Atonality in Film Scoring

Atonality can be a great colour when writing music for films and can create a unsettling, almost painful feeling. However, as it is already extremely demanding to “understand” the structure of this music when you hear it even without a movie, it is even trickier to follow it when your perception is focused on the music only by a fraction.

Atonality works great in scenes where you want to express fear, pain, anger, danger etc. There are indeed quite a few movies in history which had film scores with a lot of atonal elements but it takes a bold concept and filmmakers with lots of courage to actually try and go this way. Usually you will be stuck with directors who fear that the audience will feel too alienated with such – at least for film – radical concepts. There can be endless discussions whether going down such a way really works as a general concept for film scoring. However, even in movies with a more “traditional” sound, there are quite often hints of atonality.

Usually atonality works best when you weave it around cells which have a trace of tonality. Lines that move for a moment as if they were part of a tonal center and divert from that again. The big advantage this concept has is, that you still create that unsettling feeling atonality has but still give the audience some small things to hold on to which will in general help following and digesting the music.


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