How film music helps build emotion

When it comes to film, we’ve all heard the sayings: a thriller “had me on the edge of my seat,” a horror film “made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up,” or that a romance movie was a “tearjerker.”

The film-viewing experience takes us on an emotional journey. But it’s not just what we see, or what is said, that causes us to experience these feelings. Turn off the music track, and you’ll have a very different emotional experience.


The idea that music and emotion are linked dates back over 2,300 years to when Aristotle theorized that music mirrors our vocalization of rambunctious glee or clamorous outcry. And Western cultures have connected certain emotions, like “happy” or “sad,” to orchestration devices in music since the Baroque period. When Classical composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, or Schubert composed in an A-flat major, listeners heard the “key of the grave.”

Knowing that music can evoke the full range of human emotion—from sadness, fright, and anxiety to relaxation, nostalgia, and joy—it’s no surprise that Hollywood now relies on modern composers to further propel emotions and storytelling in film.

Music and movies go hand-in-hand

Although the movie industry began with silent films, most of these films were not truly “silent.” Before the capability of sound-on-film, there was almost always an instrument (usually a piano) accompanying a movie in the theater. Long before technology brought synchronized sound, movie producers understood that films without music were impersonal and lacked energy.

When you break it down, the sole purpose of music in film is to drive emotion. There’s a quote in the industry that goes something like this: “In a film, the dialogue and action tell us what the characters are thinking and doing, but the music can tell us what they are feeling.” What would some of the most iconic moments in film history be like without music? Would Casablanca be a romance classic if “As Times Goes By” wasn’t a theme throughout the film?

Famous music in film moments

You can probably name many films just by hearing the music. That’s because famous scores have trained us to recognize the distinct actions that move a story or character forward. John Williams, composer for some of the most iconic films of all time, is a prime example of how well-crafted music heightens the emotion of what we see on screen.

Williams artfully uses high melodies played in a major key to evoke a sense of adventure and heroism. In “The Boulder Chase” from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, the music mirrors Indy’s movements, taking us on a roller coaster of emotions. The strings hang anxiously in the air as Indy reaches for the Golden Idol with trepidation. Then comes the rumble of low, deep drums as an enormous rolling boulder appears, ready to crush him. Indy narrowly escapes only to be immediately chased by an indigenous group as nimble pizzicato strings match the pace. Finally, a memorable and triumphant marching brass theme soars as Indy escapes on a plane.

When John Williams recorded the final 15-minute chase scene for the movie E.T., it proved quite challenging for the orchestra to play through the entire piece while hitting key moments in the picture. Amazingly, Steven Spielberg told Williams to record as he wanted and that the film would be edited to the music. This decision allowed the audience to experience the score as Williams intended. And no one can forget the moment when the drums triumphantly crash, and the entire orchestra rises with the boys as E.T.’s powers lift them into the air in front of the setting sun.

How the score builds characters

Just as music can create an emotional journey throughout a scene, short musical themes can also become synonymous with characters. We can again look to famous scores by John Williams as examples.

For instance, it’s nearly impossible to hear Williams’ “Imperial March” without envisioning the approach of Darth Vader. This powerful theme creates a feeling of something unsteadying, menacing, and sinister.

Even though Darth Vader’s theme is thought to be based on Chopin’s “Funeral March”, the “Imperial March” is thick and strong as the brass holds it down. The piece is written in a four-beat time, but the famous melody begins in the fifth bar, which further accentuates the militant quality by emphasizing the strong beats and using dotted rhythms. These factors help create the tension we feel when the music begins to play, cueing Darth Vader’s arrival.

Another famous example is the ominous music of Jaws with the two-note shark motif. Williams described the theme as “grinding away at you, just as a shark would do, instinctual, relentless, unstoppable.” We’re pretty sure every kid has hummed this theme in the water at some point without ever seeing the film. Williams showed us what a shark sounds like.

Let the credits roll

As film composer Bernard Hermann who’s known for his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock explains, “I feel that music on screen can seek out and intensify the inner thoughts of the characters. It can invest a scene with terror, grandeur, gaiety, or misery. It can propel narrative swiftly forward, or slow it down. It often lifts mere dialogue into the realm of poetry. Finally, it is the communicating link between the screen and the audience, reaching out and enveloping all into one single experience.”


There is a lot to keep in mind when composing for film beyond leaving space for dialogue and sound effects. A composer must understand the purpose of the piece and how it will further the storytelling. How can you combine all of the musical factors in your toolbox to ensure that the listeners’ ears, trained from societal conditioning, gel with the emotional connections inferred from your music?

As the examples above clearly demonstrate, compositions can turn into the soundtrack of pivotal moments in our lives. That’s the power of composing—enhancing a story to further connect with the characters, the film’s moral, and, potentially, ourselves. As Steven Spielberg has said, “If I weren’t a director, I would want to be a film composer.”

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