The Emotional Impact of Music in Movies

While filmmaking is primarily a visual art form, the emotional impact and importance of music in movies cannot be denied. With every frame, videographers and filmmakers are trying to deliver a specific emotion. The location, the lighting, the actor’s ability to vividly portray different characters — all these choices are carefully planned and executed to put the viewer in a certain mindset. Of all the artistic tools in a filmmaker’s arsenal, music is arguably the most powerful one. Let’s look at how music heightens the impact of moving pictures. 

Emotional Manipulation 

It’s no secret that filmmakers use music as a “secret weapon” to manipulate our emotions and shape our opinion of the story. The same footage may appear sinister, sad, or romantic through a different choice of music, and within this broad spectrum, more subtle gradations of emotion can also be conveyed. Music can change how we feel in a matter of seconds, which is unheard of for a stimulus that doesn’t exist in the real world. 

Although we may react emotionally to a birdsong (it may remind us of our childhood), our feelings are unrelated to the real purpose of these sounds. Also, musical sounds have a much more complex structure than natural sounds. Musical parameters include not only rhythm and melody but also harmony and sound quality (timbre). 

Despite some exceptions, melancholic, peaceful, or romantic music is more likely to have a slower tempo. On the other hand, music played at a brisk tempo is more likely to evoke happy or positive emotions. Horror movies feature music that is often discordant with irregular or strong rhythms and frequent changes in dynamics. 

How Does the Brain React to the Music 

Different aspects of music are processed by different regions in our brain. When there is a constant beat, we tend to start tapping, nodding, and even dancing. These activities require us to keep up with the beat, for which we must use our metronomes or internal oscillators. The brain doesn’t have any receptors that are dedicated to sound alone, so those that control rhythmic movement are activated instead, hence our urge to start moving. 

The greatest mystery is the effect that music has to both the physical and the mental dimensions of our emotions. Listening to music activates the reward system of the brain and influences the emotional centers of the limbic system. Our mental responses are strongly connected with physical ones, which is why we experience changes in blood flow, increases in heart rate, and goosebumps on our skin. However, the reason why music is so effective in doing this remains a mystery.