Film, Theater, and Music: Being Schooled by The Fish

One of the greatest joys in life comes from seeing your creative ideas take shape, come to life and then having your audience respond positively to your work. Whether it’s words on a page, acting/singing on a stage, or seeing your finished work on the silver screen, the core purpose is to convey ‘story’. Story is the heart of it all.

To be the best storyteller you can be, you need to understand your craft and you need to learn to think like the fish–you need to understand what makes an audience respond positively to any artistic creation. This is especially true for the elements of a story that are conveyed musically.

I’m in the middle of taking a Master Class from Hans Zimmer, a great contemporary film composer. He teaches that the soundtrack, the music combined with all the sound effects, independently tells the same story being told by visuals and dialogue. The composer, producer, and director all work together–and yet, in a sense, separately–to tell the same story.  All visuals, the script, the blocking, the staging, the choreography, and the soundtrack should each tell the same story in different layers. All the layers need to work together and jive so the overall combination provides the most powerful and complete story with the strongest impact.

Other aspects of story (which applies to all mediums listed above) are the sometimes competing camps of thought about whether a story should be plot based, or character based. Especially in the movie world, some experts argue that plot-based is the best approach, while others prefer to focus on character development, sometimes at the expense of the plot.

The fact is that both are essential and there needs to be the right balance. If you don’t have a great plot, the story doesn’t go anywhere and the characters are just having a “nice” day at the park, whether it is Disneyland or Jurassic. However, if you don’t have great character development, if you don’t have characters the audience can relate to, or even better if you don’t have characters the audience can love, then they quickly lose interest. First, the audience tunes out mentally, and soon after they physically tune out.

Composers use songs and program music to tell a story or induce the desired emotion or set the mood for the scene. There are some interesting elements involved in telling your story with a song. These elements are even more important when it comes to writing a number one hit song. Every hit song includes a set of common elements. We won’t talk about all of them all right now; this is just as an example.  Think of them this way: these common elements in a song are metaphorically a little bit like the features in all cars.

Every car has an engine, steering wheel, tires, brakes, seat, etc. that makes it functional. The common (or similar) elements in all of the hit songs help make them marketable and useful for specific uses and various commercial applications.

If you look “under the hood” of most hit songs, you learn that even the beats per minute of the song are set to match the heart rate of the listener during the specific situation where the song is being played. For example, if a song will be used for dancing or aerobics (where the heart rates vary between 120 to 135 beats per minute), then the song speed (beats per minute) is set to that same rate. Much more goes into what makes a hit song, but this will do for our example. You can learn more about the details in the book Murphy’s Laws of Song Writing by Paul Murphy.

Each time music is used to tell the story in a movie or on stage, it’s very carefully created and composed to reinforce what’s happening in the scene. This always applies, whether it be a three-second sound-effect such as a bell ringing, or a longer sound clip that puts the audience in the mindset for some upcoming, unknown, or unseen danger such as a monster hidden in the closet, or aliens in orbit ready to attack.

A great way to test this for yourself is to play your favorite scary movie on your TV with the sound turned down. Just watch the scene without the sound. A large part of the tension in the scene is gone. Some scenes that scare the ‘yell’ out of me with the sound on, almost make me laugh when I turn the sound down. Now take it one step further. Play the same scene again with a laugh track, or any audio clip from your favorite comedy series or movie. You can see (and hear!) with this test how important the music is to any movie, musical or even dramatic stage play.

Scoring music for theater or film also includes the musical equivalent of the question and the answer. A great writer builds the world for their story and sets up all the trials, roadblocks, or foils. In essence, they set up the problems or ‘questions’ early in the story, and then answer each question by resolving the problems later in the story. A great composer does the same thing musically. Zimmer is a master at this. Of course, with the music used in these scenarios, the “question and answer” cycle or the delay between the musical question and the musical answer is much shorter, and there are many musical questions and answers all perfectly connected together as if sequenced by a master DJ to help make the soundtrack.

The music is just as important in video games. The wrong music produces the wrong emotions and the wrong mood and leaves the scenes somewhat meaningless–or at least, it leaves the scene with less emotional impact.

The principles of great songwriting are woven in, along with the ideas about musical storytelling that Zimmer talks about. All elements mentioned in this post work together to make a great movie. Many of the principles also apply to great stage plays or musicals. Although in stage and musical theater, more is left to the imagination and word painting. Choreography and music are more tightly woven to tell the story. When one of the multimedia elements (more readily available in movie making) can’t be used on stage, then the others are used more carefully and wisely to compensate. Of course I’m barely scratching the surface, but hopefully, it cracks the door open wide enough that you can see “into the studio”.

Why do I mention these things? Whether you are a novice and dream of being involved in film, stage or music creation, or if you have intermediate skills and more experience and want to learn more, or if you want to make connections with professionals and start making money in the community, we invite you to join us in Provo for LTUE 2018 where many film, theater and musical professionals will share their skills and experience in our panels, presentations, and workshops that will help you take your creativity to the next level. Watch this blog for additional insights and details.