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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Is there too much music in movies and TV these days?

too loud

We had a couple of questions about movie music last week, so while the topic is fresh in our minds, here’s a different angle to consider. Reader Kirk writes:

[A] question arose while I was watching the 4th episode of “Deadwood” with commentary by David Carradine and Molly Parker. David was pointing out the very restrained use of music in the series, and stated his belief that there is far too much use of music to manipulate viewers’ emotions in the movies and tv these days. That is, creators are counting on music to inform viewers what emotion they should be feeling rather than letting the actors’ words and behavior do it. (I’m paraphrasing from memory of course). It hadn’t occurred to me before, as I’m a big fan of movie music and think it’s taken far too lightly by most people, but… I think he might be right. Thinking about recent movies I’ve seen, there’s hardly a moment when there isn’t some kind of music playing. So… Is there too much music in movies and tv these days?

There it is: Is there too much music in movies and TV these days? Which movies or TV shows would have benefitted from less music?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)



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  • I recently rewatched the Canadian TV series, Little Mosque on the Prairie, and noted that except when a song was very definitely a Paid For Song, all the music (which was often intrusive) sounded like it was from a ‘$25 for all you can download copyright free!’ site. They had a piece that was made to sound ‘like’ the Rocky theme that was glaring in This Is Supposed to Sound Just Like That (without requiring a license).

    On the other hand, I would lovelovelove if they manned up and released a WKRP with the original music intact.

  • RogerBW

    My rule of thumb is that if I notice the music it’s overdone. Quite a few anime series have a small number of music cues that get endlessly re-used. (Still, live-action TV does that too – the “you are meant to be sad now” theme was really wearing on me by the end of Eureka.)

    On the other hand many American shows now have no regular ending theme music, and often pick up interesting songs by nearly-unknown bands (presumably because they’re cheap). I’ve heard a lot of surprisingly good stuff that way.

  •  Heh. Your mention of regular ending theme music reminds me of one of my big issues with The West Wing, where it would be “And then, we have to make this momentous descision.” Close up on Martin Sheen. Dramatic chord. Fade to Black.

    And then that god damned inappropriate end theme song.

  • Crochetowl

    At times it is overkill on TV shows (I notice this mostly on the American shows than the Brit shows which I prefer almost always).  A soundtrack specifically will cause me to turn off a show.  Subtle background music is fine but when you incorporate loud pounding music or, the worst, rap, it’s time to turn the channel as my head starts to pound. 

    What’s really annoying is when the network specifically promotes the artist / song at the end of the show.  I do not watch a show for it’s music.  I watch for the story and characters.  Anything to bring in the bucks.

  • Heh. You’re right. I love The West Wing, but the end theme always made me think the cast should be running around in Santa hats and pelting each other with snowballs.

  • I don’t mind music in movies or TV at all, but I guess it has to feel appropriate to the story. A small human moment doesn’t need a sweeping, bombastic score. A moment of fear or tension might benefit more from silence than from “oooh scary” music. On the other hand, films like The Empire Strikes Back and Pirates of the Caribbean are pretty heavily scored, with plenty of memorable themes that have taken on a life of their own in pop culture, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

    Sure, music is manipulative, but it’s all manipulative. The acting, the direction, the lighting, the sets, the editing are all meant to make the audience feel a certain way. Music is just one more element in the mix, and it’s up to the filmmakers to strike the balance that serves the story best — and that varies from story to story. Sometimes, to convey a sense of threat and foreboding, you need silence. And sometimes you need the Imperial March.

  • Jim Mann

    If by music, you mean songs, I agree.  Too many shows rely on popular songs, usually at moments you can predict. (House, for example, did this a lot.) 

    But for music in general, no.  Moreover, movies and TV (movies especially) have always been heavily scored, going back to great composers like Max Steiner and Bernard Hermann.  The scores are an essential part of almost all great films. 

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    “These days”? As opposed to, what, the Silent Film era? The John Williams scores of the ’70s?

    I don’t want to put too much onto an actor making off-the-cuff remarks on a commentary track, but Carradine is being a bit silly and pretentious here. Music has always been an integral part of film and television. Yeah, it is manipulative, in the sense that a good filmmaker uses the music to help put the audience in the right emotional frame to have the experience the filmmaker wants the viewer to have. A lack of music is just as emotionally manipulative: it tends to make the viewer uneasy, by cranking up the voyeuristic aspects of watching actors. Consider the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “The Body”, and it’s total lack of incidental music, and how that affected the overall emotional tone of the show. Emotional manipulation is what drama is all about. Music is just as important and powerful a tool for that as acting.

  • FormerlyKnownAsBill

    i could do without music of any kind in movies and television. so, in my opinion, yes and there probably always has been, though i am no expert on old films.

    i am often annoyed music backing up dialog. i mean, give it a rest. and the mood stuff is very often too aggressive. i’m not a huge fan of music in the first place, but i feel safe in saying that it just doesn’t add all that much and has great potential to be distracting and annoying.

  • RyanT

    It only really bothers me if the music is so loud that it dampens the action/dialogue happening on screen. Can’t really think of examples off the top of my head, but I know I’ve experienced this a few times ranging from small independent films to big Hollywood summer tentpoles.

    As for the general topic of music in movies being manipulative, I agree with a few people here who are pretty much saying… well, DUH. The sky is blue.

  • Sean Stangland

    I can think of countless movies and TV shows that wouldn’t be the same without their music. Try to imagine “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and “E.T.” without John Williams. Or “Lost” without Michael Giacchino. Or “Gladiator,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Crimson Tide” and “Inception” without Hans Zimmer.

  • Magsrose

    There are pros and cons to music in movies. Yes, it does influence the audience’s emotions and in most cases I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I usually don’t notice that I am being manipulated in this way because I am so used to it.

    At other times, the music can be too far over the top. It’s especially annoying when your emotions are counter to what the producers intended. An overly sickly sweet sound track when you’re just not buying a relationship in a story just makes it that much more mock worthy.

    One notable example in which the lack of emotion driven music was most effective is Jaws. Yes, I said Jaws. Through out most of the movie our emotions are pushed closer and closer  to the edge. “duh dum” The shark is coming. ‘duh dum’ He’s getting closer. ‘duh dum’ The barrels just went under the water! ‘duh dum’ Is he under the boat?!

    Pretty soon all it took was the music to bring your hands to your eyes so you could peek between your fingers just in case.

    But the biggest jump/startle/scare of the movie was not foreshadowed in any way. Richard Dreyfuss is under the water checking out a sunken boat. He discovers a decent sized hole in the hull near the bottom. A severed head floats into view.

    It’s one of the few times in all my years of movie watching that I’ve actually heard people in the audience scream. You would have thought that the seats in the theater had been electrified from the number of people who visibly jumped.

    I would not get rid of music in movies and TV but careful consideration should be given to where and when it is appropriate.

  • Jurgan

    I don’t remember them doing that on the original airings of the show, but it is a plague on the DVD release.

  • MNM74

    I don’t know if there was too much music in “The Road”, but I kind of feel it shouldn’t have had any music at all.

    On the other hand…so many things were done wrong with that movie that having music in it really couldn’t mess it up that much more (it was an okay movie, but to use a cliché, “the book was better.”)

  • This is really a case by case issue. Sure, there are movies or shows where the music is improperly used or way overblown, but I don’t see it as a huge problem. Music is such an integral part of the process. How it is used can be just as important as what you are seeing. Sure, sometimes I like when  a composer(director? someone?) chooses to downplay the music, and allow the scene to speak for itself, but I also love big, bombastic scores when the movie warrants it.
    It’s all in knowing when to use what style.

  • Wow. A statement like that just baffles me. I’m floored by the idea of someone not being a huge fan of music. I can see not liking certain genres, but to not like music in general? Why is that? I’m genuinely curious. I can’t imagine a life without a love of music. Just like I can’t imagine movies and TV without music. Sure, there’s plenty of bad music out there, but when you hear that one glorious tune, all becomes right with the world. Well, for (+/- )4 minutes anyway.

  • Rob

    True, during the original airings, they would air commercials for other shows during the credits.

  • teenygozer

    I do wish some of today’s shows would level their music a little better.  Maybe it’s because I have a fairly old “monitor” style television set and my sound system’s not up to date, but sometimes I have to resort to turning on the mute to read the words, as the music literally drowns out the dialogue.  It actually happens a lot on SciFi channel shows… Alphas, Warehouse 13, Eureka; all have music that will occasionally drown out the dialogue, and we find ourselves using the mute button to read the script.  (Now I want to check to see if this happens on those shows’ DVDs, too!)

    Note to “The Artist” creatives:  wow, using a suite of music from Vertigo in an important scene was such a bad idea!  Apparently the kind of people who adore your sort of experimental art film are the same sort who’d know enough to be entirely thrown out of the scene when they heard it, because THEY ALL COMPLAINED!  I confess I did not recognize it and it did work for me, but I felt bad for the ones who were in the know, because it’s otherwise such a great movie.

  • teenygozer

    OTOH, we have Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi… no music at all made for one hella creepy movie!

    Maybe no music = creepy?  Or the wrong music can ruin a film, like “Ladyhawke” with its dreadful Alan Parsons Project contempo-music.  I do wish John Williams had scored that one.

  • teenygozer

    Oh, god: YES to a WKRP original music release, which we will never, ever get.  Sony sold me a crap box set of Keen Eddie less than a year after that show’s demise that had all the edgy Brit-punk-pop music replaced with some seriously sentimental-and-wrong studio music, so I don’t see any major studios spending the money when they couldn’t even pony up the dollar-forty-nine for music that couldn’t have cost nearly as much as all that heavy-duty famous classic rock.

  • FormerlyKnownAsBill

     i wouldn’t say i don’t like music in general. there is plenty that i like and in a very limited set of circumstances i enjoy the hell out of it. wedding receptions, for example. a fine time for music. it’s just that i don’t love it and could do without it. and i regularly think about the music i hear in movies and television and most of those thoughts are of the “god i wish that would stop” variety. right now, in fact, i am watching some Doctor Who and just wishing the background music go away. i very rarely have positive reactions to the music. there are exceptions of course. i wouldn’t want to watch ‘rock of ages’ or ‘rent’ without the music.

    why? good question. not quite sure how to answer it. think about a sound that you’re not wild about — nails on chalkboard, someone chomping gum, etc. — and a mild version of that noise is what a lot of music is like for me most of the time if it is any louder than a barely audible level.

  • MisterAntrobus

    I hear you about the wrong music’s potential to screw up a film. Roxanne is like that for me. Wonderful film undermined at every turn by a horribly dated ’80s synth score. A truly great film can carry a lousy score, but it always leaves me wanting more. I still harbor a fantasy of The Princess Bride with a truly swashbuckling, Korngold-style orchestral score, instead of the embarrassingly feeble synthesized simulation of an orchestra that it has. I don’t know if they just didn’t have the budget to pay an orchestra, or if Mark Knopfler – a great rock composer, without question – was just horribly out of his depth composing for an adventure film, but I cringe every time I hear some of those cues. I adore the film, and think it deserves better.

    On the subject of the Lugosi Dracula, have you ever seen it with the alternate score written by Philip Glass in the ’90s and performed by the Kronos Quartet? It’s magnificent but doesn’t overwhelm. It’s available on every DVD version of Dracula that’s been released since the late ’90s. I highly recommend it, though I know some prefer the creepy silence. (That was as much a product of limited technology for the early “talkies” as anything. There was only so much room on the soundtrack on a film in those days, so aside from the opening title music cribbed from Swan Lake, there are whole segments of Dracula that play almost like a silent film — well, not quite, because most silent films did have lots of music. It was just played live.)

  • MisterAntrobus

    I, like MarkyD, have a tough time wrapping my head around that point of view. I understand that it’s just the way you perceive films, and not necessarily a bad thing, but I feel some measure of pity for anyone who can’t surrender to the rhapsodic pleasure of a perfectly rendered film music moment. I have always thought of music as one of the essential components of film – and I have the collection of soundtrack albums to prove it (a dozen or so of which I actually acquired from the esteemed Ms. Johanson!). True, there are some films which do quite well without music, but they are – in my opinion – the exceptions and not the rule. Great producers, directors, and composers know when silence works best; but also where music can elevate an ordinary moment into something magical, tense, heartbreaking, horrifying, or hilarious.

    Film is arguably an editor’s medium, and film editing is all about rhythm, pace, pitch, and tone. It is the visual equivalent of music, so it’s no surprise that many editors and directors will piece together a sequence guided by a “temp track” of music (or, in rare cases, the actual recorded music for the film) that inspires them with a particular feeling, pace, or idea. Music is as the heart of what film is all about.

    Indeed, sometimes music and image end up forming a symbiotic relationship. Steven Spielberg re-edited the last reel of E.T. to better match John Williams’ soaring score. Kubrick’s 2001 wouldn’t have been the same without the use of Strauss’ “Blue Danube,” lending the space dock sequence a coherent rhythm, grace, and sly humor all at the same time. Bernard Herrmann’s infamous “shower scene” cue from Psycho both intensifies and dulls the blow of the horrific murder: that scene, as unsettling as it is, might ironically have been too disturbing without the presence of Herrmann’s shrieking strings practically screaming along with you. I could go on and on, but you get the idea . . .

    So, I suppose my answer to the question posed by MaryAnn is a fairly obvious and resounding “no.” I could make quite a few complaints about where film and TV use the wrong music, or too-loud music, or badly timed music, but too much? No, on the whole, I don’t think so.

  • Yes of course comparing to old movies nowadays there is too much music. But I really love it, it makes me more involved in the movie scenes

  •  Wedding receptions? Sorry, but, IMHO, that’s when the WORST music is played! LOL.
    I am very particular about the type of music I listen to. Modern pop, rap, etc. Totally grates on my ears. I seriously cannot tolerate it for more than 10 seconds without changing the station. I either listen to talk radio, or my own tunes. That’s it.
    I mostly listen to instrumental music. Movie and game soundtracks are a big part of that, and I have a decent collection of them.
    For me, a great piece of music paints a picture in my mind. If it’s from a soundtrack, than it will often bring about fond memories of the movie. Like when I listen to “Concerning Hobbits” from Fellowship. Such an amazing piece of music. I picture rolling green hills, and a bustling village.
    Music and sound are especially important to me because I have tinnitus. Absolute silence, which used to be a beautiful thing, is now a torturous affair. Whenever there is a quiet moment in a movie or show, I am distracted by the shrieking in my head. Sound = comfort. Beautiful sound = nirvana.

  • I understand that music in films is supposed to manipulate us – after all, film manipulates us – but when the music is used as a shorthand to target a demographic (the use of “Just Like Honey” in Lost In Translation, for example), that really annoys me. I felt I got more emotion out of that scene because of the music than because of the acting or story. I felt like Coppola knew that song was going to resonate with some people and thus used it to avoid making the film resonate on its own. I think Wes Anderson and Cameron Crowe are also guilty of this.

  • teenygozer

     I will definitely seek out the Glass-scored Dracula!  I had no idea they did that.  Must do a compare-and-contrast.  Thanks!

  • Marinecreature

    Yes. Watch a 70s or even 80s film. The music will be there when it’s needed. In between there will be great foley work. Music in film and TV has gone crazy over the last couple of decades – to the point of destroying great works of art. It constantly pads out the action whether it is appropriate or not. An exception would be pretty much everything by the Coen Brothers, who treat music and real-world sound with the respect they both deserve.

  • RogerBW

    Radio production, even reasonably serious documentary material, is also very prone to overuse music and sound effects these days, making the speech that’s the point of the exercise quite hard to distinguish (and not just to my ageing ears). Perhaps because it’s so easy to layer things in now?

  • Feywit

    I am watching the first three Star Wars and the music is driving me nuts. It is hard to hear the dialogue over the violins and horns. Not to mention the incessant theme and borrowed Indiana Jones score. What were they thinking! It just sounds like noise.

  • RogerBW

    Which version? As well as the different cuts we all know about, I understand that there are different sound mixes out there.

  • Tverrbitt

    Great reference with Bela Lugosi as Dracula for no music film, now lets take a look at its 1922 predecessor Nosferatu, where the continuous disharmonic orchestral score is essential to the films sense of unease. Maybe these films illustrate the pendulum movement from the all importance of music as emotional compass in “silent” movies, to the need to exploit all corners of music-less audiotrack in films with more natural sounds, actors voices and movements etc, and then a steadily increasing use of music as part of the films pulse.

  • Mytheroo

    have been feeling the “too much music” for a long time now, came here after watching the “crossing lines” pilot which was awash with it. Also cringeworthy was Red Tails (2012) especially in the dialogue scenes, the mood music started before the first line was said…horrific.
    because of the star wars comment below I started watching episode 4 (the first film) and there is little to no music during dialogue. Another fantastic film music-wise is Alien. There’s a point in that towards the end when the tension is so high….and THEN the music comes in!
    I think in general, music for action is ok, but music when talking about action, or deciding stuff in dialogue just isn’t.
    I should add I prefer music over lyrics, am a cellist, pianist and guitarist and dabble at electronic music creation and have been involved with organising free parties (in the woods) so I think music is one of the most important things in life, but not every action of every day needs a soundtrack.

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