Need to analyse music in film but don't know where to start? In this article, we explain how to analyse music in film or TV and show you how to write about it!
Now sure what you are meant to say about music in a film or TV show? In this filmic techniques article, we explain how to analyse music in film or TV and give you a step-by-step process to follow when writing about it!
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Within a piece of media, whether it be a film, television show or even a video game, music is utilised as another means of expressing meaning to the audience.
The different pieces of music that appear, the timing of those pieces, and the way they develop over the course of a story reveal key ideas about characters, places and even plot points from the text.
Music is a great technique to discuss in essays written about films, as there are so many different ways that you can analyse it.
Most students may be afraid to boldly state what they think music represents in the films or shows they are analysing, but fear not! The great thing about music as a filmic device is that, like metaphors and symbols, their meaning is entirely up to interpretation. So long as you are able to cite evidence to back up your idea, you are able to say whatever you want about a piece of music!
A lot of students forget about music when writing essays in films, or television shows!
It is important to remember that markers are specifically looking for students to discuss techniques specific to the form of a text in their essays. So, an essay analysing a movie should focus on filmic techniques, or techniques specific to film. Camera shots, editing and the composition of a scene are all important examples.
Just as important as what you see in a film is what you hear!
Music is loaded with meaning, and students should do the best they can to use it in support of their arguments.
When students come across a piece of music in a film, the first step they usually take is to categorise it as either diegetic or non-diegetic.
Music achieves a lot of things in film and television. Amongst other things, music:
The question is, how is this accomplished? Why does music create a certain effect? How does it make a scene scary, or funny, or emotional?
There are certain qualities that can make music sound a particular way. Even if you don’t know much about musical theory, the pacing and timbre (pronounced tam-ber) are two elements that you can easily keep in mind!
With pacing, faster music can make a scene feel more tense, whereas slower music can feel more emotional.
The timbre of a piece of music is basically the tonal colour, or quality of that music. You can think of it in terms of how certain instruments inherently sound. For example, you may wish to describe sounds as brassy, bright, dark, scratchy, harsh, warm, mellow, peppy, heavy, light etc.
A slow, heavy piano solo in a sad scene can create a sombre atmosphere, whilst a fast, peppy piano solo might create a more comedic atmosphere. These words can help you describe why you think a certain piece of music makes a scene feel!
Music is also able to express the feelings and motivations of characters through the use of leitmotifs.
Leitmotifs are recurring musical phrases that appear throughout a film, associated with a particular character, place, theme or situation.
When these specific musical phrases appear at different moments in a film, or change over the course of a story, this can create a vast amount of meaning for the audience!
For example, let’s consider ‘Hedwig’s Theme’, originally composed by John Williams, from the Harry Potter movie franchise. ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ is a very famous leitmotif, and almost always the first song people think about when they remember the Harry Potter films!
The leitmotif is first heard in the very first scene of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, when Harry is dropped off to the Dursleys as a baby. This piece of music could arguably represent the wizarding world as a whole, and signifies the existence of that world to the audience for the first time here.
The leitmotif appears countless times during the next seven films, but evolves most notably in the final film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II. In this film, ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ appears within a piece of music titled ‘In the Chamber of Secrets’, though the melody is cut off. The leitmotif is interrupted, and the audience is left feeling empty or uneasy as the iconic song is left unfinished. This could perhaps symbolise the destruction of the wizarding world at the hands of Voldemort.
Musical Foreshadowing is another thing to keep in mind when listening to film music.
Sometimes, within a movie, a piece of music might play which signals to the audience what is about to happen next.
We may not realise it at first, but the ways in which music appears and sounds at key moments can spoil the story!
A great example of this appears in the 1975 film Jaws, in which the iconic two-tone motif (that famous duunnn dun… duuuuun dun) appears, and grows increasingly faster, whenever the shark is about to appear. Even though we may not see Jaws, the music itself creates a feeling of horror, or dread. The music directly foreshadows the appearance of the shark, and the terror that is about to come.
So now that we understand the importance and uses of music in films and television, let’s go step-by-step and see how we can analyse it as a technique within our essays!
Here, it is imperative to ask yourself: what do I think this music represents? Have you heard that melody before? What character, theme, place, object, etc. can you tie the music to?
Now, it is worth mentioning that leitmotifs are very much up for interpretation; I might say that ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ in the Harry Potter franchise represents the wizarding world, but you might wish to say it embodies the theme of hope.
Both are acceptable, so long as you can back up your argument!
Once you have decided what the music will represent, analyse the way it sounds!
It is very useful to pay attention to the way certain leitmotifs evolve throughout a film, or series, as these pieces of music become examples to illustrate how characters, places or themes change throughout the story! Leitmotifs that do not evolve at all are just as interesting; they might signal to the audience that the character, theme or place has remained the same!
How does this music fit into your overall argument? What is it saying about the thesis, or theme, that you are writing about?
Let’s use ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ as an example again. Here, if we argue that the leitmotif represents hope, then it’s appearance when Harry is dropped off a Dursley’s signifies that his character will become the hope for the wizarding world.
The theme can also be heard when countless owl’s deliver Hogwarts acceptance letters to the Dursley home later in the film, highlighting the hope Hogwarts brings to Harry after being abused by his Aunt and Uncle for so many years.
T.E.E.L stands for:
Let’s use this structure to analyse ‘Hedwig’s Theme’:
Let’s put this together into a sample T.E.E.L paragraph:
Throughout the Harry Potter film franchise, the piece of music titled ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ appears countless times as a leitmotif to represent hope. In the first film, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the music plays when Harry receives his Hogwarts acceptance letter, despite his Aunt and Uncle’s attempts to hide it from him for so long. Here, the music becomes an embodiment of the hope that Hogwarts and the wizarding world bring to Harry after being neglected for so long. This leitmotif, and the hope it represents, pervades even through all of the struggles Harry faces throughout the films. In the final movie, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, Hogwarts is under siege by Voldemort and his Death Eater army. Though, ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ can still be heard. The leitmotif is slightly different; the rhythm is slower, and the melody is interrupted by the beating of a loud drum. This evolution of the theme represents the resilience of hope, and it’s ability to persist even in the darkest of situations.
If you are looking for a film or television series to analyse as a related text, these are some examples with particularly great music to unpack!
Learn how to analyse and discuss music in your English response with Matrix+! We provide you with clear, structured online lessons, resources and feedback to support your learning.