THROUGH MUSIC IN THE HORROR GENRE
“Terror is the objective in a horror
film, and music has a powerful ability to communicate it”,
“My real job is to do those bits in a movie they can’t tell
with words or images”
used by other composers to convey unseen implications in
the information supplied by the
This paper analyses the use of music, in the
horror/fantasy genre, as a tool to evoke persons (human or
supernatural), feelings, consequences, states (e.g. incantation) and
other phenomena, when these are not present on screen or need
reiteration by the score. On this subject I will mainly focus on the
putative success of unfamiliar musical language - for which purpose the
concept behind the score for the film “The Cell” will be compared with
The potential of Howard’s Shore music language in The
Cell to imply characters, emotions or places and elicit certain
reactions from the audience relies largely on effectively mimicking
(ideally in an innovative manner) the way other composers before him
successful achieved this goal – either in film or other art forms, such
as radio, theatre, opera and ballet.
3.1. THE CONCEPT AND TECHNIQUES USED IN THE SCORE FOR
The score for The Cell is not a typical or traditional
one. There are no themes, and although we can recognise the repetition
of short motifs throughout the film, it relies mostly on explorations
of tone colour, melody and rhythm to enhance the emotional content of
But perhaps the most unusual aspect of this score lies in the use of a
non-Western technique of writing coupled with a peculiar collection of
performers. For this film, Howard Shore gathered an ensemble of
musicians from the North of Africa called The Master Musicians Of Jajouka to
play alongside the London
Regarding the score’s notation, Howard Shore used a kind of Polish
Avant-garde notation with some nuances introduced by himself. It is not
organized in terms of staves and bars, as most Western music, but in
cells or slightly vague time-related instructions. It relies largely on
spontaneity and quasi-improvisation from the performers. (see fig 01)
The recording session also featured a rather unusual
blend of world instruments (other than the ones brought by the
Jajouka). All of which helped in concocting this exotic soundscape. At
Air Studios in London, Howard Shore gathered a 90-piece orchestra, a
very large percussion section (12 performers) and some unusual
instruments like the sarangi – a sort of Indian violin - and the
monochord – a single stringed instrument from the days of Pythagoras.
3.2. COMPARISON WITH TRADITIONAL TECHNIQUES used by other composers to
convey unseen implications in the horror genre
LULLABY-LIKE MELODES – ex: betrayal of
audience’s emotions, using hypocrisy as contrapunct, ...
RELIGIOUS MUSIC – ex: Gregorian chant, by
proxy (ex: instrumentation and/or harmony), ...
TRADITIONAL INSTRUMENT PERFORMANCE DEVICES –
ex: tremolandi, trill, sul ponticello, harmonics, ...
XXTH CENTURY / AVANT-GARDE TECHNIQUES - ex:
playing between bridge and tailpiece, snap pizzicato, etc…
I – REFERENCIAL
Sometimes irony can achieve the best results. So, it is not unusual to
find a sweet melody or a lullaby in many horror film scores, such as
Poltergeist (Jerry Goldsmith), Devil’s Advocate (James Newton
Howard) or Rosemary’s Baby (Kristopher Komeda) -track 01. Very
likely because they can provide such a huge emotional contrast. They
seem to leave us off-guard and yield a false sense of innocence and
security, thus making shocking and gory images achieve an even greater
impact. Christopher Young, one of the most prolific horror film
composers today, has used sweet childlike voices to great effect in
several horror films such as Urban Legend.
Extract from film score “Rosemary’s Baby” by
Composer Charles Bernstein reiterates this suggestion
when commenting on one of the horror films he scored: “Nightmare On Elm
Street has become a kind of a cult classic. And yet, I’d have to say
that there is a lightness to it” This lightness can sometimes be an
invaluable counterpoint to the characters or situations on screen – the
visuals are supplemented with another layer of information. The score
can provide many nuances that probably can’t be portrayed with the
Horror comedies like Scream (Wes Craven) have parodied some of these
implications. This is only possible because strong cultural conventions
intensely shape the way we read a movie. In Scream, for example, the
dichotomy between good and evil is shared by visuals and score. Acting
and music represent the two sides of certain schizophrenic characters.
I.b) RELIGIOUS MUSIC
Soundtracks for horror films or neighbouring genres, such as
supernatural or fantasy, have many times preyed on religious music to
achieve certain results. Or for subtler composers, on associations –
usually through instrumentation - with what the West can usually
perceive as religious music (a pipe organ, a choir, a set of tubular
bells, Gregorian chant and so on). Sixth Sense, by James Newton Howard
(track 02), and The Omen by Jerry Goldsmith (track 03)are
of such choices. When Latin text and a tad of dissonance
is added to the mix, as with the choir in The Omen, the result is even
Extract from film score “The Sixth Sense” by James
score “The Omen” by Jerry Goldsmith
Some composers, like Simon Boswell, believe that the
reason for this association may lie, to some extent, in the fact that
many times the villains in these narratives are a sort of distorted
mirror image of extremely devout people. On another level, when the
story involves characters like Satan, it’s hard to avoid all the
associations or parodies that convention and culture delivers to film
composers on a plate.
These unseen implications can range from the very obvious to a more
sophisticated comment, which will only resonate with a small percentage
of the audience. (see 4.2.1.)
II - IMPLICIT
In order to be able to suggest or imply anything or
anyone when they are not present on screen, a musical device must first
be able to elicit a response from the audience. This is why
tried-and-tested strategies are still the weapon of choice for most
film composers. Despite the fact that the simple gesture of starting a
music cue can imply so much already, traditional orchestral techniques
and Avant-garde innovative devices have been absolute salvation to
composers scoring horror films.
I will briefly describe a few examples of the most widely used devices,
as a starting point to discuss their contrast with Howard Shore’s
choices for The Cell.
INSTRUMENT PERFORMANCE DEVICES
Tremolando – This is a technique where the string
player performs short quick up and down bow strokes. Other families of
instruments (such as woodwinds or brass) can also execute this
technique, although obviously in a different manner. Tremolando has
been extensively used to instil unease and foreboding in the audience
since the days of Mahler – at the very least. To the present day, a
simple sustained note played tremolandi, still has the power to
dramatically alter the way we read what is happening on the screen. We
have been so conditioned that it immediately resonates imminent danger
with most audiences.
Interesting fact that a very nervous (scared?) player attempting to
play a flat sustained note or phrase on a bowed string instrument would
end up making them sound tremolando.
Glissando – This technique is practically
exclusive to non-fretted string instruments, trombones and the human
voice. It is accomplished, in string instruments, by sliding the finger
on a string from one pitch to another producing a continuous sound.
When the speed of the glissando is different amongst the performers in
the ensemble - particularly with a choir - it creates an
astonishing effect. This last nuance is more commonly found in
Avant-garde compositions though (György Ligeti is particularly
fond of it).
Other common strategies involve the use of trills,
harmonics (particularly in strings), col legno, pianosubitos (sforzando
with pianosubito is particularly efficient) and so on. Some of these
techniques have sprung from a ground where they have already given
enough proof of their potential - the concert stage. Operas, ballets
and concertos abound with such devices. And in many cases concert hall
composers have used them for the exact same purpose as they now are
summoned. Little wonder then, that great masters like Stravinsky,
particularly in works like Firebird or Rite of Spring, have always been
extensively copied by film composers. Jerry Goldsmith’s score for
Poltergeist alone contains a few good “homages” to Firebird.
II.b) XXTH CENTURY /
Twentieth century movements such as Impressionism, with
Claude Debussy or Maurice Ravel, or Avant-garde with composers like
Edgard Varese and Kzystof Penderecky have been a very resourceful
inspiration for many film composers. Some of the innovative textures
and sounds that these composers feature in their works can be heard in
many traditional film scores. Practically all of the Hollywood
composers I have mentioned in this paper have emulated, at some stage
of their working lives, the great XXth century masters.
Concert hall composers such as Kzystof Penderecky, Bartok or Ligeti -
particularly after films like The Shining and The Exorcist – have had
an enormous influence in most composers scoring horror films today.
The Shinning, by Stanley Kubrick, makes use for its soundtrack of
concert pieces alongside a commissioned score to composer Wendy Carlos.
Tone colour and bold refreshing harmony were probably the two dominant
contributions they brought to the music palette of contemporary film
composers – not very dissimilar to what Shore has achieved (in a very
humble way) in The Cell.
The works used in this film, such as “De Natura Sonoris” by Penderecky
– which has a similar score notation to The Cell - are so rich and
esoteric, that they seem to suggest or imply something throughout the
whole length of the piece. When cleverly used – as they were in The
Shining – it is easily perceivable how much they have helped the
director in adding extra layers of meaning and achieving results beyond
what cinematography, mise-en-scene, editing and sound could do.
3.2.1. HARMONY AND ORCHESTRATION
Harmony – the use and study of pitch simultaneity an
chords in music – can be actual or implied. Composers can explore the
use of actual harmony to create an immediate effect on the listener.
For example, by having a dissonant chord playing over a scene.
Composers often play with dissonance and clusters (a chord where notes
are separated from each other in very small intervals) to express a
sense of uneasiness and foreboding.
Nature seems to have a simple explanation for this. A study in
December’s 2002 edition of Science magazine (Science 13 December 2002)
reported that “the abstract knowledge about the harmonic relationships
in music inscribes itself on the human cortex, guiding expectations of
how musical notes should relate to one another as they are played”. “By
four months of age, babies already prefer the more musical intervals of
major and minor thirds to the more dissonant sounds of minor seconds”.
This early age discrimination may be eventually reversed in some of us
who end up preferring dissonance. But for most people it will remain
like this throughout their lives. I believe CD sales figures are a
substantial proof of this assumption.
Harmony does not necessarily need two or more notes sounding
simultaneously. It can also be implied with only a strong melodic line.
This has also been explored in the horror genre by composers. A
pandiatonic (not belonging to a single scale) melody can easily imprint
a sense of discomfort as opposed to a diatonic (belonging to a single
scale) one. The violin melody over piano chords that we hear in
Bartok’s Music for strings percussion and celesta that Kubrick used in
The Shining features such an example.
Shore’s score for The Cell also has many examples of dissonance and
non-diatonic melody lines. The melodies played by the lira (cane flute)
are not even pandiatonic, as the instrument’s tuning is not tempered.
Orchestration also plays an important role in
communicating the composer-director’s intentions. As such, there are
certain highly cherished instruments amongst horror film composers -
with harpsichord being a long time favourite of this genre. Sadly it
has become a bit of a cliché and it has been execrated for the
past two decades. Although great film composers, such as Elliot
Goldenthal, can still prove that it should remain on the menu – as it
can be witnessed in Neil Jordan’s film Interview With The Vampire.
The bottom end of low-pitched
also be quite menacing and disturbing. Many times, composers (like
Danny Elfman in Sleepy Hollow) have gone great lengths to track down
performers who play rare instruments that go far beyond the lower limit
of their symphony orchestra counterpart - such as the contrabass
clarinet (fig. 02) – in order to achieve fresh and disconcerting
atmospheres. For a very similar reason Contrabassoons and Bass
trombones usually have a reserved seat at the score’s recording
Figure 2 - Contrabass clarinet
Not surprisingly, the very top end of the high-pitched
instruments has also been used – particularly in clusters - with
impressive effect. The harmonics I referred to in the paragraph above
are a good example. Another is the use of the very top notes on a
piano. For the film The Shinning Stanley Kubrick used a section from
Bartok’s Music for strings, percussion and celesta that features piano
staccato chords played near the top range of the instrument.
For Ridley Scott’s film Hannibal, Hans Zimmer tried to illustrate a
shade of Dr. Lecter’s personality beyond what the visuals were showing.
In an interview for the film’s DVD release, he admitted that by having
Doublebasses and Celli play at the extremes of their ranges he was
trying to portray him as someone on the extreme range of what can be
The extremes of a musical instrument’s range are so invaluable that
Avant-garde composers have even created a notation symbol for it. A
black triangle pointing upwards on the stave means play the highest
note you can (and the opposite if it’s pointing downwards).
On a quasi-paradoxical note I want to add that Instruments that are not
widely known, can sometimes also be used to this end. Maybe because
they can aurally tease listeners with an unfamiliar timbre - thus
instilling a subtle sense of restlessness
the audience. Great composers like
Bernard Herrmann - who used the innovative sound of electric violins
back in 1951 - or Miklos Roza with a spooky theremin in
Spellbound in 1945, have brought as often as possible to their scores
such rare gems. The duduk – a sort of Armenian clarinet – is one of the
recent additions, which now risks being featured to exhaustion.
Although Klaus Badelt and Brian Tyler have put it to good use in horror
flick Constantine – a film that Tarsem Singh was initially appointed to
direct. Another case in point is the Ghaita – which features
extensively in The Cell – and was used by Christopher Young in Bless
The Child (in the same year The Cell was released), alongside extended
male and female choir with a bone chilling effect.
Any of the instruments or ensembles mentioned above - when properly
used - can, and has been till the present day, yield a sense of
uneasiness or foreboding to a character, a place or an object. In a
broader sense, they are capable of hinting and suggesting what is not
yet present on screen.
3.4. THE SCORE FOR THE CELL – Shore and Singh
The resulting music score in most films is a combination
of, at least, the joint efforts of composer and director. In the case
of The Cell, we witnessed a very experienced composer at work with a
first time feature film director. Someone with a solid knowledge of
music and the role of music in film reshaping the work of an artist
with a strong sense of imagery and overall content.
3.4.1. Howard Shore
Howard Shore has composed the scores to more than 60
films. His outstanding film work includes cult classics like: The
Silence Of The Lambs and Philadelphia, directed by Jonathan Demme; Ed
Wood, directed by Tim Burton; Seven and The Game, directed by David
Fincher and After Hours, directed by Martin Scorsese.
Shore's long standing collaboration with David Cronenberg has produced
the scores to The Brood (1979), Scanners (1980), Videodrome (1983), The
Fly (1986), Dead Ringers (1988), Naked Lunch (1990), M. Butterfly
(1993), Crash (1996) eXistenZ (1999) and A History Of Violence (2006).
Howard Shore was formally educated at the Berklee School of Music in
Boston. He recorded with the group "Lighthouse" from 1969 to 1972, and
as one of the original creators of Saturday Night Live, he served as
Musical Director from 1975 to1980.
In addition to his film score work, Shore's chamber music has been
featured on Arabesque Record's "Reel Life - The Private Music of Film
Composers Vol. 1".
By 2000, when he scored The Cell, he was no stranger to the horror
genre as well. Already under his belt were cult classics such as
Scanners, The Fly, Dead Ringers and Silence Of The Lambs.
His influences are highly eclectic, ranging from experimental to
classical music and rock to jazz. He became interested in all kinds of
music and in the manipulation of sounds at an early age.” I grew up in
the fifties, and it was a period of Hi-Fidelity and stereo. Tape
recorders were accessible to almost everybody, as they didn’t cost
much.” He recalls. “I had a library near me that had a wonderful
collection of classical and popular music […] I started pulling records
of Takemitsu and Cage, and David Tudor and Stockhausen and I would tape
them”. “I would make my own edited versions of their stuff”. “ […] And
then I started to try to emulate them. When I was 12 or 13 I was using
a razor blade and a quarter inch tape. So I’d actually built up a real
early catalogue of samples and recordings”.
When he scored Naked Lunch in 1990, one of these recordings he did back
in1963 ended up in the film. “[…] in movies like The Cell, I’d take a
piece of music (as I did for Naked Lunch) and it’s basically an
electronic technique – I’d overdub something else onto it”.
Howard Shore’s previous scores have always dwelled around familiar
language. No doubt we have heard him take very interesting choices, in
such scores as Seven or Crash – with its six electric guitars – but,
safe for Naked Lunch, it hasn’t strayed too much from classical
grounds. Naked Lunch and, to some extent, his early age experimentation
with dubbing seem to have prepared Shore to tackle The Cell in such a
The decision to use Jazz on Naked Lunch seems to have been a conscious
one by Shore and David Cronenberg. “In this score we decided to use
Jazz because it just seemed part of the book. It was part of Burrough’s
world, and part of the 1950’s world of Bebop” Howard Shore recalls. “So
I was looping the [Charlie] Parker tracks, and writing against them,
[…] and then I remembered a recording that Ornette [Coleman] did in the
early 1970s with the Master musicians of Jajouka in the mountains
outside of Tangiers, […] I played it for Cronenberg and he thought that
was the Interzone national anthem!”
3.4.2. Tarsem Singh
The much younger director of The Cell, is a graduate
from the Art Centre College of Design in Pasadena, Los Angeles.
Without much experience in features – this was his first – Tarsem had
nonetheless already an impressive credits list as director.
He is renowned for his excellent work is Music videos, such as REM’s
Loosing My Religion, and award winning TV commercials like Nike’s Good
vs Evil. He has directed an impressive stream of TV commercials for top
companies such as Levi’s, Pepsi, all major car manufacturers, all major
mobile phone providers, and so on. (clip on CD)
Nike commercial directed by Tarsem Singh
Figure 3 - Still from The Cell
It is likely that the way music serves and interacts
with the visuals in The Cell was shaped by Tarsem’s extensive
background directing TV commercials. As we can see from this Nike
advert his productions are very stylish, loaded with bold imagery,
strong colours and a tad of histrionics.
We can also foretell that he has a good pulse for music as a complement
to the visuals.
4.1. THE CELL
(2000) – Brief synopsis
Child psychotherapist Catharine Deane, played by
Jennifer Lopez, is part of a revolutionary new treatment which allows
her mind to literally enter the mind of her patients. Her experience in
this method takes an unexpected turn when FBI agent Peter Novak (Vince
Vaughn) comes to ask for a desperate favour. The FBI has tracked down
and captured a notorious serial killer, Carl Stargher (Vincent
D’Onofrio), whose modus operandi involves abducting women and
then keeping them in a tank he built in a remote location for about 40
hours until they slowly drown. Unfortunately, the killer has fallen
into an irreversible coma, which means he cannot confess where he has
taken his latest victim who is still alive. Catherine Deane must race
against time exploring the twisted mind of the killer to get the
information she needs. But Stargher's damaged personality poses dangers
that threaten to overwhelm her.
4.1.1. Artistic Influences
As expected from a director accustomed to convey a
message in a short span of time – a TV commercial - his style for The
Cell is highly visual. Very strong and stylised imagery, quite often
based on the works of other 20th century artists.
For example, the scene in which a
split into sections seems to have been inspired by the works of British
artist Damien Hirst. An artist for whom Death is a central theme in his
creations, and is best known for his Natural History series, in which
dead animals (such as a shark, a sheep or a cow) are preserved,
sometimes cut-up, in formaldehyde
The film includes scenes inspired on the work of other late 20th
century artists, such as Odd Nerdrum. In particular, the scene where
Vince Vaughn starts his maiden voyage into the subcounscious of the
serial killer shows a strong influence by Nerdrum's painting "Dawn".
Figure 4 -Odd Nerdrum's "Dawn"
The Cell reveals an influence from the work of other
filmmakers as well - like the Brothers Quay, who have given us
fantastic films such as Street Of Crocodiles and also directed music
videos. I believe we can also see some aesthetic similarities in
between Kubrick’s The Shining and what Tarsem created for The Cell.
Particularly the strong colours and the nature of the graphic image,
the impressive landscapes, the tempo oif the visuals and the presence
of emptiness on screen.
Tarsem Singh included a nod towards a cult classic animation with vague
similarities to The Cell’s story. The animated sequence that Catherine
watches on television, near the beginning of the film, is from La
Planete Sauvage - a French animated feature from 1973 chiefly noted for
its surreal imagery, which tells the story of humans enslaved as pets
by giant blue-skinned aliens.
4.2. FUNCTIONS OF
THE MUSIC SCORE
4.2.1. What and when does the audience need to
know the information supplied by the music?
The director and the composer need to be extremely careful when
deciding the amount of information that the music score will feed to
the audience. As they both know the outcome of the film and have seen
it many times, they can easily lose the fine balance necessary to make
the plot interesting, (by hinting or suggesting something but never
giving away what you should only find out later).
Suggesting what is not present on screen has traditionally been linked
with certain musical devices. One of them, probably the oldest one, is
the Leitmotif. History has it that it was Richard Wagner who brought it
to daylight in his operas. Although Carl Maria Von Weber was probably
the first composer to make extensive use of leitmotifs, back in early
1800s. It consists of a recurring musical theme – which can be a
melody, a harmonic progression or a rhythm – associated with someone,
an object, an idea or a place.
If this motif is played enough times, the audience may respond to it
being played - in a sort of Pavlovian reflex - even when its
counterpart is not on screen.
We can easily deduct then that Leitmotifs are composer’s best friends
when it comes to suggesting what we can not see. The Cell’s score
contains a few musical motifs that serve as aural guideposts throughout
the film but nothing so precise.
Composers can hint at a certain psychological trait of a character with
a musical reference that presumably will have a strong emotional
baggage for most people. A music box lullaby (assuming it is not
playing over the image of a baby), for example, will lead audiences in
search of a meaning – most probably an immature adult (as Gabriel Yared
did in The Talented Mr Ripley for Matt Damon’s character)
In a more sophisticated way some directors like Scorcese in Raging Bull
or Kubrick in 2001 have implied connotations far beyond the action on
the screen with pieces of music they chose to underscore certain
sequences – respectively Mascagni’s Cavaleria Rusticanna and Strauss’s
Also Spracht Zaratrustra. The story of Mascagni’s opera, for example,
mirrors that of our protagonist, Jake La Motta, being steeped in
passion, betrayal and retribution. And Strauss’s symphonic poem
(inspired by Nietzsche’s book with the same name) about the fictitious
travels and pedagogy of prophet Zarathustra (or Zoroaster) adds a
complementary layer of meaning to the sequence with one of the most
famous cuts in the history of film.
The use of pre-recorded music tracks – particularly when they are well
known to the public – can be quite controversial as well. This is
another aspect of the power music has to convey emotions beyond the
story it is playing against. In the film Chocolat (2000), composer
Rachel Portman rebelled against the director Lasse Hallstrom’s decision
to use a piece from French composer Eric Satie. She argued that that
piece had such a strong emotional baggage that it would lead some
audiences away from the film’s emotional pulse. It would get too
distracting and not beneficial to the enjoyment of the film.
4.3. AUDIENCE EXPECTATIONS
Charles Bernstein, when talking about his work on
Nightmare On Elm Street, described how he sometimes had to lead the
audience into thinking they were watching a dream or make them think
they were watching reality.
For him, the key decision is taken during the spotting session. He
says: “If you bring the music at the beginning of a scene, you are
letting the audience know that there is something about that scene that
is different from the one that preceded it”. He goes on to suggest that
if you hold off and wait for another moment further on, you’ll have
greater control over their emotional response.
The boundary between dream and reality is a fine line in only two
scenes in The Cell. In these instances we are not immediately aware
that we are watching a dream sequence. Howard Shore has nevertheless
scored them throughout. So our epiphany comes from obvious visual cues
(in the first scene) or from a line of dialogue (when the procedure
goes wrong) and not from the score. On the other journeys into the
mind, the visuals leave absolutely no doubt that the reality frontier
has been crossed, so there is no need for the music to reiterate this.
4.4. EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE
Several researchers have proposed models specific to the
perception and cognition of music within the cinematic context. Based
upon subject responses, the researchers Marshall and Cohen (1988)
determined that music directly effects subject ratings on the: potency
(strong-weak) and activity (active-passive)
dimensions. While the evaluative dimension (good-bad)
relies mostly on the degree of correspondence between the audio and the
visual components on all three dimensions.
These researchers also acknowledge the important role played by
temporal characteristics of the sound and image, stating that:” the
assignment of accent to events will affect retention, processing
4.5. THEORETICAL EVIDENCE
There are basically two models related to the role and
function of film music. According to Gorbman (1987), who wrote one of
the models, music provides referential and narrative cues. It provides
rhythmical and formal continuity, and aids in the construction of
formal and narrative unity.
Nicholas Cook (1998), who wrote the other, explains that: “words and
pictures deal primarily with the specific, with the objective. While
music deals primarily with responses – that is, with values, emotions
and attitudes […] the connotative qualities of the music complement the
denotative qualities of the words and the pictures”.
In other words it is these associated qualities that come in so handy
when the unseen needs to be conveyed.
According to Roy Prendergast, one of the most effective ways in which a
musical score can augment the narrative is to express the unspoken
thoughts and unseen implications that underlie the drama.
Music can convey character. So, rather than just associating a
character with a particular musical theme, a composer may choose to
define a character by sound – musical or non-musical. And the most
consistently used technique to communicate musically through
association is undoubtedly the leitmotif. Richard Wagner once
said:” Music speaks out the very thing which word speech in itself can
not speak out… that which, looked at from the standpoint of our human
intellect, is the unspeakable”
Music can also convey messages about where in the frame
the audience should focus attention.
A research by M. Boltz in 2001 has shown that music that is assigned a
“negative” or ”positive” connotation “significantly biased viewer’s
interpretation and subsequent remembering of a film in a mood-congruent
fashion. Particularly when music with an assigned connotation was
combined with an ambiguous scene, memory of objects in the visual scene
is influenced significantly by the music”.
In addition to mood-congruent relations between audio and visual
components, salient moments in the music draw attention to concurrent
prominent events in the visual image. This has been rather well
explored by composers, and has its maximum expression in a technique
traditionally known as Mickeymousing and the now
unfashionable Stings or Stingers.
The same C. Gorbman (1987) mentioned above also believes that “within a
cinematic context, the presence of film music serves to lower the
audience’s threshold of belief”. The fact that nondiegetic music is
heard in places where we wouldn’t expect diegetic music, allows the
audience to more readily become lost in the drama.
4.6. ANALYSIS OF A REPRESENTATIVE SCORED SCENE IN THE
For practical reasons, I have divided the scenes from The Cell into two
categories: Conventional drama and Journeys into the mind.
Conventional drama involves scenes that take
place in the real world. Sequences such as the one when Barry comes in
the control room to announce that the little boy’s parents have arrived
– about 6 minutes and 20 seconds into the film. Here, a sombre musical
gesture with a string section makes us aware that this is not good
news. This sort of language is familiar territory to most audiences, as
it simply mimics what dozens of composers have done before.
Some of the score for the scenes in this category (particularly the
fast paced ones) is reminiscent of the composer’s own work in Seven
(1995) - A film that dealt with the story of yet another serial killer-
but noting worth mentioning in the context of this paper. Dark
atmospheric orchestration and equal temperament are two characteristics
that set this category apart from the next.
Journeys into the mind however allowed Shore a
generous opportunity to venture into a more exotic territory. Here we
hear a clear departure from traditional scoring methods, exploring
microtonality and exotic instrumentation.
The film opens with a shot of a desert landscape, which
we will later learn belongs in a little boy’s dream.
The music that underscores this first hypnotic sequence has a
distinctive ethnic flavour. Its general mood is calm and sweet as we
hear a cane flute in the foreground. More instruments join in and the
scene gathers momentum when we see a beautiful woman riding a horse. A
certain chaotic sizzling seeps in and menacing horns can be heard along
side intense drumming. This sort of emotional turmoil is traditionally
achieved in other films with fast figures – usually ostinatos (motif or
phrase repeated continuously at the same pitch) – or fugue-like
constructions (as can be heard in the extracts from film scores from
“The Matrix” (fast) and “Close Encounters” (slow).(tracks
4 and 5 on the CD)
Extract from film score “The Omen” by Jerry
film score “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind” by John
These devices are a good illustration of what I referred
to previously. They abound in classical music and are continually used
in film scores. A good example can be found in Bartok’s Concerto For
Orchestra. (tracks 6)
Extract from Bartok’s Concerto For Orchestra
The scene maintains momentum thanks to the fast phrasing
of flute and ghaita above a layer of obsessive drumming.
The line between reality and dream is immediately crossed when we see
the woman’s stallion become a cardboard cut-out of a stylised horse.
Unfortunately this is accentuated by a rather tacky sound effect.
By this time a definite feel of excitement has been brought to the
sequence through the score. If watched without sound, the stillness of
the shots conveys a remarkable sense of tranquillity and calm. The
deliberate choice of this agitated piece of music, instantly and very
likely subliminally, sparks a search for a meaning by most
audiences. The unseen urgency imposed by the score sets up a
weighty contrast with the tranquil visuals - In this film not
everything is what it appears to be.
From a distance, she spots a little boy with a mirror (which she has
given him to use as a signal, should he want to get in touch with her).
It seems that this link between the two characters has eased off the
tension as the music quickly returns to the serenity of the flute heard
Such contrast between anxiety and tranquillity could have been
attempted in another way, perhaps through the editing, but I doubt that
it would have been as successful as this.
The music underpinning dream sequences usually does little more than
reflect the emotions behind the sequence. In eXistenZ, another film
scored by Howard Shore the year before, the transition to a somewhat
dreamy virtual reality was accompanied by the same sonic elements as
the rest of the film. Shore’s use of microtonal colours in The Cell to
underscore situations beyond reality is rather fresh and feels
exceedingly suitable for this story.
Its daring use of ghaita, drums and chaotic figures during emotionally
intense scenes has been influential to other composers as well. For
example, Brian Tyler and Klaus Badelt used similar soundscapes in their
score for the film Constantine. Although these days we must always
consider that their choice might have been slightly hampered by the
putative use of The Cell’s score in the temp.
For as much as Howard Shore hates intellectualising about his scores,
he has admitted in an interview for website Soundtrack.net that once a
certain link has been pointed out to him (as director David Cronenberg
did during the recording sessions for his film Crash) the composer
acknowledges that subconsciously he might have taken certain decisions
for a reason. Even when he refers to this as gut instinct, decisions such as the one that led him to use the
Jajouka ensemble for the dream sequences and a traditional orchestra in
the reality scenes can only have been intentional. The amount of extra
information that this choice brought to the film ended up being a big
Howard Shore has stated that for this score he wanted to write it in a
way that Western instruments related to each other in the same way this
happens in African, Indian or Chinese music. In his opinion this has
brought to the sonic palette a sense of freedom above anything else.
Figure 5 - Master Musicians of Jajouka
To this end he managed to enlist the Master Musicians of
The music and secrets of Jajouka have been passed down through
generations from father to son, by some accounts, for as long as 4000
years. The musicians are taught from early childhood a complex music
that is unique to Jajouka, until they finally become Malims or Masters.
They possess baraka, or the blessing of Allah, which gives them the
power to heal, and the endurance required to play some of the most
intense and complex music around. The music of Jajouka uses a number of
traditional instruments, including the ghaita (the Arabic version of
the oboe), the lira (a bamboo flute), and the guimbri (a rudimentary
three stringed lute), along with double-headed Moroccan drums.
Their music is composed of several fairly simple parts,
which are then intricately woven together in a way foreign to most
Western ears, so that the resolution of individual phrases and sections
can be difficult for outsiders to discern. The music can be extended
indefinitely, and many performances last for days at a time, with some
musicians taking breaks and others stepping in to take their
place. Howard Shore says that although their music can sound
random and disorganised to Western ears it is quite the contrary. It is
very specific and incredibly detailed.
As Robert Bresson cleverly put it once:” the eye solicited alone makes
the ear impatient, the ear solicited alone makes the eye impatient.
[You should] Use these impatiences”. Some directors and film editors
know that by subtracting (maybe by having music point in the a
different direction) or merely hinting at certain bits of information
relevant to the plot, they can engage the audience in a much more
powerful way than if everything is laid out plainly in front of them.
We enjoy these impatiences. It is particularly in these instances that
music – or sound – can be called upon to achieve something beyond mere
Author and composer Mark Russell (Cold Feet) on a BBC radio 2 interview
(2002) talked about the implications that Bernard Herrmann’s score for
Psycho brought to the story. Talking about the first twenty minutes of
the film where we see Janet Leigh driving through the rain, he recalled
what Bernard Herrmann said, “if you watch it with no music, she could
just be driving to the supermarket. There is no reason to believe that
there is anything going on”. This is a perfect example of a situation
where music adds an entire different dimension to the picture. It tells
you what is going on in her head, it tells you that she feels there is
a sort of clock ticking away in a haze of guilt and obsession.
In that same radio show, Hans Zimmer reiterates the importance of a
composer when it comes to conjure notions and feelings not present
(enough or at all) on the screen, when he said: “My real job is to do
those bits in a movie they can’t tell with words or images”.
This score caught Howard Shore between “eXistenZ”(1999),
a film that shared a few similarities – particularly the fine blurry
line between dream and reality – and “Lord of the Rings”(2001) – an
epic where he reused most of the unusual instruments chosen for The
Cell (like the monochord and the Ghaita). In this score there is also a
thread in the composer’s history that takes us as far back as Naked
Lunch. A film score where he also used improvised cells alongside
The originality of the material for this score can be questioned by
some purists. Particularly as Howard Shore did not write the Jajouka
musician’s performances and even the orchestra for good part of the
score played notes randomly chosen by each performer (within a boundary
established by Shore). Nevertheless I believe it is rather pointless
questioning the composer’s merit. A good percentage of avant-garde
music is conceived and written exactly like this and no one doubts
Penderecky or Ligeti’s astonishing talent.
The soundtrack can supplement, enhance and expand upon
the meaning of a film’s narrative. The relationship between the
auditory and visual components in cinema is both active and dynamic,
affording a multiplicity of multiple relations that can evolve,
sometimes dramatically, as the narrative unfolds.
The suggestion of the unseen can be used by the filmmaker and composer
with two basic intentions: To lead the audiences into a red herring or
to make them aware of certain plot details, in order to better enjoy
and understand the film.
This role of implying the unseen or reinforcing a situation hinted with
the visuals, which is so often asked from music, is possible mostly
because of cultural conventions. Some researches have also demonstrated
that we possess an innate tendency to have the way we perceive a film
influenced by the simultaneous use of music.
Filmmakers and composers are aware of a universe of musical gestures
that can be incredibly helpful in providing the picture with a layer of
extra meaning. This layer can be: the Psychological make-up of a
character, a special quality of an object, a memory of someone who is
Probably since the dawn of opera, and past a long journey through music
in theatre plays, music as a background atmosphere for poetry readings,
in radio plays, and in visual media (film television, corporate videos
and advertising) that audiences have been conditioned, in a Pavlovian
manner, to respond and feel in a certain way according to the music
they hear while engaged with other visual or aural stimuli.
Although the score for The Cell features a rather innovative approach
and the use of a music language unfamiliar to most audiences, I believe
it succeeded when it came to establish a link with more familiar
Western music language. We are still emotionally influenced by the
sweetness of the melody played by the lira and become excited and
restless by the intense turmoil of the Moroccan drums. The tone and
texture provided by this score complemented the story in a very
I trust we can safely conclude that, when properly used, less-known or
new forms / genres of music (i.e. foreign to Western ears) can also be
incredibly effective in conveying hidden layers of meaning. Very likely
because our brains establish a parallel with our well-known cultural
references and to the familiar language a century of cinema has brought
Obviously, none of this is flawless, and there is always the
possibility that a cue will not achieve the desired result, or even
throw some viewers in the opposite direction.
But again, so can Cinematography, Editing, Sound and almost every other
slice of this holistic cake called film.
In a year that gave birth to some very inventive scores, such as
“Requiem For A Dream” by Clint Mansell, “28 Days” by John Murphy and
Tan Dun’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, “The Cell” was undoubtedly
a breath of fresh air above its peers.
In chronological order
Rosemary’s Baby, 1968, directed by Roman
Polansky, Paramount Pictures
The Omen, 1976, directed by Richard Donner, 20th Century Fox
The Shining, 1980, directed by Stanley Kubrick, Warner Bros.
Poltergeist, 1982, directed by Tobe Hooper. MGM
A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984 directed by Wes Craven, The
Elm street venture
The Fly, 1986, directed by David Cronenberg, 20th Century Fox
Naked Lunch, 1991, directed by David Cronenberg, Film Trustees
The Silence Of The Lambs, 1991, directed by Jonathan Demme,
Orion Pictures Corp
Interview With The Vampire, 1994, directed by Neil Jordan,
Seven, 1995, directed by David Fincher, New Line Cinema
Scream, 1996 directed by Wes Craven, Dimension Films
Devil’s Advocate, 1997, directed by Taylor Hackford, Kopelson
Urban Legend, 1998, directed by Jamie Blanks, Original Film
Sleepy Hollow, 1999, directed by Tim Burton, Paramount
The Cell, 2000, directed by Tarsem Singh, Avery Pix Co
Bless the Child, 2000, directed by Chuck Russell, Paramount
Constantine, 2005, directed by Francis Lawrence, Warner Bros.
Nike TV commercial, directed by Tarsem Singh
Adler, S. (1989) The Study of Orchestration,
W.W. and Norton Company Inc.
Boltz, M. (2001), Musical soundtracks as a schematic
influence on the cognitive processing of filmed events, Music
Perception, 18(4), 427-454.
Bordwell, D. and Thompson K. (2004), Film Art – an
introduction, McGraw-Hill, 7th edition
Cook, N. (1998), Analysing musical multimedia, Oxford
University Press, New York.
Gorbman, C. (1987), Unheard melodies: Narrative film music,
Press, Bloomington, IN.
Kalinak, K. (1992), Settling the score: music and the
classical Hollywood film, The University of Wisconsin Press.
Karlin, F. Wright, R. (2002) On the track: a contemporary
guide to film scoring, Routledge New York, 2nd
Koppl, R. (2000) Inside The Cell with composer Howard Shore
and director Tarsem Singh, Soundtrack vol. 19/No75, Fall 2000 p.24
Marshall, S.K. and Cohen, A.J. (1988) Effects of musical
soundtracks on attitudes toward animated geometric figures, Music
Perception, 6 (1), 95-112.
Prendergast, R.M. (1992), Film music: a neglected art,
W.W. Norton and Co, New York.
Science 13 December 2002 298: 2167-2170 [DOI:
Thomas, T. (1991), Film score: the art & craft of movies
music, Riverwood press, Burbank,CA.
Wagner R. (1964) Orchestra’s power of speech: analogy with
gesture , Dutton, New York (Original work [The Artwork of the
Future] published in1849)
From WEB PAGES
Boswell, S. From the composer’s website www.simonboswell.com
Shore, H. Interview with Howard Shore for website Soundtrack.net
Whitehall, A. The new Grove music dictionary online (ed. L. Macy)
Grove’s dictionaries, New York. www.grovemusic.com
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