There are a lot of films that don’t use music. Those films look towards the sounds in the film itself to convey the emotions they desire. An example I can think of is 1975’s “Dog Day Afternoon”. That film has no music except for the opening title sequence. That film is still considered one of the best ever made.
However, with such exceptions put aside, we have to look at how much of an impact music has on a film. If used correctly, it can elevate a scene beyond the ordinary. There is a simple experiment to prove how important music is for cinema. Film a man walking down the street with no expression upon his face. Now duplicate it so you have two copies of it. On one copy, add a really sad sounding piece of music. Think Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”. On the second copy, add a really bombastic, heroic theme. Think Orff’s “O Fortuna”. Notice the difference.
The visual has not changed, but the soundtrack has. On the first copy, it looks like something horrible has happened to the character. Perhaps someone has died, or maybe he is going to die. It creates a sad atmosphere that we project onto the image we see. On the second copy, we now have this atmosphere like something epic is going to happen. Maybe this man just did something incredible, or maybe he is walking towards a fight he will partake in. Either way, the music makes us project this type of emotion onto the screen. The visual is the same, but the emotions are different.
A director can play around with this as well. Using certain types of music will help get your message across even better. Why do you think horror films use creepy, slightly off music in certain scenes? To get you scared. Imagine the shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” without the iconic string music. It completely changes how the scene plays out. Sure, it may still be unsettling to watch, but it definitely wouldn’t have the same impact as does with the music. Another thing you can do is to fool around with the music choice. Take Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” for instance. In the infamous home invasion sequence, the attacker is singing the song “Singing in the Rain”. A very happy song which counters the brutal visual we are watching. It makes the scene that much more twisted. Many films do this kind of thing. They have a brutal, violent, or disturbing scene play out with happy music over it. It confuses the audience and will be sure to make them even more uncomfortable. You love the music, but you hate what you’re seeing. It can have an incredible effect.
As I said, of course, there are exceptions. “All Quiet on the Western Front” from 1930, a Best Picture Winner, has no music in it. Instead, it relies on the horrors and sounds of World War One to elevate the various scenes impact. I think such a strategy can work, but I also think it is rarer that it does. Sometimes I watch a film with no music and think how much better it could’ve been with music. Never underestimate the power of music when making a film. Next time you watch a film, pay attention to the use of music. You may be surprised at what you find. Even better, watch a really scary film on mute. Then you’ll see how much music, (and audio in general), can make or break a film.