of becoming a successful producer myself. Suddenly, it all fell apart. I developed chronic back pain from childhood scoliosis. I lost my job, I lost my apartment, and I was staring at a pile of debt from college loans. I was a young man on the brink of physical and mental collapse.
Just when I thought I had hit bottom, I had an epiphany. I was sitting in a dark theatre watching Oliver Stone’s Platoon. I was completely blown away by Georges Delerue’s musical score behind that riveting personification and those horrifying images of the Vietnam War. Throughout the movie, I was obsessed with just one thought: “As deeply as I can affect people through music, imagine the impact I can have on the world combining the power of music and film.”
So, I set out on a mission to learn everything I could about film, story and film music. I even went to work with one of the great masters of cinema, Georges Delerue himself. I learned firsthand how music and stories could be used to shift audience’s emotions and shape our attitudes and beliefs, and I eventually came to understand why one of the most addictive and perception-altering drugs on the planet is television. With each step, I became more and more excited by the potential of using these powerful tools for the good of society. Although I didn’t know exactly how I would proceed, I was sure of one thing: by combining the right music with engaging stories and compelling images, we could transform the feelings and perceptions of millions of people in a matter of minutes.
Whenever we watch a film with music, we experience the narrative on two levels: conscious and subconscious. Music shapes the emotional arch and through line of a story by directing the subconscious narration of our minds. In fact, by simply changing the musical score, a filmmaker can radically change what we think we see, manipulating our interpretation of the characters, the images and story being told. This is a powerful alchemy – powerful enough, in fact, to change the perceptions and belief systems of entire cultures. No matter how much audiences and colleagues grasp this conceptually, I find they are always shocked at how truly powerful it is when I actually demonstrate it for them by using different modes of music to score the same scene. Music literally changes the narration in our mind and redefines how we see, not only the characters in film, but also the world around us.
How is it that music has the unique ability to bypass our thinking brain and alter our perceptions without us even knowing it? Music can communicate directly with our limbic system. Although our limbic system is one of the oldest parts of the human brain, is still the place from which we instinctually and emotionally react and make many of our most important decisions. Through a process I call Musical Alchemy – using sound vibration to change the chemical balance of the listener’s brain, our limbic system can be directly informed and programmed by music.
This makes the role of music in film one to be taken quite seriously. Those films, TV shows, commercials, games and music videos are literally shaping the we way we see the world around us, and music is one of the most essential and influential ingredients in the mix. And, unlike the other elements, music carries on and reinforces those perceptions, images and stories in our mind long after the film has ended. Can you imagine hearing the musical theme from E.T. or Jaws without your mind recalling those images and stories?
People are innately drawn to music, even if they are unaware. This is also true of visual programming that effectively incorporates music. Currently 9 out of the top 10 viewed videos on YouTube are music videos, the #1 network TV show in America 7 years in a row is American Idol, and one of the most popular video games is Guitar Hero – all music programs.
When done well and with the benefit of the audience in mind, the mixed alchemy of story and music used in each of these mediums offers one of the most effective means we have to empower ourselves and to positively impact the way we see ourselves and each other in the world. It is important to realize, however, that he who controls the story, controls the future of humanity. As an evolving society, we can choose to leave this control in the hands of those only interested in their personal gain, or we can encourage and support the use of music and film for more meaningful purposes: to create greater empathy, to reduce prejudice and violence, or to improve health practices and education. This doesn’t mean that the entertainment value of music or film should be considered to be any less important. Quite the contrary: whether a film, a TV show, a video game or a music video, the content must be emotionally engaging and deeply entertaining to positively impact and effect a large audience. My only hope and goal is that we can all learn to embrace and use the intrinsic powers of music and story, along with the global impact of media and new technologies, with a conscious intent to make the world a better place.