Features and Columns · Movies

Aural Fixation: To Speak or Not To Speak? The Role of Music in Film as Seen Through ‘The Artist’

By  · Published on November 23rd, 2011

We all know that music is an important part of the film experience. It helps set the mood and has the power to completely influence a film’s tone. Changing the music, regardless of what is happening on screen, can suddenly alter the feel or perception of a scene. You take the sound out of a horror film (as I explored here) or replace intense score with cheesy pop music (as spoofed in Funny or Die’s mock Drive trailer) and suddenly the fear and the anxiety are taken away. You are less likely to jump at a sudden reveal without the musical jab that goes along with it and watching Ryan Gosling bash a man’s head into a wall goes from unsettling to humorous when set to Enrique Iglesias’ “I Can Be Your Hero.”

Back before there was talking in film, music was the only thing to accompany the moving images and was used to not only convey the emotions being acted out on screen, but to also provide all the sound in the film. The Artist does a brilliant job of not only taking us back to a time of full and vibrant orchestrations, but also reminding audiences how different films were then from what we are used to seeing (and hearing) on screen now. In one of The Artist’s first scenes, this difference proven handily when the audience bursts into applause and you do not hear a single clap.

Ludovic Bource’s score is richly layered and lives up to the task of being the sole aural support to the entire film. Even though the silent film age is a bygone era (and one many of us may never have experienced before), Michael Hazanavicius’ film quickly immerses you in it from the opening note. Although the film is a clear love letter to this age of filmmaking, it never fully ignores the fact that sound is a part of the filmmaking experience now. Before you can completely travel back to the 1920s, The Artist takes a moment to strip away the music and allow the ambient noise to rush back in, working to pull you out of the fantasy and put into question whether hearing everything truly is the better experience.

Orchestration in lieu of talking may sound strange, but it actually works quite well (especially when paired with charismatic actors such as Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo) and not only helps to move the story along, but also cause us to care about the characters we are watching on screen. Without words, exaggerated facial expressions, and instruments replace grand speeches and quick-witted conversations which in turn leave room for the audience to fill in the blanks rather than having every moment and thought explained. Sometimes a look can say more than a thousand words and silent films prove that idea to be true over and over again.

Certainly films such as documentaries (which rely on narration) would not benefit from the silent treatment, but comedies and even dramadies (comedy/drama) seem perfectly fit to work only with music instead of words. The music in silent films is similar to the way music is used in animation to fill out the personality or mindset of a character that may not be able (or does not know how) to speak. The Magic Carpet in Disney’s Aladdin never uttered a single word, but you knew it had a slightly mischievous personality thanks to the music that would always accompany its appearance on screen.

Is it more powerful to hear a scene crafted by a wordsmith like Aaron Sorkin or to listen to an intricately composed piece of music such as Bource’s “L’Ombre Des Flammes” which spans the emotional spectrum from resolve to anguish to terror to panic to relief? Words can say all these things, but music helps you actually feel their effect. While I do not think Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg in last year’s The Social Network) could have adequately defended himself with only a trombone or bass drum instead of his rapid fire dialogue, the music incorporated in the scene is still important. You can get by with only music, but words without music can seem lacking. Zuckerberg is clearly annoyed and heated during his deposition about who truly came up with the idea for his company, but Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score playing behind his words infuse another emotion into the scene – sadness. Zuckerberg is not sad in the moment (and his words say as much), but if you look past his anger (and the score does highlight that emotion as well), you can see that he truly is sad – sad that he has to defend his work, sad that he is stuck in a room when he would rather by working, sad that he has to go up against those who (in his mind) already have everything and are trying to also take what is his.

Without the score, the scene would only read as angry, but the addition of the music gives it slightly more depth and shows that characters – human beings – are simply not one note. Words, sounds, and effects are not going to go away and as we continue to push our technological advances, film will continue to evolve and grow. Words may be here to stay, but music will forever be a part of the cinematic experience.

The soundtrack for The Artist is available through Sony Masterworks.

  1. “The Artist Ouverture” – Ludovic Bource
  2. “1927 A Russian Affair” – Ludovic Bource
  3. “George Valentin” – Ludovic Bource
  4. “Pretty Peppy” – Ludovic Bource
  5. “At The Kinograph Studios” – Ludovic Bource
  6. “Fantaisie D’Amour” – Ludovic Bource
  7. “Waltz For Peppy” – Ludovic Bource
  8. “Estancia OP. 8” – Brussels Philharmonic
  9. “Imagination” – Red Nichols & His Five Pennies
  10. “Silent Rumble” – Ludovic Bource
  11. “1929” – Ludovic Bource
  12. “In The Stairs” – Ludovic Bource
  13. “Jubilee Stomp” – Duke Ellington
  14. “Comme Une Rosée De Larmes” – Ludovic Bource
  15. “The Sound Of Tears” – Ludovic Bource
  16. “Pennies From Heaven” – Rose Murphy
  17. “1931” – Ludovic Bource
  18. “Jungle Bar” – Ludovic Bource
  19. “L’Ombre Des Flammes” – Ludovic Bource
  20. “Happy Ending…”– Ludovic Bource
  21. “Charming Blackmail” – Ludovic Bource
  22. “Ghosts From The Past” – Ludovic Bource
  23. “My Suicide (Dedicated to 03.29.1967)” – Ludovic Bource
  24. “Peppy And George” – Ludovic Bource

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