If there is one thing that impacts and improves the experience of film and television, and elevates it above reading at times, it would not be good writing or good acting even. It would be the implementation of music and soundtrack. If you don’t believe me, watch an emotional scene with the subtitles on and the sound off. It simply hits different when you have those tones washing over you. Music sets the tone, pardon the pun. It subconsciously sets us up for what’s to come.
In horror films, the music is tense and speeds up your hearts rate, adding to the immersion factor. Even though, when you are afraid in your real life, you are usually in complete silence, when you are watching a horror or suspense flick, the music is what makes you afraid. Watching scary movies with the sound off takes all the fun out of them. The music carries so much weight that to eliminate it from the equation is to eliminate the entire emotional element of what you are watching.
Objectively, some of the best and most critically acclaimed composers in western history have worked for Hollywood. Men like John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Howard Shore, and Danny Elfman have left an undeniable mark on history, and on film in particular, because of the power behind their work on score and soundtrack. They have made entire careers out of understanding how foreshadowing, emotional weight, characterization, and tension all tie together on the page, and have transferred those things uniquely to the score.
Another medium where the power of a soundtrack is abundantly clear is, surprisingly, video games. Games carry the added burden of having to keep the audience dialed in and engaged, even when major story beats are not on screen. They have to find ways of making the game loop enjoyable enough that the player is willing to engage in it until the story resumes.
A big way successful games have done this is through score. Take Horizon Zero Dawn, for example. The themes in that game, especially the main theme, are hauntingly beautiful. The main theme sets the scene almost more than the visuals do, and it does so before the game even begins. It utilizes sound to capture the uncivilized and ancient feel of the story, but weaves in electronic sounds to underline the futuristic post apocalypse of the story.
The music also uses reverb, echoes, and a melody in a minor key that gives the player a feeling of isolation. This hits home in incredible ways throughout the story, when the concept of Aloy being different, an outcast, or alone crops up, this theme is there to usher the listener into it with an elegance and intention that is so well done, the player doesn’t even know it’s happening.
This is another part of storytelling that is sometimes ignored. Not just the music, but the fact that when things like soundtracks, proper dialogue, and world building are done right, the majority of the audience does not notice them. They simply know they disappeared into the story, and when they came back out, they were different people. On the flip side of that, it is aggressively obvious to EVERYONE when these things are done poorly. When the music doesn’t match up with what is happening on screen, it takes you out of the story, and you remember you are watching a movie or show, or you are playing a game.
Immersion is the entire point. The whole purpose of story is to pull the audience so deeply into the experience that they forget for a while that there is anything else outside of the world you are weaving before them. People don’t want to be told stories; they want to be taken on adventures and journeys, they want to be brought along for hijinks and shenanigans, they want to be hunted and scared. People want to do more than just read or see or hear. They want a full experience.
For visual storytelling, soundtrack is a make or break element. If it is done wrong, it ruins even the best acting and writing. But…if it is done right, it has the potential to overcome poor acting, bad writing, plot holes, and a host of other painful mistakes. Music is so deeply tied to who we are as people that it is the one thing we will never forgive. A bad soundtrack makes a bad movie. A good soundtrack…well, maybe the movie wasn’t SO bad. After all, they did have that one part where, when the music swelled, you almost felt like you were there…