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  • Writer's pictureLuca Fagagnini

10 Narrative Functions of Music

Probably everyone knows how powerful and impactful music can be when paired to a visual in a multimedia work of art. The instrumentation, orchestration, type of melodies, intensity, dynamics and so many more details of the music we decide to sync to a picture can have drastic and powerful effects on how the audience will perceive the work as a whole.

Often, the hardest part in making music for media is to figure out what role will the music play within the specific project we are working on. What are we trying to add with the music? Do we need music on this particular scene? Holistically, what is the function of the music?

Sometimes, it is really straightforward and both you and the creative team have a clear idea of what you want the music to achieve, while other times it is not so simple and the mechanics and subtleties of what the music should say can be really subtle and hard to grasp.

To help us in this quest, theorists and critics have found ways to categorise the narrative functions of music so to offer us a framework and broad guidelines to understand what purposes and roles can the music play in a multimedia context.

Some of these are intrinsic in the music itself, while others have to be conceptualised in details, but it is all a matter of understanding how the musical comment can add or subtract to the whole experience of the multimedia work of art.

So, what are these narrative functions?

First of all let's define an important difference: Diegetic Music vs Non-Diegetic Music.

Diegetic Music is music that the characters within the story world can actually hear. It might be generated by a radio, a speaker, headphones or anything else within the story and it may or may not affect the actions of the characters. It is also known as Source Music and usually it can be an extremely useful tool to fill up the lack of an underscore for more realistic dramas and plots.

Non-Diegetic Music, on the other hand is music that only the audience can hear. It provides useful information that is not known by the characters, an emotive state, or a general commentary on the theme of the plot. It is often referred to Underscore and it's the important type of music that the narrative functions we are about to explore refers to.

Often, the boundaries between diegetic and non-diegetic music are blurred, blended and broken and that is a useful device to introduce us to a scene or character, or help the transition between scenes.

Here's an example (this is an important scene from Stranger Things, Season 4, so, if you haven't seen it, beware of spoilers):

Now that we made this distinction, let's delve deeper into the narrative functions music can have.

Bouchamp, in Designing Sounds for Animation (2013), defines these 10 narrative functions of sound (sound effects, dialogue and music) and they can pretty clearly be summed up as ten ways music influences the narrative of a multimedia work of art. Here we are focusing on music and score.

1 - Guided Perception

Naturally, images presented in a scene are neutral, or, actually, they are open to interpretation. For instance, a battle scene, with no music at all, doesn't provide any clue as to what the audience's interests and stakes are, or how should we feel about it.

Music can provide that perspective and inform the audience about what is happening, guiding their perception.

Below is an example: this is a classic scene from the Shrek movie (2001). In this scene, we see the protagonists going into a creepy castle with lots of corpses, death and destruction. They find a dragon that starts to chase them. Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell (the composers) could have scored it giving it a classic horror and tense feel, thus making the audience feel the creeps. However, since the audience target would be of a pretty young demographic, they decided to score it with a softer feel, providing a different interpretation and making it more appropriate to a wider audience.

2 - Drawing the Audience Into the Narrative

The title sequence, being it very often the first thing the audience sees, provides us with the opportunity to invite the viewers into a journey. Music can help in setting up the mood and create a sense of immersion into the world of the story being told. Conversely, at the end of the movie, the music has the power to close the film and bring back the audience to their own reality.

3 - Directing the Eye

Let's say we see a picture of the protagonist, and then suddenly something happens in the background (a movement, a secondary characters appears, etc.), how can we bring that moment and action more into focus?

You guessed it: music. Besides sound effects, often, to help in direct the audience attention, music is used to hit a certain moment, that is, to play some thing more or less evident synchronised to the moment we need to emphasise. This creates a direct link between the thing that is happening on screen and the sudden music we are hearing.

In our example, depending on the type of feel we want to provide, it could be a harp glissando, or some brassy stabs. Suddenly our focus is directed towards that action.

Example at 0:55 (directing the eye to the sword) and 2:34 (focus on the hydra's attack):

4 - Establishing or Clarifying the Point of View

Assigning thematic music to important characters, events, locations and situations is a technique that has roots in Opera music. This is often referred to Leitmotif and is an extremely important (and widely used) way to establish a specific point of view.

Particularly when multiple characters are present in the scene, hearing a familiar theme that throughout the plot has been associated to a specific character automatically directs our attention towards that specific character. Consequently the conversations or events that are happening on screen are seen by the audience through that character's perspective and how those events are impacting them.

The concept of leitmotif, besides establishing a point of view, can provide us with a powerful tool to generate the presence of a character without them being even on screen.

This is sort of like creating a sonic branding for that specific character and, interestingly, music can become like a presence and character itself.

In this video, the concept of leitmotif is extensively and brilliantly explained with on point examples:

5 - Clarifying the Subtext

Music can have the powerful function of defining and clarifying the subtext of a scene. This is often something used during neutral sequences when there is some kind of ambiguity in the scene. In these moments, music can help the audience clarifying how they should feel about it, or providing a general atmosphere, thus eliminating any ambiguity within that scene.

A clear example can be found at 01:03 of this scene from Wall-e (2008):

6 - Contrasting Reality and Subjectivity

Usually, the events presented in the various scenes of a movie are depicted through an objective perspective: events are shown and information is provided to the audience to move the plot forward and develop the story.

Very often, to these objective scene, subjective moments are added, to help depict a character, a backstory, or provide subjective information and increase the audience's interest toward the story and/or characters.

These subjective moments, for example, could be slow motion scenes, flashbacks, montage sequences and dream sequences, and more often than not, music can help in defining that these moments are subjective and guide the audience in and out of them (the clichè example is the classic harp glissandi when a dream sequence begins and ends).

7 - Defining the Scope of the Film

The choice of orchestration used and intensity/dynamics of the music often defines the scale of the film. Big orchestras and sounds often give the film an epic feel, while more conservative and small instrumentation can have the effect of generating a sense of intimacy.

This choice can also provide the audience with useful information about a location and give a sense of openness or claustrophobia.

Epic brass and big orchestral moments on a picture of mountains can provide a sense of majesty and openness, while four celli recorded very closely, playing a tremolando a cluster of notes very softly, can provide a sense of claustrophobia, if paired to a picture of a very closed space.

Example at 2:06:

8 - Tension and Release

In music, there are lots of ways to create tension, and tension is the primary driving power of a story. Audiences want to see how a story evolves because tension has been built throughout the plot and we need the satisfaction of release, of questions answered and of knowing how the journey of the hero ends.

We can enhance these moments of tension and release with music, using dissonant interval resolving to consonant ones, building with dynamics or orchestration, using harmonic movement and other devices.

We don't always have to fully release the tension and, often, this is actually a great way to keep the audience interested and invested in the movie: for example, resolving a tension with an unexpected chord will somehow provide a sense of satisfaction but not completely, and we can take advantage of the full release for the end of the movie, creating an even more satisfactory feeling.

9 - Continuity

From scene to scene, and film to sequels (prequels or spinoffs), creating a sense of continuity is fundamental to link them together and generating cohesion which then makes the whole world of the story more solid and "real".

For example, using always the same thematic material of instrumentation for a specific character or event can be a very useful way to establish continuity.

10 - Misdirection

This is a technique very used in horror films: tension is built and music hints at something horrible that is about to happen, but then surprise the audience actually leading to a false conclusion and a sense of relief.

Taking advantage of tension, release and expectations, can provide us with powerful tools to trick the audience and reset its established expectations. Be careful to not overdo this otherwise a new sense of expectation is created and the technique ceases to work.



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