How Composers Enhance the Storytelling Experience

January 10, 2023
6 mins read

It is without question that a movie’s score holds significant importance. There are certain motifs, like John William‘s Star Wars, Howard Shore‘s Lord of The Rings, or Bernard Herrmann‘s murderous violin motif for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. However, music goes far beyond creating a memorable theme tune, as compositional techniques composers use can convey their musical language to engage in the film’s story world.

Complexity in storytelling is, without exception, an impressive skill. Uncovering the sacrifices, challenges and bravery in specific scenarios brings forward a sense of emotion to the audience. The visual element is in place, but what about the music? Composers hired to write the music specifically have the role of capturing the scenic environment through sound.

Furthermore, they convey the character’s emotions and communicate this to the audience. The score becomes a key feature in many turning points that indicate change. A non-diegetic sound can be a catalyst for enforcing the said emotion into our perspectives. Here are a few ways composers do this by looking at case studies.

Music and Time – Interstellar

Interstellar is not only a masterpiece in narrative layering by Christopher Nolan, but Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer‘s ingenious score is also so unbelievably clever. How? Well, here are a few compositional techniques Zimmer uses to unravel the sonic environment and mood of the movie.

A Composer Writing Music

Let’s start with the concept of Time. One of the driving factors behind this movie, a lot of the on-screen action responds to one of the characters’ most significant challenges. Looking particularly at the scene where Cooper and Dr Brand land on Miller’s Planet. Without trying to spoil it, Miller’s Planet is located relatively close to the ginormous black hole Gargantua.

We already know that being very close to a black hole will come with some obstacles, one of which is time dilation. Every hour spent on Miller’s Planet equals seven whole years on Earth, a detrimental time loss. Knowing this information is going to catalyse fear and panic. So how does Zimmer show this?

Time is Ticking

The cue for this unforgettable scene is entitled Mountains. Breaking down the music, the first feature we hear is the distinct ticking. This is a representation of the importance of time. The textures start to gradually build throughout with the presence of the high organ ostinatopulsating strings and a piano riff.

The tempo gradually speeds up to land on this enormous chord. Following this, we hear this glissando bass that descends much deeper in the texture while the ostinato lines keep cycling through. Zimmer further thickens the texture with an exclamation of col legno strings playing the ticking sound. Using the wood of the bow on a string instrument closely mimics the ticking of a clock. A choir is also heard singing large swells to accentuate the tension even more.

Watching the video above, knowing what is happening with texture, it’s carefully timed. When they step onto the planet, the ticking begins. When the tension begins to start rising, the music speeds up. Finally, when they both realise the mountains are towering waves, the striking chord lands on this visual moment.

The most genius factor of this music is that each tick heard at the beginning of the cue music is timed nearly enough mathematically correct to the time dilation represented in the film. Each tick represents one whole day on Earth. While some may think Zimmer did this unintentionally, others believe this specific feature was written on purpose.

Music and Language – Arrival

Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve, follows a highly skilled linguistics expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who is tasked to interpret the language of these mysterious alien creatures that come to earth. Composer Johann Johannsson was commissioned to write the score, which is unquestionably compelling. Johannsson takes this thought-provoking topic of linguistics and translates this in a proficient and stellar way. The eeriness, tension building and use of certain sounds reflect the atmosphere and themes in this film.

The concept of communicative language is what Arrival is centred around. One moment in particular that we will investigate is when science expert Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) explains the situation they have at hand, their methods and the necessary information they have gathered from this UFO appearance. He also touches on communication and language.

Verbal Structures and Individual Perceptions

The track heard in this scene montage is titled Heptapod B. As the movie is based around language, Johannson heavily uses vocals in the score to reflect this. Furthermore, the vocals do not have any known language; they’re just sounds. Taking away that verbal language inherently takes away any meaning to those verbal sounds. This also provides a similar experience to watching the researchers in the story world are experiencing. The alien verbal sounds are sounds we don’t understand; Johansson also does this with the score.

This video essay from Listening In gives an excellent insight into this film score. They explain how the music blends into the environment so well that it’s hard to distinguish between diegetic and non-diegetic sounds in places. The cyclic nature of the alien’s language is also represented in the music by having repeated ideas that cycle throughout. Another significant finding from this analysis is the theory of how the language that you speak determines how you think. Musically this is shown by the vocal sounds amongst the drone sounds, where distinguishing the film score from the diegetic sound becomes blurred.

When looking out for soundtracks, finding something that may blend with the environment on screen can enhance your scene, adding tension and a more immersive sonic environment.

Music Speaks Louder Than Words – Up

The movie Up, directed by Peter Docter, uses music to communicate emotions through just one theme. A movie representation of love, loss, adventure and family is conveyed visually and musically. Michael Giacchino did an excellent job presenting these emotions, ultimately enhancing the storyline.

So how does Giacchino use musical language to convey such emotions? Up touches upon themes across all ages; the opening montage of Carl and Ellie’s life shows the essence of a living relationship in just 4 minutes.

With Giacchino using one theme (Ellie’s theme), it ebbs and flows through different instrumentations to reflect certain emotions. The waltz celebrates their love whilst also depicting grief and loss.

The tempo slows, and the instrumentations get thinner. Using repetition of this theme enables a more engaging listening experience. Still, the texture change with the same melody allows us to experience the sentimentality of the couple’s life and grief of Carl. There’s no dialogue which helps the music to speak even more for itself and becomes the primary driver of communication to the audience.  

The Power of Ellie’s Theme

The prominence of Ellie’s theme throughout the film doesn’t go unnoticeable. The theme represents Carl’s love for her and their life together but then becomes associated with Carl’s grief due to Ellie’s illness. Music after the initial montage means Carl’s expression of feelings that he may be unable to put into words.

Because the main goal for Carl is to get to Paradise Falls, a dream both his late wife and himself had since they were young, is the main driver for the film. However, when he gets there after enduring an array of obstacles, we’d expect it to be a triumphant moment. Instead, it’s quite the opposite. We hear no music. Silence can be deafening and a statement that this dream has changed. Knowing what he has in the present, not living for his past, is what Carl should relish.

Below, Listening In has done another excellent video essay on the soundtrack explaining the psychology behind the meaning of the music in Up.

We find that he looks in his memory book of himself and Ellie. This becomes a catalyst to start Ellie’s theme once again, but a representation that Carl himself has claimed this musical idea. It belongs to him and his new adventures. It shows the importance of the value of life and what you currently have. All are portrayed with this one theme.

You are utilising your musical ideas, whether a prominent theme or a particular texture. Finding those nuances within the music can enhance the storytelling. Finding tracks with a similar texture to the sonic environment portrayed on screen can make the sound world more immersive. Repetitioning a specific theme enables a more engaging listening experience and a way to connect with a character. This can be a game changer in the storytelling of your films. 

For more on film music, check out the following articles:

Zoe Sones

Zoe Sones is a UK-based composer who focuses on acoustic contemporary classical and ambient electronic composition. In her works, she explores an array of textures and timbres of both instruments and nature’s very own sounds. She enjoys creating haunting electronic drones, writing harmonically rich and serene chords, while also being a bedroom DJ.