Exploring the Functions of Music in Visual Media

still image from Casablanca (1942)

+ This lesson is courtesy of Soundfly’s new course, Intro to Scoring for Film & TV. Learn to compose and produce cues for TV, films, and other media.

Music exists in film to draw the audience in and help the filmmakers more clearly communicate their story in a wide variety of ways. That said, as a composer, it can be useful for you to get hyper-specific about what the function of the music is in a particular scene.

If you know the goal, you know what you’re aiming for. 

There are nearly limitless functions music can serve in a scene or narrative, but here are a few common roles we came up with:

  • Communicating a sense of time and place
  • Telling an audience how to feel
  • Communicating how a character feels
  • Tying parts of the plot together
  • Communicating subtext
  • Heightening an emotion that’s already there
  • Communicating narrative development
  • Communicating an intended atmosphere
  • Adding energy and movement
  • Manipulating an audience’s expectations
  • Transporting you somewhere else
  • Providing comedy

These aren’t always clearly delineated and there may be some overlap, but hopefully they’re a good starting place. 

Communicating a Sense of Time and Place

Choosing a Baroque chamber ensemble indicates something very different than a grunge soundtrack or a symphonic fantasy piece. The decisions a director and/or composer make about genre, style, instrumentation, and orchestration all contribute to an audience’s sense of where they are in time and space.

Sometimes filmmakers will use a fusion between old styles and new to communicate the sense of location while also making a film relevant or disrupt your expectations. The Great Gatsby (released in 2013) had a lot of jazzy big band sounds that recalled the 1920s Jazz Age mixed with tracks by more current artists, like JAY-Z, Lana Del Rey, and will.i.am.

Danny Elfman’s score for Edward Scissorhands communicates a sense of fantasy and wonder that situates us in a sort of fairytale. Listen to how the high bells and children’s choir transport you to another world in this opening number:

Telling an Audience How to Feel

Sometimes the emotional pull of a scene is obvious, and at other times it’s a little more subtle. In those instances the music can convey more information than the plot does, like in the mini-story we already referenced in the film Up.

Many of the Golden Age films used music in this way — an approach that can sometimes feel a little overdone to modern audiences. If the love scene is always dripping with romantic orchestration and the hero always gets the fanfare, it starts to get a little old. It’s worth being a little careful about being too prescriptive with your musical choices.

Listen to the romanticism oozing off the orchestration at the end of Casablanca, a tragic goodbye intermingled with moments of drama as Laszlo and Ilsa escape. In every moment, we’re told exactly what they want us to feel. 

Communicating How a Character Feels

At the end of David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the lead character buys a gift for the other protagonist of the story. When she goes to give it to him, she finds him getting into his lover’s car.

The music feels cautiously hopeful at first, but then an intense-sounding synth enters, underlining the character’s fury as she throws the gift into the garbage and walks off into the snow.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “A Brief History of Film Scoring (Video)”

Tying Parts of the Plot Together

Music can help tie parts of the narrative together by repeating specific themes or sonic elements. One way composers do this is through leitmotif, recurring musical themes tied to a specific character, place, or idea, but it could also be a certain sonic palette or musical concept. 

The score for the film Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is a good example. Scored by Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, the most intense moments of the film are defined by intense, growling bass lines and video game sounds reminiscent of chiptune music, with some mickey-mousing.

This highly specific sonic palette helps bring continuity to the plot and tie all the fight scenes together into a series of levels, while a separate, mellower, and more uplifting music is used for the romantic scenes.  

The video game sounds, the gritty bass and rock sounds, and the mickey-mousing all become signatures that pop in throughout the film, and set up the contrast of the more mellow, romantic moments for the love scenes. 

+ Read more on Flypaper: “When Film Music Is a Mickey Mouse Operation”

Communicating Subtext

In his Masterclass, Hans Zimmer talks about music in film being at its best when it illuminates ideas that are not directly communicated by the images. It allows you to tell a deeper story and get across deeper themes that may be just under the surface of the film.

For example, a digital-sounding score might support a filmmaker’s message about the soullessness of modern technology. Or a heavy industrial beat might illustrate how the characters are just cogs in a machine. 

Clint Mansell’s main theme in the film Requiem for a Dream is unnerving and highly repetitive, and is used throughout the film to score the descent of the main characters into increasing depravity and despair. It’s the core musical idea around which the whole action of the film evolves, and we hear it at almost every important moment in the film to indicate how things are spiralling out of control. 

The driving repetitiveness and crescendoing tension of the theme helps tie everything back to the central concept of the film and the main message the filmmaker Darren Aronofsky is trying to get across: the destructive power of drug addiction.

Heightening an Emotion That’s Already There

Scientific American has a report on a study in which participants listened to happy music or sad music and then looked at a series of images of people shown to be either smiling, sad, or neutral. The study reported that the happy music made people’s experiences of the people smiling seem even happier, and vice-versa with sad music

In other words, music can deepen or heighten an emotional experience — make things seem happier, sadder, scarier, more intense, etc. If there’s a killer stalking up behind someone, high violin stabs might help the viewers experience a deeper sense of suspense than they would watching the image alone. 

[Spoiler Alert] In Dario Marianelli’s beautiful orchestral score to the movie Atonement, there’s a slow and wistful piece of music that plays right at the end. We as an audience have just found out that the lives of the two main characters actually ended without them ever having a chance to experience the love that was stolen from them.

It’s a heartrending moment of the story, made even more so by the melancholic harmonies of the orchestra, that swell in and out in thick, emotional chords. It makes the scene tug on your heartstrings even more powerfully. 

Communicating Narrative Development

A person enters a room and a big, dissonant augmented arpeggio plays. You immediately know that person is a villain. Musical themes can be used to highlight flashbacks, flag the entrance of certain characters, or indicate that something has changed in the plot. 

In Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban (with a score by John Williams), there’s a moment where Harry Potter encounters a joy-sucking demon-like creature called a dementor. The dementor is otherworldly and terrifying, and the music helps communicate that with all sorts of string harmonics, rising horns, and other eery sounds.

Then, a new character enters the scene and blasts some sort of light at the dementor. It’s a little unclear to the audience what’s happening except that the music, which was dramatic and creepy moments ago, is suddenly taken over by heavenly-sounding vocals. There’s no question in our mind that this new character is good and that the evil has been chased away.

Later in the film, the patronus charm that chases dementors away is regularly marked by angelic voices. The changes in music are helping us move through the story. 

+ Read more on Flypaper: “When Truman Touches the Wall”

Communicating an Intended Atmosphere

Two people looking at each other can mean a lot of things. Add nostalgic music, and they could be old friends reuniting. Add tense, high-pitched music, and they could be enemies facing off.

One of the most important ways that music communicates atmosphere is by playing with tension and resolution. A resolved, warm sound will tell you something very different than a dissonant chord left hanging in suspense.

A great example of this is Hans Zimmer’s “Shepard Tone” score in the film Dunkirk. A Shepard Tone is a series of overlapping rising oscillators that creates the sense of infinitely rising tension — perfect for the characters’ experience in war. 

Adding Energy and Movement

Imagine a montage sequence — there’s almost always some music over it to help it move. Music can bring rhythm and pace to a scene that might otherwise be lacking. That’s also why it’s often great for chase scenes. 

There’s a great montage in The Incredibles where Mr. Incredible is doing superhero work again. The montage shows him training, doing family stuff, purchasing a new car, getting in shape, cleaning up his look — basically, getting his mojo back. Everything’s perfect in a kind of traditional 1950s nuclear family-type way, and the whole thing is accompanied by a slightly sleezy, jazzy take on the main motif that moves it along.

The music keeps things interesting and high energy, but also hints that it might be slightly fake. This new confidence is in fact based on a lie. 

Manipulating an Audience’s Expectations

Imagine a horror movie where someone’s looking all over a house for a killer. The music gets more and more tense as they walk toward the closet door. It builds to a crescendo as they open it.

And BLAM! There’s nothing there. In fact, the killer isn’t even in the house yet. Because it’s so powerful, music can be used to manipulate the viewers into believing what the filmmaker wants them to believe, even if it’s wrong. 

Transporting You Somewhere Else

Music can provide a transition away from the plot into a memory or flashback of some sort. In the film Lion from 2016, with a score by Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka, the main character is looking for his home, having lost his village and family at a very young age.

As he looks at Google Earth and thinks he’s discovered where he’s from, he’s transported back there, with emotional music helping us understand what’s happening. 

Providing Comedy

The last example we want to talk about is how music can make you laugh. It’s similar to communicating a subtext, but in this case a comedic one. This can be done by contrasting powerfully and surprisingly with what’s happening on the screen, mickey-mousing the action in a humorous way, or framing a specific punchline. 

In the TV show Arrested Development there’s a recurring theme where characters walk sadly across the screen with their heads down. It’s an over-the-top gesture meant to be comical, and the show-runners decided to compound the exaggerated gesture by adding a sad, slow song behind it.

In this case, it’s a licensed song — “Christmas Time Is Here” by Vince Guaraldi. The exaggeration enhances the comedic effect. 

Watch a cue and figure out what function the music is serving. 

Find a cue from a film you love, and try to figure out what the function is of the music in that moment. Is it one of the functions listed above, or something else? How is the music serving the story in that moment?  

Take out your film journal and make some notes about the role and function of the music you chose. If you’re already a Soundfly subscriber, go ahead and share what you come up with in the #scoring-for-film-and-tv channel on Slack!

Have you checked out Soundfly’s courses yet?

Continue your learning with hundreds of lessons led by innovative, boundary-pushing, independent artists like Kimbra, Ryan Lott (Son Lux), JlinKiefer, Com Truise, and RJD2. And don’t forget to try out our newest course, Intro to Scoring for Film & TV.

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