If you’ve ever watched a movie with a bunch of musicians, you know we pay attention to the music pretty closely. It’s what we’ve been trained to do and it’s a hard habit to break. Movie-music composition is a big industry and whether or not you’re sensitive to it, the music makes a huge difference in the emotional effect of the movie. You may not know why a certain moment in the movie makes you tear up, or feel on edge, or gives you a sense of victory, but I’m willing to bet that it’s more than the acting and cinematography. The music in the movie provides a sort of emotional backup; it tells us how to feel based our associations with different types of music. Here are some examples from the newly-released movie, The Hobbit. While you’re watching/listening, try to imagine these scenes with no music at all, and how that would change them. Did you notice these things the first time you saw the movie?
In this clip we hear “danger” music starting with a low drone around 0:05. This is then followed by brass leaps of 3rds and 4ths and the low rumble of drums. At 0:26 higher strings come in with Gandalf’s accusing questions, signaling urgency and suspense.
This chase/fight segment uses instruments with high spectral centroids (“bright, nasal” sounds, like brass) to cut through sound of fighting. In addition, brass have a connections to military music. The “chase scene” music has quickly paced bass notes overlaid with full choral sound and brass, lending an “epic” quality to the nature of the fight; they’re not just running away, they’re fighting for their lives. The suspenseful, dissonant chords we hear serve to put the audience on edge.
In this, we hear sustained strings preceding an moment of conference between Gandalf and Galadriel. At about 0:20, high strings come in at a suspenseful unison, followed by a quiet oboe solo, an effect that creates intimacy and underscores the importance of what Galadriel is saying. Then, representing a recollection of Gandalf’s, the hobbit theme comes in at 1:06 as a plaintive solo; it sounds distant due to relative volume and echo. We usually hear this theme as played by a string section in the movie, so this setting is particularly telling. The instrument choice and ornamentation makes it sound rustic as well; Bilbo is a simpler man from a simpler place. At 1:39 the strings return, stronger, lower, and fuller-sounding this time perhaps highlighting Galadriel’s faith in Galdalf and her promise of aid.
There is a notable absence of music until Gandalf mentions the Tooks at 0:18. Then we hear the hobbit theme, that transitions from a low, full, quiet strings to brass (connotations of adventure?).
In this clip we hear the “dwarf song”(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5BETb-hLgA) in full orchestra. This, in combination with the scenes shown could be representative of the epic quest of the dwarves and the duration of time. The full orchestration gives the sound depth and breadth, and allows the story to continue through beautiful cinematography without much action in the actual plot.