Function of song in non-musical films

1) What should be the function of song in non-musical films? A couple of reasons I could think of is, to show character's emotions or to voice their inner monologue(?). What other things it can do?

I am talking about songs that are specifically composed and recorded for the movie. For example, 'Raindrops keep falling on my head' in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 'Moon River' in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

2) In non-musical films, most of the time, songs come during the opening titles or end credits. If it comes somewhere in the middle, like in the above 2 examples, who makes that choice? Do the writer specify it in the script (not the lyrics, just the placement) or the composer/director/producer decides it?
 

mlesemann

Staff Member
Moderator
In my 2nd feature, DETOURS - https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3625136/reference - we used both songs and score to support the mood and help move the story along. None of it was written into the script (I'm the screenwriter and producer fyi).

We had a singer/songwriter compose and perform a song for our end credits - we gave him the script as we were going into production and he wrote something that went with it beautifully.

We also reached out to many singer/songwriters and got permission to use their songs. We used them as diagetic music in some cases (on the car radio). In other spots, we used them to accompany driving scenes that are a component of road trip movies. Emotion was always paramount.
 
A perfect example of a song written specifically for a non-musical film is "Toy Story."

In "Toy Story" You've Got A Friend In Me sets up the entire film, Andy's relationship with Woody, and bookends the film as the song now refers to Woody's relationship with Buzz.
 
Glue is a good one. You can have a montage of video clips showing a progression (kids getting older, a road trip, whatever) and all those clips can be quite disparate and disjointed from each other. But a cool song over the top can make it seem like a deliberate and whole segment.

I'd also suggest music can be used as a juxtaposition - Clockwork Orange is an example. Fun music over disturbing violent scenes.
 
I'm reminded of the television shows that started with songs to fill us in on the back story, such as the "Gilligan's Island" theme. My wife has always written a song for each of our films, to be used over the opening credits or the end credits. An example would be our latest film, "CAUSE OF DEATH: HOMICIDE", for which she wrote a song for the openng credits. Here it is if you'd like to check it out. (click here) . Part of the song is under the opening credits and part is under the end credits. You can watch for free.
 
Last edited:
Michael Isaacson explained 4 ways in which music is used in films, which I find very useful to keep in mind:

1. Music linked to the action (to what's happening)
2. Music linked to the location / time period (french music for Paris, medieval music for a medieval castle, you get it)
3. Music linked to the characters, usually reflecting their emotions
4. Music linked to the sub-text (the most interesting one!): In his own words, "While the plot answers
who, what, where, when, and how, the sub-text provides the all important context of why."

Hope I'm not to late for this :)
Nice topic!

Alex
 

The Tune Peddler

Pro Member
indiePRO
Michael Isaacson explained 4 ways in which music is used in films, which I find very useful to keep in mind:

1. Music linked to the action (to what's happening)
2. Music linked to the location / time period (french music for Paris, medieval music for a medieval castle, you get it)
3. Music linked to the characters, usually reflecting their emotions
4. Music linked to the sub-text (the most interesting one!): In his own words, "While the plot answers
who, what, where, when, and how, the sub-text provides the all important context of why."

Hope I'm not to late for this :)
Nice topic!

Alex

I've never heard this before. Nice post. Thanks for the heads up.
 
Happy to help! I always find useful to keep this in mind while composing, and lately while searching for stock music for other people's videos. Makes a difference!
 
Michael Isaacson explained 4 ways in which music is used in films, which I find very useful to keep in mind:

1. Music linked to the action (to what's happening)
2. Music linked to the location / time period (french music for Paris, medieval music for a medieval castle, you get it)
3. Music linked to the characters, usually reflecting their emotions
4. Music linked to the sub-text (the most interesting one!): In his own words, "While the plot answers
who, what, where, when, and how, the sub-text provides the all important context of why."

Hope I'm not to late for this :)
Nice topic!

Alex

This is very good information. Thank you.

Actual question that was asked was "What is the function of song in non-musical films?" Please see the first post. As you are a composer, it would be more appropriate to ask you, what is your take on this?

Thanks.
 
This is very good information. Thank you.

Actual question that was asked was "What is the function of song in non-musical films?" Please see the first post. As you are a composer, it would be more appropriate to ask you, what is your take on this?

Thanks.

I think this "method" of 4 ways of using music in films is also applicable to the songs you refer to. For example, you said, "A couple of reasons I could think of is, to show character's emotions or to voice their inner monologue(?)". I agree with that, and that would be way nº3 of the 4 ways I explained: linking the music to the characters.

So it could also be linked to the action, the location/era and the sub-text. However, I think that when music is used this way in non-musical films or series, it's usually to reflect the characters and their inner world and/or the subtext in a poetical and emotional way. I see that in the episode endings of some series, as a way to summarize an idea present in the plot of that episode (eg "Grey's Anathomy", if I don't remember wrong). Cool thing of this is that, as opposed to the traditional background soundtrack where there's not a singer, these songs have lyrics that can add an extra meaning to it all.

I can also imagine that sometimes it's used mostly for commercial purposes, to sell that song as the soundtrack of the movie or even to use it to promote the movie. When properly done, audiences love this because a strong relation between the music and film is made in their minds while watching the film, and later every time they hear the music it reminds them to the film and to what they felt while watching it. It's a powerful tool!
 
Problem with a song in non-musical films is that you can cover up any shitty movies if only the soundtrack is appreciated by the audience. Just play the emotions in a positive way and they are happy and consider the movie a good movie...
 
Problem with a song in non-musical films is that you can cover up any shitty movies if only the soundtrack is appreciated by the audience. Just play the emotions in a positive way and they are happy and consider the movie a good movie...

That's always been a problem; some films rely upon score to create the emotions, rather than adding specificity and emphasis to the emotions. A subtle but important difference.

In "Forrest Gump," it was decided between director Robert Zemeckis and composer Alan Sylvestri that the source music would provide the "action" score and Sylvestri would only underscore the emotions.

Some films have almost no score at all. In "Saving Private Ryan" there is no score whatsoever when the film is in 1945 Europe. The only music heard there is the Edith Piaf song while they are waiting for the attack at the end of the film. The same applies to "Twelve O'Clock High." There is only score during the opening as Stovall remembers and at the end when Stovall leaves. The only music during the rest of the film is singing in the officers club. "Twelve O'Clock High" is also interesting as there is only one battle sequence near the end of the film.
 
Some films have almost no score at all. In "Saving Private Ryan" there is no score whatsoever when the film is in 1945 Europe. The only music heard there is the Edith Piaf song while they are waiting for the attack at the end of the film. The same applies to "Twelve O'Clock High." There is only score during the opening as Stovall remembers and at the end when Stovall leaves.
Similarly in Cast Away, after some incidental music during the introduction, there is no score at all until Tom Hanks leaves the island and returns to "civilisation".
 
The Hobbit immediately comes to mind when the dwarves first sing Misty Mountains. It was a fantastic way of helping us feel their people's desire to return home and the score copied that theme in various ways throughout to help the audience hear when the party was unified or not.
 
I love music and songs in films.
I always produce original songs and soundtrack, though once I was tempted to purchase a ready outside track (but the director rejected the idea).
And I fully agree with the points raised by Alex Guy
 
Last edited:

mlesemann

Staff Member
Moderator
I previously mentioned that I used music in a montage at one point in my movie DETOURS, so I thought I'd share it. It comes at roughly the mid-point of the movie, and highlights some of the what the father & daughter see on their roadtrip from NYC to Florida. The full clip is just over 2 minutes; I included a bit of lead in and lead out, as that's where the music begins and ends. We licensed the song from a singer/songwriter who we found on YouTube.

While we shot most of the movie with an Alexa, portions of this were shot with a GoPro, which will be quite obvious. Our DP shot out the window of the van as we traveled south.

 
Top