The Soundtrack of Story

Recently I was cooking dinner for my parents.  As I was (attempting) to steam some veggies and fry some potatoes, I had my mp3 on a shuffled playlist entitled “Epic”.  Of course said playlist was full of heart-pounding, adrenaline-inducing soundtrack music-the type of songs that would put anyone in the mood to cook potatoes Chuck Norris style (or at least attempt to).

The song that was playing was “Battle Los Angeles Hymn” by Brian Tyler, which is (of course) the main theme for the alien-invasion action film “Battle: Los Angeles”.  As I was stirring those potatoes with as much awesome as I could muster, my mom walked in and paused, giving me a puzzled look.

“What kind of music is that?”

“Soundtrack.” I replied casually.  I didn’t expect my mom to recognize it.  She’s a drummer and primarily listens to rap, techno, and disco ballads (strange combination, I know.)  The only time she listens to classical is when she’s practicing orchestral music for our church’s Christmas plays.

But what came out of her mouth surprised me.  “That sounds like alien invasion music.”

I looked up with my mouth agape.  “How did you know that?”

She shrugged her shoulders.  “Just sounded like it.”

What was funny to me was that even though she had never heard the song and had never heard of Battle: Los Angeles, she knew it was a song that went with an alien invasion film.  There were no words in the song that told her, “Hey!  Look at those flying saucers up there!” or anything like that.  There weren’t words at all.  Just sounds, put together with skill and emotion, telling a story using instruments.

We don’t often think of music as a means to tell a story, but if we can feel a story through listening, are we not getting one?  Can we not get some sense of plot or character through instruments or imagine ourselves in a setting just by hearing a combination of notes?

Think of it this way.  What do you imagine when you hear the following songs?

  • “The Imperial March” by John Williams
  • “Evenstar” by Howard Shore
  • “Forbidden Friendship” by John Powell
  • “Budget Meeting” by Hans Zimmer

When you hear “The Imperial March”, you can sense the precision and ruthless power of the Empire through blazing trumpets.  When you hear the voice of the woman singing in “Evenstar” you can sense Arwen’s dilemma with Aragorn-she has found her true love yet must also resign to her fate of mortality.  In “Forbidden Friendship”, the twinkling bells and percussion make you sense the uncertainty of Hiccup and Toothless when they first meet but grow with them as they become the best of friends.  And when you hear the pounding drums in “Budget Meeting” you feel as if you’re one of the King Arthur’s Knights riding alongside him into battle.

Music, especially when paired with a film or television show, can either strengthen or weaken a film in my opinion.  I’ve read countless comments on forums from people who loved a film yet hated the soundtrack.  I’ve also seen the opposite happen where people have loved the music yet hated the film.  Regardless, music is a powerful storytelling tool, and whether it’s paired with a visual story (i.e., film) or not, music tells its own story in a special way indeed.

Advertisements