Great Sound Design in Cinema

musicIt is not uncommon for a movie to harbor great music, but perhaps it is even rarer for a film to use music in such an innovative way that it enhances the story beyond what mere sound can suggest. This list is not the best integrated sound – otherwise musicals would dominate – but the best cohesion of sound and filmmaking as conjugal storytelling, in the way that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button uses CG to show a regression of age, a technique that was pivotal to the entire experience, as opposed to Transformers simply using CG to build a realistic robot. The latter may be fantastic looking, but it doesn’t enhance the experience beyond the carnal-visual necessity. This is, of course, my opinion, and probably not a very informed one. I hope to foster some debate, so feel free to post your own thoughts in the comments section. Everything below is in order of release.

third-manThe Third Man (1949)

Surely upon release this film must have been bewildering as a condition of the time. Scores tended to be uniform, using predictable and schmaltzy orchestra to evoke the usual array of emotions. Anton Karas’s score, which instead employed a single zither, must have been a jolt to the ears. How could one instrument sound so dynamic? The music is jaunty, as if all of post-war Vienna exists as a spirited and trendy travelogue, open and inviting, but the real brilliance is the hints of decay and degradation beneath, revealing the true era of European reconstruction and devastation during the Marshall plan. In other words, the score could have merely been sentimental and mellow, but it instead grows faster and more desperate as times goes on. The opening shots of the film set the stage; the playing zither provides a pulse to the narrative, a cascade of pluralistic and vibrating strings fully within the dimensions of the screen, amniotic and confined. The music is so suitable and ubiquitous throughout that the zither can hardly be untangled from the film, as if the two are enmeshed together. One can imagine that the moment Carol Reed first heard Karas playing (there are multiple versions of this meeting), he wanted to preserve that very sensation in his film – lone and intimate, like a one man performance, or like a modern day lyre. Below you can see Anton Karas playing the zither.

vertigoVertigo (1958)

The music is, of course, absolutely nauseating. Before watching this film, I never knew that phobia could be represented through sound, as if the viewer is precipitously teetering back and forth between two separate ends. In perpetuity the music rises and falls like a carnival ride; at the height, the bottom seems to drop out, and just when your beating heart is about to settle, it rises again. Martin Scorsese describes the score: “Hitchcock’s film is about obsession, which means that it’s about circling back to the same moment, again and again.” It’s certainly enough to petrify any man who is afraid of heights.

good-bad-uglyThe Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)

There is perhaps no better example of superb sound design than Sergio Leone’s stylistic masterpiece, and it’s hard to believe that the spaghetti western would be half the film without Ennio Morricone’s famous score, which is still evoked frequently today. The opening motif, which features a flute for Blondie, an ocarina for Angel Eyes, and a wild yell for Tuco, is used throughout the film to denote the action on screen. The Story of a Soldier is incorporated into the film through the sad singing of soldiers, as Tuco is being beaten, and The Ecstasy of Gold plays during Tuco’s fevered quest, as the camera spins precipitously around the graveyard, creating a blur. During the final minutes of the film, The Triple Duel is held for an unbearably long time as it reaches its soaring climax; it seems like the duelists are actually waiting for the music to stop before firing (which, by the way, was an actual plot point in the film’s predecessor, For a Few Dollars More, as if it was a mere test run for Leone’s future opus).

american-graffitiAmerican Graffiti (1973)

Back when licensed music was rare, American Graffiti changed the landscape; only, it wasn’t in the service of some trendy pop songs. The music of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, as delivered by Wolfman Jack, united many disparate teenagers during the unique and fleeting era of cruising (when people treated their cars as more than a commodity beyond the mere purpose of a transport – when cars were an expression of self). The film follows many storylines, but the music ubiquitously ties it altogether.

jawsJaws (1975)

John Williams’s score perfectly communicates proximity and danger, rising in pace to a series of shrieks as the shark approaches. It must have seemed as if the simple oscillation of E and F would have been out-shined by more complicated and compelling scores, but in retrospect there is no doubt: Jaws probably loses much of its energy and suspense without it. Until the first appearance of the shark, the music acts as placeholder, the only threatening presence on screen – besides, of course, the broken dock that it drags around in the water.

barry-lyndonBarry Lyndon (1975)

The interesting thing about Barry Lyndon is that it’s totally uninteresting. In other words, the music is as cold and detached as the rest of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece. The most famous songs from the film, Sarabande and Piano Trio in E-Flat by Franz Schubert, surely convey a sense of implacable, impersonal, callous fate. It’s as if the songs are played side by side with a lifeless painting. I debated whether to include this one and the next entry (I also considered 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well known for some of its music as it is for its use of visuals), but in Barry Lyndon the score is so servile to a singular theme that it just permeates the entire film from beginning to end. It’s truly unrelenting.

close-encountersClose Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Yes, okay, the sinister fray-at-your-nerve-endings music is not necessarily innovative – the bright lights and spastic appliances also seem anachronistic – but it’s all about timing. The score is sometimes unpredictable, punctuated by silence, as if something mysterious could appear from any angle, lurking in and around the edges but never directly in the line of sight. The use of lively jazz music on the radio during the tense abduction scene just adds to the eeriness. But the real reason this movie is on the list is because of the way in which music is used as a communication tool. If contact is ever made, we will have one thing in common – mathematics. And music often has a mathematical precision to it. It is one thing that unites us all.

amadeusAmadeus (1984)

The most interesting thing about the music in Amadeus is that, of course, the music of Mozart is effortlessly incorporated into the life of the man. We are witness to its composition, so that we are involved in its creation – creation for the pure desire to create, as a primal state of emotion. This movie invites the audience into the intimacy of Mozart’s mind, capturing the sensation of actually owning a masterpiece. The music seems to hold sway to the tender or pounding and empathic motions of Mozart’s arms slicing through the air with vigor. He seems to be creating it out of thin air. Because, of course, Mozart sees musical notes in everyday life, in the way that a storyteller uses personal experience in his craft.



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Jacob is shy. That's why he hasn't filled out his profile page yet. Hopefully he'll read this and decide to replace it with something else. If not, he'll never know I'm making fun of him in his profile. Heh heh. - Nix

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  • Liisa

    Dear Jacob, I hope someone has told you after you wrote this article, that sound design in a movie DOES NOT mean it’s music. There is score and then there is sound design. Please, look it up. :)