Matrix Blog

English 11-12

Filmic Techniques: How to Analyse Music in Film or TV

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!

 

Filmic Techniques – Music

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.

 

In this article, we’ll discuss

  • What is music as a technique?
  • What’s so important about music?
  • How can I analyse music in my essay?
  • How can I explain the effects of music in film?

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!

 

What’s so important about 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.

  • Diegetic music is music that exists in the world of the movie. For example, if a song is playing through a character’s earbuds, or radio, in a film, that music is likely diegetic.
  • Non-diegetic music is the opposite; music that does not exist in the world of the film. This is music that only the audience can hear. This distinction is useful to keep in mind, as the effects of diegetic and non-diegetic music may be different.
blog english literary technique music violins

How does music work in film or TV?

Music achieves a lot of things in film and television. Amongst other things, music:

  • Establishes the tone, or atmosphere, of a scene.
  • Gives meaning to the actions, thoughts and feelings of characters
  • Helps to establish the setting.
  • Foreshadows future narrative events.

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!

 

Pacing and timbre

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!

blog english literary technique music leitmotif

Musical leitmotifs

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

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.

 

Want to analyse films like a film critic?

The Matrix Film Analysis Planner will help you develop Band 6 quality film criticism so you can ace your next task!

 

How to analyse music in film and TV – step-by-step

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!

  1. Is the music diegetic, or non-diegetic?
  2. What does the music represent? Is it tied to a certain theme, character, place or object in the film?
  3. Have you heard this music before?
  4. What does it sound like?
  5. Has it changed over the course of the film? Stayed the same?
  6. How does the music develop meaning?
  7. Discuss your insights using a T.E.E.L structure.

Step 1: Diegetic, or non-diegetic?

  • If the music is diegetic, it is useful to consider: Where did it come from? How are the characters interacting with it?
  • If the music is non-diegetic, you may instead wish to think about: What effect is this music having on the audience?
blog english literary technique music hedwig and the angry inch

Not Hedwig, but one of his mates!

Step 2: What does the music represent?

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!

  • Is it fast paced, or more slow?
  • What is the timbre like?
  • What mood or atmosphere does it evoke?
  • Does that music develop over the course of the film? Like ‘Hedwig’s Theme’, does the music change to symbolise a greater event, or plot point in the story?

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!

Step 3: How does the music develop meaning?

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.

 

Step 4: Discuss music using a T.E.E.L paragraph:

T.E.E.L stands for:

  • Technique: The technique used in the example
  • Example: the quote/shot itself.
  • Effect: Your explanation of the effect of this technique and how it develops meaning.
  • Link: An explanation of how this example supports your argument.

Let’s use this structure to analyse ‘Hedwig’s Theme’:

  • Technique: Music (the use of leitmotif)
  • Example: The scene in which Harry receives his letter of acceptance to Hogwarts in the first film, and during the Battle of Hogwarts in the final film.
  • Effect: This leitmotif represents the hope that Hogwarts is for Harry, and the way that hope can remain so long as Hogwarts is standing.
  • Link: This music is used within the franchise to demonstrate the resilience of hope within even the darkest of situations.

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!

  • Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫)
  • Psycho
  • Schindler’s List
  • Made in Abyss (メイドインアビス)
  • The Handmaid’s Tale
  • How to Train Your Dragon
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  • Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

 

Need help analysing music in film?

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.

CTA-Matrix-Plus-Online-English-Year-12

Written by Julia Saab

Julia Saab is a sometimes Arts/Law student at the University of Sydney, sometimes writer, born and raised in Sydney. Julia has worked with Matrix Education since 2016. She is particularly interested in short fiction, and writes pieces based around human experiences and interactions, fascinated by the inner workings of memory and attachment. She has also worked with the Sydney Institute of Criminology, and hopes to pursue a career in Criminal Law.

 

© Matrix Education and www.matrix.edu.au, 2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matrix Education and www.matrix.edu.au with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Get free study tips and resources delivered to your inbox.

Join 75,893 students who already have a head start.

Our website uses cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you continue to use this site, you consent to our use of cookies. Read our cookies statement.

OK, I understand