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The Song Stays in The Picture: The Use of Music in Media

You always hear “Lights! Camera! Action!” when talking about movies, referring to the expression used on set by directors of movies and tv shows the world over. What this classic Hollywood refrain completely neglects is arguably the most important part of the moviegoing experience - sound. Of course, with most visual media, what you see is usually what you notice the most, but film is a lot more than what meets the eye.

The Affect of Effects It’s not hyperbole to say that the sound of any video, whether you’re watching on your phone screen or the silver screen, is the most crucial aspect of any enjoyable watch. In fact, it has been scientifically shown that audiences will routinely forgive out-of-focus, poorly lit, amateur-framed visuals, but as soon as the audio quality starts to degrade, people will turn off the program, whether it be music videos on social media or the background music in a video game. It’s a cardinal sin. You can have the worst visuals imaginable, but if the sound is good and the music makes you move, you’re in business!

The Marvel of Melody Speaking of the importance of good sound, we can't forget its big brother - music! Film music is one of the most important and powerful weapons in any filmmaker’s arsenal. Composers can change the tone of a moment, a scene, or the entire film by utilizing different music options for the same moment. Imagine watching the world’s most depressing movie, but the final musical number is a bright, happy walk-in-the-park vibe. You’re going to come away with a completely different feeling than if the filmmaker had chosen a more somber, depressing track to leave you with. The opposite is true - a fun, lighthearted movie with a dark, punishing final score instantly and innately changes that experience. The effects of music on the emotional response of an audience enhance the audio-visual experience. Music helps to embody the theme of a given movie, scene, or character in a non-visual way, sometimes even by being a “theme” in and of itself! But when we talk about music onscreen, what are we really talking about?

Now, What Am I Hearing Here?

In the world of movies, audio is categorized as diegetic and non-diegetic. Simply put, diegetic sound or music is audio that lives within the world of the piece, where the music plays from the car radio in the scene where two actors are driving down the highway. Non-diegetic, on the other hand, is audio that exists for the benefit of the audience, anything the characters of the world cannot hear - the musical soundtrack, voiceovers, and sound fx meant to heighten the action. Diegetic Music A great example of diegetic music used in film is Tom Hanks’ 1996 directorial debut about a ‘60s pop band That Thing You Do. The fictional indie group The Wonders go from local talent shows to getting a record contract in the LA music industry, all on the strength of new music with their catchy hit song “That Thing You Do”. Every time the song plays in the film, we as an audience hear it and the characters hear it as well. In fact, we hear the song, in some form, eleven times during the film. Now that’s diegetic! Fun fact, in the film that song peaks at #7 on the Billboard charts, and in real life, peaked at #41! Non-Diegetic Music

On the non-diegetic end of the spectrum is P.T. Anderson’s 1999 LA epic Magnolia. It’s a long, wonderful, punishingly bleak at times web of interwoven stories set in the San Fernando Valley with major cinematic glue coming from the Aimee Mann soundtrack. The role of music in this film is that we see characters of wildly different backgrounds and settings connected by Mann’s strummy, new wave tunes, none of which the characters in the film are privy to. It’s strictly for our benefit, and works to make a sprawling, epic web of storylines feel cohesive, entertaining, and enthralling. Trans-Diegetic Music

I’d be remiss to not also touch on the use of trans-diegetic music, as expertly used in Edgar Wright’s 2017 Baby Driver. The film focuses on Ansel Elgort as a getaway driver who uses popular music on his iPod to fuel his law-breaking antics. The power of this device is used to even further connect the audience (us) to the character (Baby). When he chooses a song on his iPod, he clicks into criminal mode, revving the engine. His personal soundtrack then grows louder and transfers to our physical speakers, becoming the soundtrack for that sequence. It’s an instant way to seamlessly bring the audience into the film. Functions of music vary throughout individual films, but they all share the theme of keeping an audience engaged. Different types of music achieve this in different ways. In Baby Driver, the use of pop music, whether acquired through collaborations between the filmmakers and the artists or through purchasing the rights and permissions to use the songs, achieves a relevant and modern feel that excites along with the visuals in a way that classical music simply could not in that context.

Did You Hear That? The choice to make the music in your own videos diegetic, non-diegetic, or trans-diegetic should be a decision made with one question in mind - “How would this best help tell my story?” Would this song work best for the characters to hear, the audience, or both? They all have their place depending on the context and are incredibly powerful tools to drive the emotion and feeling of your piece. When you’re working with a video production partner like 7 Wonders Cinema, our team is well-versed in how to best wield the power of music to make your project successful and come to life. We partner with some of the biggest names in music licensing to access the best, newest music across all genres.


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"Harmonizing visuals with melody—exploring music's role in media. A symphony of emotion, enhancing storytelling and leaving an indelible imprint on the cinematic canvas."

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