The Art of Background Sounds: Writing Music for Movies

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Art and life co-habitate, informing, imitating, and enriching each other constantly. Each week in Better Living Through Music, RFT Music writer Ryan Wasoba explores this symbiotic relationship

The St. Louis International Film Festival has been a catalyst lately for discussing the intersections of music and movies, but this topic has been on my brain lately regardless. I try not to talk about projects that are probably happening but technically unconfirmed - these things have their ways of biting back - but it appears that I will be writing and recording the score for a friend's documentary about transgendered individuals who work in the technical field. There are numerous practical challenges to writing music for film, but what seems most unusual is the idea of making music that is limitedly interesting, music intended to enhance a visual element without drawing too much attention to itself.

I gravitate towards music that is overwhelming. I like layers, I like depth, I like sensory overload. I suppose my favorite music finds a way to compensate for its lack of visuals, but this is an aspect that must be dialed down within the context of a film score. People often complain that film music is boring when listened to on its own, and this is frequently true. But this can be said of any functional music separated from its intended environment. "Old Time Rock And Roll" without dancing, "Canon In D" without a wedding, "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" without the opening credits of "Whale Wars."

One of the great internal struggles for musicians is the purpose of music. Is the music art or is the music functional? Great music can certainly fit within both camps simultaneously; LCD Soundsystem comes to mind as one example. Most of my experience is in nonfunctional music. Film music is not only provided a function, it is embedded and synchronized within said context. This is a bit out of my comfort zone.

I am reminded of Danny Elfman and Mark Mothersbaugh, two musicians who write fantastic functional music for films.


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