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.

Filmic Techniques – Music

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!

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.

What’s so important about music?

Just as important as what you see in a film is what you hear! 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.

Filmic Techniques

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 pacingfaster 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!

Analyse Music

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

Sometimes, within a movie, a piece of music might play which signals to the audience what is about to happen next.

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!

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?

Filmic Techniques

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.

 

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.

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