Screenmancer Exclusive presents
"THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON MUSIC"
By Daniel Levitin, Neuroscientist, Musician, Author, Professor at McGill University, Montreal [Excerpted for Screenmancer by D. Levitin, Copyright D. Levitin]
Introduction By Quendrith Johnson Music in Hollywood Movies: What's the Score?
From the silents to talkies, from art-house dramas to Summer Blockbusters, Hollywood has always had an ear for the dramatic as far as the film score is concerned. Even the much-maligned "Birth of a Nation," which has its detractors for legitimate reasons, had a score hatched together from grandiose orchestral pieces.
The Golden Age of film scoring is roughly 1933-1956, according to the organization for American Composers. This period encompassed Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, and put classical music behind the most unlikely characters (e.g; Disney's "Fantasia" with dancing Mushrooms).
From the 50's haute take on music, came the rebellious melodies of 60's countercultural Rock'n'Roll romps on screen ("Easy Rider") to Henry Mancini's lush tones that set the sonic stage for beautifully crafted memorable cinema music.
Consider the haunting strains of Jerry Goldsmith in "Chinatown," and the trance-like sheen Vangelis gave to "Blade Runner," or in more recent films, the gorgeous breadth of the score in the capable hands of John Williams, perennial Oscar(r) winner Hans Zimmer, and the former cab driver turned post-modern Bach, Phillip Glass.
With each "Nouvelle Vague" (new wave) in film, comes a new sound -- from Italian Neo-Realism (Sergio Leone) to the use of pure American sonic inventions like Jazz, Dixieland, Hip Hop, and the encroachment of F/X tinged ambient wallpapers of sound.
Today in "film" we may not even be hearing what we think we are hearing with the onslaught of drum machines, Kurzweil-inspired rain showers, or noise environments that make John Cage's 100 hours on a long wire seem reasonable.
Musical scores in films now take on such a complex character that motion pictures like Woody Allen's nostalgic "Sweet and Lowdown," with its simple musical centerpieces, are a respite from the digital sound scape. Not that prior eras haven't had their experimenters, for example Leon Theremin's eponymous instrument (invented in 1921) became the sonic soul of B-Movies and television thrillers.
Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin explores the role of music in piquing our visual interest in "This is Your Brain on Music." He addresses some of the very issues that the digital music score presents. A renown speaker and best-selling author, Levitin is also a musician and former music producer, whose life's work has been featured in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and the London Sunday Telegraph as well as many other publications. He is a Professor of Music and Psychology, and founding member of The Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology at McGill University, Montreal, Canada.
FROM "THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON MUSIC: The Science of Human Obsession"
By Daniel Levitin, Neuroscientist, Musician, Author, Professor at McGill University, Montreal
The power of music to evoke emotions is harnessed by advertising executives, filmmakers, military commanders, and mothers. Advertisers use music to make a soft drink, beer, running shoe, or car seem more hip than their competitors'.
Film directors use music to tell us how to feel about scenes that otherwise might be ambiguous, or to augment our feelings at particularly dramatic moments.
Think of a typical chase scene in an action film, or the music that might accompany a lone woman climbing a staircase in a dark old mansion: Music is being used to manipulate our emotions, and we tend to accept, if not outright enjoy, the power of music to make us experience these different feelings.
Experiments have shown that the audience's interpretation of an otherwise ambiguous scene can be profoundly influenced by the music.
On one such study, viewers were shown a scene in which a man pursued a woman over a hillside and then along a city street. Close-ups of the man showed that he was intent on his pursuit, and close-ups of the woman showed that she was aware she was being followed and was trying to stay ahead of the man.
Without music, half the people tended toward the interpretation that the woman was being coy, was leading the man on a chase but felt consensual, and at some point would let him catch her (to her delight).
The other half of the people thought that the man was chasing the woman to do her harm, and harm which she understood would be imminent. Thus the film itself was ambiguous between the two interpretations.
However, when the experimenters added music - either "romantic" or "fearful" music - the audience members' interpretations were wildly biased by the type of music. This demonstrates the power of music to set an emotional tone.
In one of the most famous scenes of violence in American film, "Bonnie & Clyde" (Arthur Penn, dir.; Warren Beatty, prod.) used "happy" music during the gunbattle scene, a startling juxtaposition of contradictory visual and auditory moods.
This has now become a frequent technique to signal irony, such as is used on the HBO series "Curb Your Enthusiasm."
The average American uses music for mood regulation, much as many of us use drugs: certain kinds of music help us get out of bed in the morning, another kind helps us to unwind after a hectic day.
Music supervisors enhance our appreciation and understanding of key scenes through their use of time-setting and mood-setting music.
The neurochemical basis for this is just becoming understood, through experiments in my lab and others. We now know that music activates regions of the brain responsible for reward and punishment, and implicated in the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, the "feel good" hormone.
[Excerpted for Screenmancer by D. Levitin, Copyright D. Levitin]