Setting a Time Period with Music

e of the many functions of film music is to set a time. This is especially helpful in period pieces and can be a big part of the concept. However, just as with geographic hints in the music, most of the time it works best with the audience to not be 100% authentic.

Just because a movie is set for instance in the 18th century doesn’t necessarily mean that the film score should sound all the way baroque as it is especially tricky to evoke the whole set of emotions needed with that kind of style. Usually, it works better to prefer using a set of time specific instruments (in this case for example Harpsichord) rather than using its musical vocabulary extensively. The usual way of handling such things in (commercial) film scoring is to generally stick to the harmonic/structural and melodic devices of “regular” film scoring (in order to target the desired emotional reactions) and flavour this with the use of specific textures (as in specific instrumental colours) and only use the actual musical vocabulary of this period if it is established enough with the general audiences.

For instance, a 60s Jazz reference is usually no problem to incorporate as this vocabulary has always been more or less present in film scoring (e.g. James Bond movies). Additionally, the further in the past the period is that you’re referencing the harder it will be to use its actual original musical language to create a score with. In such cases, the textural hint might be the better choice.

Of course, there are instances where the musical concept either completely ignores the period of the movie (where it is not relevant for the storyline) or where it simply would not be appropriate to musically “quote the time”, especially on serious historic events. There are also instances where there’s a conscious musical anachronism in the score concept (e.g. The Great Gatsby).

Lastly, an easy way to not needing to “clutter” your score concept with period references would be to set the time of the movie over source cues that are authentic and let the actual score music focus on transporting other relevant information.


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