Thirty years ago, MTV was a channel you could tune to during house parties and hear actual songs. It celebrated music, not drama, which made it a viable alternative to mix tapes in the event you left yours in the dash of your Trans-Am.
Conversely, the film industry has taken an opposite path. Starting with films like American Graffiti and continuing through Goodfellas, Dazed and Confused, Blow, and American Hustle, more and more movies have made music their main characters, which is both good and bad.
On the positive front, when music is used properly it can certainly affect the emotions of the viewer, which has been done many times to perfection. Guy meets girl and music stops, guy and girl have differences and the music intensifies, guy and girl begin to fall for each other during musical montage, guy kisses girl—music swells.
The problem is that when overused, music can become less of a subtle source of influence and more of a backseat driver, overtly telling the audience exactly how to feel and when to feel it. Like persistent laugh tracks, this can be a crutch that enables poor writing and exposition. Yet even in the presence of the strongest writing, music can be taken too far.
Forrest Gump, a frontrunner for the golden child of cinema, has a staggering 36 songs in the “special collectors edition” soundtrack alone—not to mention another 16 songs not included from the actual film. That amounts to 52 songs over a 144-minute period, or one song every two minutes—more than most musicals.
However, Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks took a very different approach years later with Cast Away—a film that found success with just a single song played during the credits. Remarkably, that piece actually earned the film’s composer, Alan Silvestri, a Grammy in 2002, proving that less can be more when it comes to soundtrack budgets.
Silvestri helped prove that you don’t need a big film budget to make big impressions. There’s a reason the Jaws soundtrack uses intermittent silence—when used properly, the absence of a sound can enhance an experience when it reappears, whereas constant music can dull the senses.
Of course, this doesn’t mean the only alternative is a complete lack of sound. Of the movies that top the list of minimal soundtracks—No Country for Old Men, M, Birds, and The Blair Witch Project, to name a few—plenty of diegetic sounds break the silence, including gunshots, footsteps, and, of course, birds.
Brian Platt writes about stock footage, cinema, and soundtracks for Videoblocks.