Even in the days of silent films, it was music that breathed life into the film-going experience. Musical accompaniment in the form of a solo piano, orchestra, original score, etc. lent the film emotions and allowed for it to be properly appreciated.
The most obvious function that scores and soundtracks in films/tv shows have is to subconsciously tell the audience how to feel. Happy scenes have upbeat music, sad scenes are slow and sombre, chase scenes are fast-paced, etc. For example, in the famous shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho, the screeching of the violin in the background unsettles the psyche of the viewer and induces fear. Watch this clip and compare your reactions with and without the music:
Music also serves as a foreshadowing tool. In thrill/ horror films, ominous music is played as a prelude to the shocking/scary event. Often used in combination with seemingly neutral scenes that set up the location and context, it is effective in building up suspense. For instance, the beginning of this clip from Spielberg’s JAWS simply shows a woman floating on water. We know to expect something tragic to happen because of the sinister score used by Hollywood’s premier composer John Williams.
Music is used for foreshadowing in a more literal sense in Game of Thrones’ famous Red Wedding episode. One of the main factors that tip Catelyn Stark off about the coming treachery is the musicians playing the tune of Rains of Castamere, which is a Lannister (enemy) victory song.
This brings us to the next use of music in films – character association. The Lannisters, Starks, Targaryens, each have their own themes which are woven into any other associative tracks. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Alexandre Desplat uses a slow, haunting track for scenes showing Prof. Snape and ultimately, his death. This track, titled Lily’s Theme is used again when Harry is escorted to his Voldemort’s camp by shades of his parents, James and Lily. Our subconscious would have absorbed this subtle connection between Snape and Lily which we would not have noticed unless specifically looking for it.
Sometimes, literal motifs are incorporated into soundtracks to drive home their significance. For example, the events of Joe Wright’s Atonement are spurred by a typewritten note being read by the wrong person. Multiple tracks of Dario Marianelli’s Oscar-winning soundtrack embed the click of a typewriter in high-intensity patches to audibly foreshadow and emphasise the note’s role.