The Psychological Impact of Music in Movies

Watching a great movie is almost a full-body experience. Especially dramatic, frightening, heartwarming or sad scenes can result in a physical reaction, whether it be chills, tears, or goosebumps. A lot of this has to do with the soundtrack of the movie. As something that is not often consciously affecting the watcher, it has more to do with the impact of the movie than one might think. 

Movie music adds an unspoken dialogue and makes suggestions among other things to the scenes happening before you. This technique was created long ago, in the times of silent and black and white movies. At this time, music was played over a film on a phonograph. The songs were made to correspond to the action happening on screen. It utilized a technique called “Mickey Mousing”. This is when, for example, a character runs up a staircase, the music runs up with the character, copying the physical action. When the character runs down, the music follows it down. This allowed music to show thoughts of panic, surprise, among other emotions in movies with no dialogue. 

Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Psycho is one of the most classic examples of music telling the story and adding phychological elements that without music, the movie would not say as much. The opening music in Psycho with its rapid tempo directly sets up the tension that is to come. No words are necessary. That music returns and speaks of Marion’s, a lead character, anxious mind from having stolen money from her boss. It speaks of the fear of being caught, it also speaks about her guilt and the moral position she has put herself in. The music actually watches her, it chases her like a crime fighter, it’s also a reflection of her morals.

Music in movies can also set up how you are supposed to feel about a character. In the 1944 movie titled Laura, Gene Tierney plays the main character, Laura. Throughout the movie, Laura’s theme by the composer David Raksin is constantly heard. It is there to remind you of the virtue of Laura. It sings of her dreamy nature and appearance. It sets up how you are supposed to feel about Laura; it plays on your moral outlook of this character. You just know that with this sort of music, the person it reflects is loving, innocent and sweet.

In short, the soundtracks of movies are essential to revealing themes to the viewer, whether they know that they are picking up on the subtle cues or not.


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