Music, Writing, Critiques; What Movie Scores Do You Love?

Recently a post, The Curse of the Critique Button? by Pamela Nowak appeared on the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ blog. It discussed the problem of not being able to turn off your critique button when reading or watching movies. As I mentioned in the comments to that post, my first problem with movie watching is the soundtrack. Many years ago I took a music appreciation course for the heck of it. I don’t know a middle C from an F sharp. (Is there an F-sharp?) I learned a number of musical concepts, but what I most remember about this class was that the teacher was very skinny and had his pants cinched with a belt that had at least eight extra inches. He also mentioned that the movie score was what he most listened to at a movie. Up until then, I only noticed the music the few times I’d really loved it, such as in Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

But after he mentioned this, I was more atuned to music. Suddenly, if the music felt manipulative, which it very often did, and told me how to feel, or what the impact of the scene should be, I was pulled out of the movie’s world. I often dislike popular movies and the soundtrack is often one factor why. A good illustration of this, for me, is the  difference between the two 1999 movies dealing with World War II ,Saving Private Ryan, and The Thin Red Line. SPR won awards and the hearts of most moviegoers. I thought it had a predictable plot with over-orchestrated music (the chorus in the theme song, for example). TRL, its competitor in a number of Oscar categories, including Best Music, Dramatic Film Score, was, for me, more of a tone poem.

I’m not sure either of these composers (John Williams vs. Hans Zimmer) is among my favorites, but I can routinely pick out John Williams’ scores. Being able to recognize a composer doesn’t necessarily degrade the quality; I usually know Phillip Glass or Ryuichi Sakamoto, too. For me, it is a heavy-handedness and manipulative element that makes me like most John Williams scores less than others.

In my original blog post comment, I suggested there might be a correlation between musical scores that direct your feelings and good writing. Although subjective, I find writing I most enjoy to be that which is similar to the scores I prefer: ones that actually make me feel rather than those that dictate how I should feel. In writing this is illustrated by the difference between telling me how a character feels and allowing me to feel what the character does. Although I suspect I fall far from my ideal, that is what I usually strive to do. Maybe if I listen to more of the music that achieves this state, my writing will approximate that level of art.

What movie soundtracks with original music do you find most enjoyable? Do you feel the sort of music  you prefer, as illustrated by film scores, also informs your writing or what you consider good writing?

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  1. #1 by cryptictown on April 24, 2014 - 11:41 am

    Nice post, Catherine.

    I don’t notice the music in films as much as you do, which is odd. (Yes, there is an F sharp. No F flat. That would be E.) In your examples above, I found the music for Private Ryan boring, but I liked the others. The PR song reminded me of church and so turned me off right away.

    I loved the music in my two favorite films, Empire of the Sun and The Milagro Beanfield War. But my favorite music onscreen is from a TV show rather than a film–Twin Peaks. I listen to the music from that show when I write. It’s so beautiful, creepy, and sad. Like the story.

  2. #2 by c2london on April 24, 2014 - 12:35 pm

    Thanks for commenting. Interesting that Empire is also John Williams. I may have seen that film before I took the course so I don’t remember what I thought of the music. From the clips I’m listening to on youtube, I prefer the Milagro bit better, and that is a more unusual composer, Dave Grusin. I’ll have to listen to the PR; does it have a lot of organ music? I like organ music but it might sound “churchy.”

    • #3 by cryptictown on April 24, 2014 - 1:51 pm

      Yes, very organ-y and very churchy. And that could be interesting, but this wasn’t. Heavy-handed as you said, and yet dull.

  3. #4 by Pamela Nowak on April 26, 2014 - 8:25 am

    Catherine: I regretfully add music to the list! I’ve noticed it before, in the sense of how it manipulates emotional response, but haven’t ever examined it in a critical way. I’m guessing I will do so from here on out. Hopefully, my lack of musical knowledge will keep it on the surface!

    • #5 by c2london on April 26, 2014 - 11:19 am

      Sometimes ignorance IS bliss, but if the music starts annoying you, as it does me, it probably will be because you did notice it before and now it is just more apparent, kinda like all those writers’ tics that seem to be bolded once someone points them out. Sorry.

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