Functions of film music
and miscellaneous terminology
(Zofia Lissa and others, summarised by P Tagg)
Handout from module Music and the Moving Image, 1.
Institute of Popular Music, University of Liverpool
Many writers have tried to systematise the functions of film music. One of the most useful and rigorous systematisations is that presented by Polish musicologist Zofia Lissa, in her Ästhetik der Filmmusik (1959: 115-256). There she lists and discusses twelve main functions which I have adapted and regrouped to make them more accessible. Of course, the functions of film music also apply to music on TV.
The main functions
Most of these functions are NOT mutually exclusive
Comments on and example of Lissa's ten functions
Please note that most of the functions just listed are not mutually exclusive. For example, if we are shown a fictional fashion model gliding around her sumptuous New York penthouse apartment in a silk nightgown to the accompaniment of a smooth sounding bossa nova record she has just slipped into the CD player, we are hearing music as follows:
Other important general film music terms
Diegesis, diegetic: all that belongs, 'by inference'1 to the narrated story, to the world supposed or proposed by the film's fiction. The terms can be exmplified as follows:
In this way, diegetic music means music whose source is justified by the reality' of the film's visual narrative. It is far simple to call this source music (q.v.) Non-diegetic music is film music whose source is not contained within the film's visual narrative. Most underscore and title music is non-diegetic. Hitchcock once remarked how stupid it was to hear a symphony orchestra on a desert island (non-diegetic function of music). Herrmann wondered how the camera crew had got there.
By underscore is generally meant background or incidental music written to any pre-existent visual sequence. Underscores are recorded to picture. Title music and set pieces (see below) are rarely underscore. Most underscore is non-diegetic music.
Title music is a generic term denoting music conceived for a film's or TV programme's title sequences (or credits'), usually at the start (main' or opening title') and/or end of the film or programme (end title'). Opening titles have three main functions:
The most common function of signature themes (radio and TV) is of course mnemonic, but no title music would work properly without consideration of the preparatory function. Feature films rely almost entirely on the preparatory function to get the musical message of their title sequences across.
In early sound film, opening titles (a.k.a. main titles') often showed the credits written on paper as though an invisible member of the audience was thumbing through a printed programme before the start of a theatre performance. The music for such sequences derives much from the classical-romantic overture to opera and other dramatic presentations. This overture' function of title music has to a large extent been maintained even though the filming of names written on paper has long since been abandoned (except when an old production' effect is considered desirable). Title sequences present the composer with the opportunity of writing music on music's own conditions since underscore demands strict adherence of music to visual narrative, while title music frequently determines the pace and type of visual cuts, at least within the obvious limits of duration assigned to the sequences and the general character of the complete visual production. Therefore visual titles are more likely to be cut in sync with the music whereas underscore is almost inevitably recorded to picture. Cutting titles to music is particularly common in TV productions.
Set pieces (not a generally accepted term but nevertheless quite useful) constitute that subset of source music (diegetic music) in which musical presentations are visible as performance on screen as part of the film's (or TV programme's) narrative, however convincing the piece's inclusion at that point in the narrative may or may not be. If the performance of the piece is the main focus of the narrative, as in most musicals, the visuals will usually be cut to music and in some instances even the action may be choreographed in time with the music. However, if the set piece is more of a backdrop to other activity, cutting points are less likely to be in sync with musical episodicity. Such source music may change from foreground to background interest in the film's narrative, even to the extent of the source music being faded out and replaced by non-diegetic underscore. For example, in an episode of the TV version of The Saint entitled The Brave Goose', source music (function 4) is provided as a set piece by a disc-jockey and dancers in a Saint Tropez disco. In the middle of an up-tempo number a murder is committed. The camera zooms in on the heroine (who alone realises what has happened) and immediately back to the dancers who are still bopping away in picture despite the fact that the source music has been replaced by non-diegetic music. This music underlines the emotions of horror the heroine is supposed to be feeling (function 7) and provides a basis for the audience's emotions (function 8). Since the dancers are still shown to be having a good time, the set piece interrupted by underscore also counterpoints horror (non-diegetic music only) against gaiety (silenced source music and continued dancing), this making the horror more poignant (function 5).
Pre-existent recordings of music, i.e. music not specifically composed or recorded for the visual production in question, have been frequently used in film and TV since the sixties. For example, Kubrick uses Vera Lynn's recording of We'll Meet Again (don't know where, don't know when) to counterpoint the holocaust of atom bomb explosions at the end of Dr Strangelove (function 4). He also uses Beethoven's ninth symphony in A Clockwork Orange (about juvenile delinqency), rearrangements of music by Händel in Barry Lydon and music by Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss and György Ligeti in 2001 -- A Space Odyssey. Pop and rock music has been often used since Easy Rider to underscore action and driving sequences in which dialogue is either sparse or absent. In most of these cases, although the music is never visually performed as source music (it is almost always non-diegetic), the music is foregrounded in the sense that kinetic, tactile, sonic and emotional states and processes take precedence over a narratively logical' sequence of visual events. Since pre-existent recordings are chosen to provide the main focus of the narrative in certain sequences, visuals tend to be cut to music.
In film music parlance a cue point is any point in time during a production for moving images at which either (i) musical events start/end in sync with the visuals or (ii) visual events start or end in sync with the music. For example, a horror underscore for a murder scene might start with the cut to that particular scene as a cue point (visual cue) or when certain words are spoken (verbal cue). There might be another cue point as the murderer appears (more horrific music) and another when the knife is plunged into the vicitm's chest (even more horrific music). The end cue point might be just after a cut to the subsequent scene. Conversely, visual editing can be based on musical cues such as downbeats, starts of phrases, particular timbres and accents, etc. or (if applicable) in sync with particular words in the lyrics. The process of determining where cue points should occur is known as spotting the film (or videotape or audio recording).
1.'By inference': Claudia Gorbman's translation of 'dans l'intelligibilité'. Gorbman (1987: 21 – see film music bibliography) is quoting Étienne Souriau's L'Univers filmique, Paris, (1953, p. 7)