The Psychology of Film Music

Have you ever seen a movie which has a great musical score? Wondered how film composers and music directors write and choose music to enhance the images and make the whole experience more powerful? Dr. Roger Kendall, a UCLA Ethnomusicology professor with degrees in music and psychology, studies what makes a “good” match between motion pictures and music in film.

One simple kind of match is syntactic – when the timing of the action lines up with the beat of the music. According to Kendall, this is the simplest kind of match, and one of the two most studied kinds. Your mind is really good at using hearing and vision together to get a better understanding of the world (read more here), so it makes a syntactic match when someone is dancing, when the film cuts to a different shot on beat, and when Rocky runs on-beat through Philadelphia and up the art museum steps in “Rocky II” (1979). (Read more about beat and other aspects of music cognition here.)

The second kind of match is the most complicated because it is based on associations, both those you learn in the theater (intrareferential associations) and those you bring in with you (extrareferential associations). One major extrareferential association in Western culture is that major keys are happy and minor keys are sad or angry or frightening. You also have other associations from our culture that composers and music directors play off of, as film composer John Williams did in this scene in “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (2004): Williams evokes mystery and magic of Hogwarts through the famous witches’ chant from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”.

Intrareferential associations are primarily musical themes (repeated and sometimes varied melodies) and motifs (very short themes). During a film, you may see a main character and hear the same few bars of music or a slightly altered version of the music each time that character appears. By this pairing, you learn that the music represents that character. When “Jaws” (1975) first came out, the theater audience learned that the da-dum half step motif meant the shark, though now the theme is so well known that it can be used extrareferentially as it was in “Shark Tale” (2004).

In a 2005 article, Dr. Kendall argues for a third type of visual-musical match which he calls iconicity. Essentially, it is a metaphoric match of which there are a few extremely common types. One is a ramp – an increase/decrease in volume and/or pitch to metaphorically parallel a camera zoom/fade or a plane taking off/landing, or a bicycle rising into the air/landing as in “E.T.” (1982). In this final scene of the movie, Williams employs all of the kinds of matches described in this post: syntactic matching between bicycle pedaling and the beat of the music in the beginning of the scene, an intrareferential association between E.T. and his theme, and a ramp icon with the jumps up in the E.T. theme to parallel takeoff.

If you happen to be a UCLA student, you can learn more about the psychology of music in film from Dr. Kendall in Ethnomusicology 176/276. Otherwise, I hope you will enjoy great movies with great music even more, now that you understand how they work together.