Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Introduction

Cinema is an art of sound and light. Sound is what we hear. But not all the sounds are meant to be heard. The sound that I am talking about is the sound of background score in a movie. Have you ever listened to this sound while watching movies? Have you ever felt the emotions in a movie by just listening to its background score?

Evolution of Background Score

In the silent movie era, when the movies were screened in cinema halls, the movie projector produced a distracting noise. The cinema halls started to employ local musicians to play piano or organ, to level down the noise created by the projector. When the movies were screened, the musicians played music and tried to keep their music in synch with the mood of the scenes. Though the backing music was employed to rectify just a practical problem, it did more than what was intended out of it then and so when gradually talkies came into being, people just couldn’t ignore the impact of the background music. Thus a time-being solution for avoiding noise became one of the most important aspects that enrich a movie watching experience.

Background Score – What, When and Why?

Just imagine that you are watching a scene showing the sun rise on a sea shore. How would you feel if you can see the waves but can’t hear the sound of it? A wave without the sound of waves sounds odd. Isn’t it? A wave sound is just an ambient sound. A background score for a movie has to sound exactly like that. It has to create an aural ambience around the visuals. It is a music that doesn’t distract the audience’s attention and that is so close to the mood of the scene/shot, so that our eyes and ears sense the same. With just enough ambient sounds (like the sound of waves in this case) in the scene, the impact of the visual is not lost, here silence is the key. At times, silence is the most effective score any composer can write for a particular scene. But a composer has to know when, where and how to use it, to create the right impact. A pleasant element can be brought into this scene just by adding music of a flute playing raag Boopalam in the background. The key for a good background score is choosing between when to add music and when to remain silent. Say, if this sun rising shot is just added to tell the audience that it is the next day, it is absolute information, no emotions involved, so composer can go for silence. But if this sun rising is shown as viewed by any important character of the movie, to imply that the character feels pleasant by watching the sunrise, a flute piece is a must, to aurally inform the audience that this character is indeed enjoying this beautiful sight.

Background score doesn’t always mean good music, it is apt music. Satyajit Ray in his article on ‘Background Music in Films’ says, ‘An easy way to ruin a perfectly good film is by applying unsuitable (background) music’. John Williams (one of the best and most popular composers in Hollywood) in an interview said, “Our prime goal is to achieve an apt score for the visual but if the theme music or a cue from the movie finds a life on its own, even out of the movie, then that is a bonus for the composer”. That is why many directors have used already existing musical pieces that best suits the mood of their film, as the background score. This makes it evident that film makers care for apt score. But if originality and the appropriateness come together, there is nothing better than that. Even a bad music or any sound that fits the scene could become a great background score; remember Bernard Hermann’s violins screeching on a single note in the thrilling bathroom scene from ‘Psycho’. That way of playing violin is unacceptable and doesn’t fit in the grammar of any known form of music in the world and yet that piece is still considered as one of the best background scores provided for a movie.

Importance of Background Score

The main theme of ‘Star Wars’ is as important a character of the movie as a Darth Vader. When Spielberg was unable to show the Shark in one of the scenes of ‘Jaws’, John Williams came to rescue the scene with his thrilling score written with just two notes to make us believe that the shark is coming. In the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, we wouldn’t have felt the power of the ring so effectively without Howard Shore’s cunning Ring theme. We can’t see an E.T flying without John Williams’s Flying theme. What would be the running scene in ‘Chariots of Fire’ without Vangelis’s spirited synth piece? How Amelie’s adventures would feel without Yann Tiersen’s vibrant and colorful Piano theme? Who is James bond without John Barry’s signature tune? Or can we think of ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ without Tan Dun’s westernized Chinese melodies and turbulent Taiko drums? Can we think of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti westerns without Ennio Morricone’s score? Or can we think of Charlie Chaplin’s comedy without that comical music constantly playing in the background? Why Henry Mancini’s Baby elephant walk theme comes to our mind whenever we see a beautiful elephant dancing in its way? Why do we feel like hearing Titanic love theme from a distant place, when we feel romantic? Who or which is Masculine, The rocky or his electrifying theme? Why do the sitar and flute pieces of ‘Pather Panchali’ play in our mind when we watch a kid playing on the streets of a deep interior village? And I can go on and on and on.

Background Score in Indian Films

So we come to an important question that matters most to us. What is the state of background scores in Indian films? Who should give or should have given importance to background scores in Indian films? These are some of the easiest questions to answer. The directors, the composers and the producers of Indian films collectively failed to give background score its due importance.

In India, movies were seen just as extra large sized stage musicals that predominantly had songs. The composers in a stage drama used standard sound bytes in the background to enhance and exaggerate the emotions. The stage actors use to shout their dialogue loud to reach out to a wider audience and so the music was also performed loud to match with the performer’s volume level. Film makers or composers who came from or grew up watching such drama were not so aware of the importance of subtlety in background scores. Also most of the composers were so much rooted to Indian classical form of music and they concentrated only on making tune for songs. Background score is more of creating soundscapes with orchestration done on a simple motif than making complex classical melodies. Even now, there are very few music composers in bollywood who does background score for movies in which they compose the songs. Background scoring ability was never considered as a yardstick for a composer’s skill and talent.

For a producer, movie making has always been a commercial business than art. There are few producers, who invest in movies out of passion for art. In this business, it is unrealistic to expect a producer to understand the importance of background score and spend time and money for it. Shooting schedules were not well planned; movies got delayed due to various reasons and to release the movie on the announced date, all the post production work was done with urgency. For writing and recording the background score, the composer would get very little time before the movie’s release. The quality suffered because of the lack of time. So even if the composer and the director knew the importance of background score, they were helpless. To complete the work, our composers had ready made stock music for all emotions to use as background score. And what really helped them was that most of the movies were in same genre dealing with same subjects, emotions and issues. One can easily count the number of old movies that could be guessed just by listening to its background score.

This lack of importance to background score in Indian films can also be because of two other external factors. They are lack of official recognition for background scores and lack of good film critics in India. Till date there is no category commenced in National Film Awards for best background score. Such an important aspect of movie making is still waiting to get an official recognition from the Indian government. Also, Indian film industry never had great critics. Even now, when there is so much of media exposure, and with hundreds of reviews on movies appearing immediately after its first show, rarely critics mention about background score. Even if they mention, one can expect ‘it was loud,’, ‘it was good’ kind of generic opinions.

Background Score Composers in India

But inspite of all these odds, there were/are few composers in India who did/does miracles with their background scores. The trend of releasing background score pieces along with the songs in movie’s soundtrack CD has started now. Producers spend money and make big symphony orchestras available for the composers to record the background score. Things are changing and there is still hope. Let us wait, watch and listen.


After Illayaraja came into Indian film music, there is quite a lot of awareness about the significance of background score in movies. At least for me it is his background scores that made me to take a deep dip into this interesting art form called scoring background music for films. Those who have read my ramblings about background scores here would now better about how crazy I am about it.

I think still there isn’t enough awareness about this aspect of film making and its significance in films, not just for the common people but sometimes even for the film makers. Rarely Original soundtracks with background score music cues are getting released. Even if it is released, it is heard by only a selected few. Anyway, I can keep cribbing for pages about the poor recognition of background scores in Indian films. Let me stop here.

The purpose of this blog is to share some of the beautiful background score pieces that I heard and enjoyed. Not just from Tamil movies but also from Hindi and English movies and if possible from other language movies too. To make it interesting, I would like to post it like a quiz contest ala conundrumofsanata.blogspot.com where you got to listen to lot of beautiful interludes from Tamil songs and guessed the songs. Similarly here, you will have to guess the movie from the background score pieces. It will be fun. Even if you don’t have much knowledge about the background score pieces, you can land up here to explore and listen to some beautiful music pieces. I know that I may be violating some copyright laws but think of Nayagan’s punch dialogue.

3 comments:

San said...

dude, can u post the background score in rang de basanti's climax? the one in which they take the radio station in control?
I was expecting that there would be an archive of such stuff in this blog.
santhoshitha

Ramprasad Ragutu said...

Hay dude, I like ur dedication on sound knowledge. If ur readu i love to work with u, im Ramprasad graduate from JNTU college of fine arts hyderabad working for films as a Associate director. Im hungerly looking for SOUND. Can we please meet once. Here is my mail ID " mysoul.created@gmail.com " , if u work with me that would be great help for me. Thank U.

Sambath said...

Helo suresh,please add "Good Bad and Ugly " theme music in the list you mentioned.