Functions of film music

Exploring the types and functions of film music

"Music and image - that is film". With these words director Tom Tykwer creates a catchy explanation of the importance of music for film. Everything comes together in Run Lola Run: jazz, techno, contemporary music, 80s pop music, classical music and "classic film music". The beat is sometimes a pulse, sometimes a ticking clock. Hypnotizing, almost somnambulistic chants by Franka Potente. Then again Oriental echoes – a gong becomes the starting signal for a scene, driving African drum rhythms underlaid with chants reminiscent of qawwali music, the devotional music of the Pakistani Sufis. But what functions should these pieces of music fulfil in relation to the film images?

Film music is functional, i.e. it has the task of "serving" the film, supporting, intensifying and also complementing the film images. It is used to control the audience’s perceptions and to convey the cinematic context. In order to investigate the functions of film music, it is therefore always necessary to consider the tasks it performs at particular moments in a film.

The dramatic function
Film music, for example, when it is associated with people and locations, expresses moods or creates tension. Film music also often offers the audience a way of understanding flashbacks, flash-forwards or parallel actions. Film music in its dramatic function provides a commentary on the plot of a film.

The syntactic function
Makes it easier for the viewer to understand the structure of a film by relating sequences to each other. Film music can accentuate cuts, shots or movements and merge or define scenes. With its syntactic function, film music becomes an element of the narrative structure.

The expressive function
Works to heighten the audience’s emotional experience of what happens on screen. It is usually regarded as the most conscious and also most important function of film music and helps the audience to understand and interpret the plot in the desired way. Film music has an expressive character if it generates, condenses and characterises the atmosphere of a scene.

Cf. e.g.
Kloppenburg, Josef (Hrsg.) (2000). Musik multimedial. Filmmusik, Videoclip, Fernsehen (Handbuch der Musik im 20. Jahrhundert; Bd. 11), Laaber: Laaber
Bullerjahn, Claudia (2001). Grundlagen der Filmmusik, Augsburg: Wißer
Maas, Georg & Schudack, Achim (1994). Musik und Film – Filmmusik, Mainz: Schott
Pauli, Hansjörg (1993). Funktionen von Filmmusik. In: Helga de la Motte-Haber (Hrsg.). Film und Musik, Mainz: Schott

Task 1

In most cases, film music takes on several functions, the evaluation of which is also influenced by the experience and feelings of the audience.
  1. Listen to the film clips and decide for yourself which functions you think the music is fulfilling and to what extent. Drag the sliders accordingly and compare your results.

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Dramatic function

Syntactic function

Expressive function

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Dramatic function

Syntactic function

Expressive function

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Dramatic function

Syntactic function

Expressive function