In the most famous scene from Psycho – as a shadowy figure rips open the shower curtain to murder an unsuspecting motel guest – a languid clarinet solo would have drained all the horror from the images on the screen. Instead, the screeching and stabbing strings stretch tension to breaking point. Hitchcock acknowledged, “33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music” – needlessly precise, but (given he had originally wanted the shower scene to be music-free) an acknowledgement of its power. Similarly, at the start of Jaws, as a young girl swims in moonlit waves, a jaunty sea shanty or driving surf guitar track would have made for a very different experience. Little could herald the unseen menace like John Williams’ ominous and relentless two-note phrase, yet Steven Spielberg is reported to have initially laughed at the Jaws theme, thinking it a joke. Those two notes are now almost synonymous with a sense of foreboding.
The importance of music in film cannot be overstated. Music has the ability to manipulate emotions at a very primal and sub-conscious level. Studies show all people around the world recognize happy, sad and scary music, regardless of previous exposure to music and cultural background. Film-makers are well aware of this and spend a great deal of time and money ensuring the audience feels the story. Music also has a narrative power, taking the listener on a journey where ideas return, interact and develop, just like words. One of my favorite things to do with Dorian serves as an introduction to the emotional and narrative power of music: I simply read a story while he provides musical accompaniment. I recommend Goldilocks and the Three Bears as a great place to start.