All Music is Soundtrack music

Jonathan Bellman

[Orig.: “Every Life is a Biography.” A & E network blurb for the TV show Biography.]
A week ago our friend Eric had a gathering at his house to watch the films made by his 16-year-old son Connor, who has already won a variety of film-making awards (film competitions often have high-school divisions). Connor’s special talent is silent films—he excels in a kind of off-center retro take on Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. The event was a hoot, and I could well have been seeing the early works of the next Robert Rodriguez.
What I could not help thinking about throughout was the music he chose. The silent films had generic honkytonk piano throughout (I came home and was gleefully playing some of it by ear much to Debbie’s and Ben’s…disgust; what does a guy have to do to get a little adulation at home? And don’t say “SOME HOUSEWORK,” ladies, it hasn’t worked so far), a kind of period-specific musical white noise that did not necessarily accompany, comment upon, or interact with the visual material in any way, but locked in the century-old context inside the first three notes. Other films had random cues stuck in—stuff from the Lord of the Rings soundtracks, I think, and from other soundtracks, musicals, whatever. Often these were used with ironic effect, and I found myself giggling much of the time. Sound cues that come under the categories of Epic and Momentous and Tragic and so on can be sidesplittingly funny when the actors are a high school student’s friends and the scripts are, y’know, by high schoolers. High school humor can miss a lot, but when it bull’s-eyes something, that something is forever skewered—film conventions, literary pretensions, whatever. It’s wonderful.
Was it Cadillac who advertised the “set your life to music” feature for their car CD players, where you program in tracks from your own CDs and work in the fades so that you can basically assemble your own soundtrack for the drive home from work? It’s like that moment in the Disney feature The Emperor’s New Groove where the narrator (David Spade, I think) snipes at another character for singing his own cheesy soundtrack music while skulking about on some comically fell errand. A camp Disney joke, sure, but how many of us haven’t, at some point or other…
All Common Practice music, including most soundtrack music, has ideas of reference. The vocabularies of film music—I’m saying nothing new here—are derived from virtually all music that came before: the symphonic and operatic repertories, orchestral Jazz, popular music of all kinds, everything. In this, composed soundtrack music is no different from the music a talented theater accompanist would provide for silent films. You could do generic white noise, or follow the drama, making musical references and providing sound effects and so on. So it was with some of the soundtracks we were hearing on Connor’s films: knock-offs of Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody, of Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” etc. That is not so different from famous cues that scream Epic or Momentous or whatever; in fact it’s precisely the same pattern: you need the music to say something that you either can’t, or that you feel would be crude if you just came out and said it. You need a strategy with more deftness.
Now, think of—let’s say—a young person in love with his or her favorite song. James Huneker has a cute, if dated and saccharine, image of the female Chopin fan: “Surely these Nocturnes are my whole life!” Is our attraction to the popular songs with which we have most closely identified in the past really all that different, though? Man, that one hits me right…there. Cosmic Truth, that one. That’s me surviving the hopelessness of work, that’s me wandering alone on dark streets, that’s me tormented nigh unto death by my memories. Oh, man, and that guitar solo says it all. ALL! I’ll just hit “play” again and turn it up…
My favorite quotation from Gustav Mahler is “There is no music, from Beethoven onwards, that is without its inner program.” In Mahler’s view, that makes The Great Masterworks Of The Repertoire…soundtrack music. They either narrate or accompany a story, most often unknown to the listener, with a coherence and continuity that establish them as real, lasting art. In no way does it mean, though, that they aren’t talking about something else: love or war or a hunt or a hopeless quest or whatever. The natural way of listening—letting your mind wander and allowing a story to be told—may be far closer to the “right” way than listening for structure and thematic coherences and the rest of the stuff people with training are supposed to be listening for. In some measure, all art is escapism, as all literature is: escape to the imagination, to idealization, to something that both entertains and teaches something deeper about this Real World. But as we negotiate this Real World, we need our soundtrack: inner conversations, inner music: favorite tunes we play in our heads or on our iPods, and it can be the most celebrated of masterworks or the most ephemeral of pop songs. The soundtrack spins on and on.
When I was just 18, I was given John Hale’s Renaissance Europe, 1480–1520 to read in preparation for my first year of college (some catch-up for my year reading history at Portsmouth Polytechnic—Portsmouth, England—when my father was teaching there on exchange). One image that stuck with me was that of the constant presence, in the ear of the Early Modern European, of bells: bells for the many church services, for civic notices and signals, for marking the hours. The soundtrack, in other words. Other epochs have had street singers (often satirized iconographically), laborers and farmers who sang at their tasks, the huge repertory of folksong that is the human inheritance. A constant sounding, a constant accompaniment, a constant association of particular music and songs and gestures with particular emotions and activities.
Plus ça change, in other words. What I like about this is the image of us all singing our own soundtracks, so to speak, setting our lives to music, and that in key ways most western music functions the same way—accompanimentally, referentially, children’s rhymes up through symphonies. And, one suspects, it has been this way for a long, long time.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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3 Responses to All Music is Soundtrack music

  1. Mark says:

    Fun essay. A couple of observations.
    Movies enhance music. So many times, watching the credits roll by at the end (or the start, Public Enemy with Rosa Perez dancing, in Do the Right Thing) the film, the tune sounds better than it really is, as if all its excellence were brought to the fore by the magic medium of cinema.
    But music can also make a bad movie worse. Case in point: Mr. Holland’s Opus. When the music cues you to feel a certain way, in a heavy handed way, you get pissed off and say kinda to yourself, don’t be tellin’ me how to feel. This is where that cutting humor of the teens that you mention kicks in.
    Luis Buñuel’s films are notable for their lack of music. How does the cliché go? The silence is deafening. It makes the ubiquity of movie music so much more notable.

  2. squashed says:

    ..
    Porn Soundtrack!
    (They have to fight copyright, they have to make it hip, but at the same time it has to be boring enough not to overtake whatever is going on screen.
    hence: minimalist electro funk, muzak, cheap electronica, etc. It’s enough to move the scene, sonic filler.
    One can check a lot of interesting work on youtube along this genre (soundtrack)

  3. squashed says:

    “A constant sounding, a constant accompaniment, a constant association of particular music and songs and gestures with particular emotions and activities.”
    What’s wrong with jungle? I can play endless loop of this, specially the softer ones.
    LTJ Bukem is my fav.

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