Music enters our consciousness by other doors than our rational senses; it can creep in below the radar of thought and get to work on our emotions before we know it. But most memorable movie music announces itself, whether with the blast of trumpets that begins Star Wars or the low, febrile string notes that usher in Jaws. These are the pieces we remember, better known to more people than the symphonies of Beethoven (such as The Good the Bad and the Ugly).
Lalo Schifrin is always delighted to be congratulated on his music for the car chase in Bullitt — because he didn’t write any. Start watching Once Upon a Time in the West, waiting for that fantastic score, and during the 10-minute title sequence there’s not only no music, there’s barely any dialogue either. The first music we hear, in fact, is Bronson’s keening harmonica.
But that doesn’t mean there was no soundtrack. The great conundrum of the film score is that music draws us into a scene, but the absence of music makes a scene feel more real.
Nobody treads that no-man’s-land between music and no music more sure-footedly than regular Coen brothers’ collaborator Carter Burwell. He wrote a car-boot-load of music for No Country for Old Men, which is so discreet you’d think it was just the natural sounds of the landscape and always the lingering bell sounds that accompany sudden violence, from Miller’s Crossing to Fargo, to No Country for Old Men. And why? Because the film is harsh and uncomfortable . And anything recognisable as music would make it less so.
As time has gone by, us audiences have demanded more subtlety in music’s manipulation of us — sweeping strings are the stuff of parody, not romance. Oh, except for Titanic. And Gladiator, The Dark Knight Rises, the Star Wars franchise, Star Trek …