Using Collective Musical Memories

Certain musical tropes, colours and paths are so strongly connected in the collective memories of people with certain emotions/situations that they’re becoming a musical cliché. Imagine Glockenspiel, Celesta etc. or the lydian scale for “magical” things, upward fifth movements for heroisim etc.

These well-known and often overused approaches to scoring are a reason why many learning composers do the complete opposite trying to find new approaches to “standard” scoring situations. While the approach to break up conventions is great and can lead to great new music-picture relations there is an inherent high risk in it to not creating the desired effect. The art form of (commercial) film music works a lot with musical familiarity. Musical ideas that “sound like” something else that is connected in collective memory with a certain emotion will most likely trigger the same emotion based on this familiarity.

A great example to observe this approach is John Williams’ score for the HOME ALONE franchise. The reason why the score pretty instantly evokes this “christmasy feeling” is the incredible popularity of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker in the western world in connection with Christmas. The resemblance of some of the score cues with parts of Nutcracker is striking and most likely a conscious decision (rather than Williams falling victim to the temp track). The familiarity with the vocabulary Williams used here instantly creates the desired emotional response with probably the majority of the audience.

Abstracting this thought even further means that our brain always compares “new music” with things it knows already and when it notices familiarity with something it will remember the according situation/emotion. However of course musical experience is a highly individual factor where the danger of “trying out new things” to approach clichéd scoring situations lies.

Just because something feels like a certain emotion to you while you compose something (while your brain filters for familiarity in the same way as mentioned before) doesn’t mean your audience will react the same way to it. Maybe you subconsciously remember a very special situation with this musical trope. A classical and highly individual example here would be songs that are heard during a break-up that burn deep into the memory not only as a whole “song” but also its musical features. Reactivating musical features from that song might trigger a deep emotional response with one person while leaving another person completely untouched.

So the safer way with film music that is supposed to connect to a broad audience is to use more generalized musical vocabulary to be more on the safe side. Unfortunately I can only scratch the surface of this whole extremely extensive and very interesting topic here, but there might be a follow-up on this in the future.

An interesting fact to think about is music that you were exposed to during early childhood and puberty. Most likely this music and its musical features will define a lot what you gravitate towards musically. From personal experience, I figured out in my late 20s that a lot of my harmonic preferences are based on music from a single LP that I heard at least three times a week for a while when I was a little kid. When I accidentally stumbled accross this LP again, I noticed how much its musical devices had burned into my subconsciousness but also how easily these devices triggered emotional responses in me (independently of “childhood nostalgia”).

I would love to hear similar stories by other people, so feel free to share them in the comment section.

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