Those who ever watched a movie without sound will have noticed the emptiness of visual material. Not only do subtitles seem to become a monotonous monologue, the lack of background music also brings forth a lack of suspense and emotion. Referencing to the famous 007-series, the iconic James Bond theme is a perfect example of how music and film intertwine. The well known surf-rock guitar riff, accompanied by brass, strings, and a jazzy drum has been re-adopted in several soundtracks of Bond-movies. Not only does it (literally) set the tone for the movie, it has also become characteristic for it. But why is music so important in a visual art-form like film?
Ocularcentrism, the human tendency to rely on eyesight rather than hearing, would make you think film is all about the on-screen projection. However, music has a major influence on how we watch a movie. This is because when we watch a film we wish to delve into an alternative reality, that of the presented narrative. When we only see this world on the screen we immediately sense that it is unreal. When we also have audio input, so to say, we can immerse into the fictional film reality as if it is our own. Moreover, the sounds in films are not simply there to depict the ongoing events, but they also guide us in our reaction to them. If the director wants us to empathise with the main character, chances are great that a melancholic song is playing in the background. Conversely, nearly every villain has his/her own tense tone telling us that evil is lurking in the distance.
To exemplify: take horror-movies. Anytime a ghost/zombie/mutant is to appear his/her presence is preceded by suspenseful strings. This is done to make us mentally aware of the scary situation. Often this rise in tension is interrupted abruptly by the actual scare-moment, playing around with our predictions and thereby increasing the sudden shock (tip: when scared while watching a horror movie, turn the volume down and play the chicken song in the back; nothing can will ever scare you then). In other instances music is used in quite the opposite way. Take the horrific torture scene from Reservoir Dogs (1992). It features Stealers Wheel's Stuck In The Middle With You and thereby juxtaposes the bloody mess on screen to the cheerful sounds. This, in turn, creates an even stronger sense of psychopathy and brutality which helps Tarantino achieve his goal.
All that being said, next time you watch a movie you better mind the music, for it leads you through the prescribed feelings. On the other hand it is interesting to toy around with this by featuring own music to movies, making your experience totally different. Music in film is thus not simply something secondary, but rather an important feature that creates your appraisal.