I’m about to fail miserably.
Let me explain.
In the introduction to Scott Miller’s book Strike Up the Band, he writes:
“[…] Words alone can never have the dramatic power or intensity of emotion that music possesses. The great director and teacher Konstantin Stanislavski said that the abstract language of music is the only direct way to the human heart. And in this modern world where emotions – particularly big emotions – are often considered inappropriate, inconvenient, even impolite, where the expression of full-bodied emotion has been “civilized” out of most of us, the extreme, unapologetic emotionalism of musical theatre offers audiences a much needed release.”
Music has an innate emotional connection to us. That connection speaks to us on a level we are incapable of reaching with words. That’s why we have music. When we can’t explain how we feel, when we can’t deal with how we feel, when we want to feel something specific, or when we just want to feel something… there’s music.
Every film that’s ever made you wipe your eyes on your hands/sleeve/tissues had help. The story, characters, and dialogue undoubtedly had their part in reducing you to a heap of failed attempts at controlled breathing and unstemmable ocular leaking, but the music dealt the killing blow.
That’s why scenes like the possession/friendship-is-awesome scene from the end of Order of the Phoenix…
…or the dancing bag scene from American Beauty…
…or The Iron Giant’s “Superman” scene…
…are all emotional knockouts.
While the above examples are accentuated by their music, there are two examples of films that depend completely upon it.
The first is John Carpenter’s Halloween.
John Carpenter provided a cut of Halloween to executives before he composed the music. They were unimpressed, didn’t think the film was scary, and were considering not releasing it.
After composing and recording the score, he applied it to the exact same cut of the film. Suddenly, it was the most terrifying thing they had ever seen.
The second film that comes to mind depends entirely on music for a short interlude. That is Disney/Pixar’s UP.
If you haven’t seen UP, or if it’s been a while, this sequence alone is worth more than most movies. There is no dialogue. The music is playful, touching, and tragic. It narrates the story of Carl and Ellie’s life with subtlety and grace; I daresay better than any spoken narration could.
Of course these examples are all loaded with angst, terror, and sadness, but if you took the music out, we’d all have much better odds of maintaining our composure.
But that wouldn’t be the point.
These film scores are designed to elicit an emotional response that we might not give willingly because, like the quote at the beginning states, “emotion has been ‘civilized’ out of most of us…”
It’s not just movies that use music to push us beyond our comfort zones, either. We do it to ourselves. When my wife and I work out, we make sure to load up a playlist full of hard-hitting music. It helps us concentrate to push ourselves further than we could listening to the motor of the treadmill and our own quick, shallow breaths. Even if there are only moderate physiological effects from the music, there is still a psychological effect: inspiration.
Think about when you need to listen to specific kinds of music. For me, the list would go something like:
- Angry – Metal, Rap, Techno
- Happy – Rock, Pop Punk, Showtunes
- Sad – Emo (duh), Folk, Alternative
- Sexy – Barry White.
Granted, that’s a small example of both emotions and styles, but you get the idea. I may need to listen to something from the Happy section because I’m feeling Sad. Or, in order to achieve a catharsis, I’ll “go around the horn” by hulking out to Tool or Rage Against the Machine. Either way, I’m still using music to manipulate my mental and emotional states.
Music can make us fly or bring us to our knees. It can speak to a part of us we thought was long dead, take us back to an afternoon in high school when we were driving with a car full of friends and the windows down, or simply be something to cut the deafening silence. Some of my experiences with live music vie for the top spots in my life.
Like I said when we started this, I have failed at articulating exactly what I felt when I got the inspiration for this post, but that’s because it was inspired by watching a group of students singing an a capella version of Imogen Heap’s Hide and Seek. It reminded me of performing music in high school and college, how much I miss it, and what kind of power music holds over us all.
One of my favorite things is when I hear a song that was overplayed in its day, but that I haven’t heard in years. Because now it’s like this old friend that I’ve photoshopped (autotuned?) all the imperfections out of, and I’m just happy to be bombarded by all the memories that are attached to that annoyingly catchy “toothpaste commercial” of a song.
Maybe that’s what this post is really about. Remembering how great music is and how much we take it for granted. Maybe it’s nothing you don’t already know, but it’s something we let slip under the radar and we need to be reminded from time to time.