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 Absolute Music vs. Program/Functional Music


Absolute music is a type of abstract music that is not written with the intent to tell any type of story or paint any other kind of mental picture for the audience. Its composers generally intend for the structure of each piece to stand on its own without extra associations. The melodies and harmonies of absolute music are also not usually tied to any specific emotional reactions or interpretations, so the listeners are free to attribute their own feelings, thoughts, and mental images to each piece they hear. Absolute music consists of instrumental scores without lyrics, though instrumental music pieces are not always absolute based on the specific composers' ideas.


One of the most frequently encountered intentions behind absolute music's creation is to distinguish it from instrumentalprogram music or what is called Functional music, which has definite connections to specific stories, moods, or images. Some pieces of functional music are instrumental scores of films, plays, or operas. Others are written to paint musical pictures of specific events, places, themes, or situations. 


Examples of traditional functional/program music are Ludwig van Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony  and Franz Liszt's Prometheus. 


Take a quick listen to the videos linked above.  The music tells a story.


The ideas behind the origins of absolutemusic are closely related to those of abstract art. Both are not intended to represent anything concrete. Some seasoned listeners of this type of impressionist music often claim that it can be truly appreciated based on the technical arrangements of notes rather than any unnecessary related feelings or ideas. This view is generally linked to the formalist ideas about both art and music that first gained popularity in the nineteenth century. Formalism applied to music can be traced to the writings of a critic named Eduard Hanslick who described quality music as that which can be appreciated for its pure sound structure alone.


Since absolutemusic is not tied to any kind of story or visual frame of reference, it is often considered a better option for close musical analysis. classical musicians often listen to recorded pieces of this genre to better understand the composers' techniques and to study possible methods of improving their own performances. Some casual listeners also prefer this kind ofmusic because they often find the complex arrangements of harmonies and melodies to be mentally stimulating. Well-known pieces that are considered absolute music include FrédéricChopin's Waltz in D flat and Franz Schubert's Symphony No. 5 in B flat major.  


Take a quick listen to the videos linked above.  Music for Music's sake.



Music can serve several purposes that are either important on the emotional side of the movie or help/enhance the storytelling. It is not only helpful but essential for any director/producer to keep the music in mind when planning/shooting the movie. For example collages that practically don’t work at all without film music can have a fantastic effect later with the appropriate music.


The following list tries to be a comprehensive overview about possible functions of film music in a movie. Some functions overlap sometimes or some music serves several functions at other times


1. Commenting

This is a function that shouldn’t be overdone. Music can put a judgement on certain movie scenes, it can state that a certain battle scene is heroic, a certain dialogue is sad etc. In the early days of film music, the function of the music was most of the time to comment on the images. Nowadays we perceive this as an annoying redundancy most of the time but used cleverly it will help push the audience into the right direction.



2. Illustrating movement

Another function that feels rather old fashioned and comedy. Accenting with the music every movement seen on screen is so-called mickey-mousing (coming from a scoring technique that was often used in Mickey Mouse cartoons). Hearing xylophone “plings” when someone raises his eyebrow etc. feels very cartoony however it can be great in slapstick moments and when done well even in dramatic situations.



3. Creating plot relationships

The use of so-called leitmotifs has been established by Richard Wagner in the opera and has often be used in film context since the early days of film music. Giving certain characters/situations/places thematic identities helps to connect certain plot points together. When the villain gets a theme and later we hear that theme again when somebody talks about a “stranger” we get a very clear hint of who that stranger might be. It doesn’t need to be that obvious for leitmotifs to work, of course. However, be warned to not overdo that technique. Not every supporting role needs a motif/theme and it can quickly feel very old fashioned when using this method extensively.



4. Create atmosphere

This is one of the strongest function of music in the movies. It can set the tone of the movie. Just by the way the score comes in for the first time in the movie makes it possible to know the genre and the “level of drama” of the movie. Of course exactly this really strong function can be used to create plot twists.



5. Portray Emotions

Another very strong function. Music can serve the movie by getting into the emotions of the characters. A face with a neutral expression can be pushed into “feeling” many different things just by what kind of music is used. In the same way it works of course very well to evoke certain emotions with the audience.



6. Social/Cultural/Geographic references

Music can work very well to make clear the heritage of a character/group of characters or the geographic setting of the movie or a scene. Often so called pseudo authenticity is used that uses music that feels like a certain location to western ears as opposed to actual music that can be heard at that location (which differs quite heavily sometimes). If for example Irish sounding music can be heard during a certain scene etc. we can easily spot where it’s taking place without the need of visually establishing the location too much.



7. Time/Period references

Music can also work very well to establish a certain time or period. Music that sounds very baroque will put us back into the 18th century but references can also be more subtle. Flashbacks over a few decades for for example can be very well supported by the musical style which adapts to the time portrayed in the movie and therefore makes the flashbacks more understandable.



8. Connect scenes/montages

Music helps very well to glue scenes together. Rather harsh scene changes can be softened by adding music over the scene change. One of the extremes of these forms are montages which work beautiful with music. Even though we might have a lot of jumps in time/places or even periods, when the montage is covered under one score cue it will at the same time be glued together and understood as a whole.



9. Manipulate

One of the functions of music that is and has been used quite a lot, even though it is not one of the most noble functions of music. Doubtful contents of a movie can be pushed into the “right” direction by music as it has been seen with lots of propaganda movies from all periods of times. However it can also be used very cleverly. For example when a character that is being portrayed as “the good guy” but actually is the villain. However in this case this fact will only be revealed at the end of the movie. Any moment before where the audience might get trapped into maybe thinking that he might be the evil guy, the music can jump in and manipulate in the way of working against these doubts.



10. Alternate the perception of time

The perception of time is a fantastic playground for music. Just by altering the tempo of music, it can heavily push or drag any scene. Imagine a chase sequence where the music pushed with lots of tempo, exciting orchestration etc. compared to the same sequence with a calm, slow music. The latter one would almost feel like irreal but it would make the scene way less exciting. Same goes for any time perception. A scene where we see a person waiting which lasts only 30 seconds can be extended painfully in the perception by the music.



11. Imply a sense of space

Not only the perception of time but also the perception of space can be influenced by the music. Using a very intimate piano+violin duo on a space science fiction movie might seem just as wrong as using a full symphony orchestra in a two character movie that’s taking place in a small flat. Also by the use of register (very deep sub bass or very high violin notes as opposed to music that plays mainly in the middle registers) can leave an impression of “size”.



12. Create unreal situations

Characterizing nightmares or situations of shock or being paralyzed can be done perfectly by the music. Anything that gives the feeling of not being real can be greatly enhanced by the music. Nightmares of characters can be made much more impressive with the right music.



13. Create contradictions

Music that sounds like something that is not expected in a certain scene will create a feeling of “something is not right”. It works great for example on dialogues that are actually neutral from the content of what is being said. However having a really dark and sinister music under this scene will leave the impression that something will be happening, something might be wrong here.



14. Parody

Music can influence very strongly whether we find a scene to be serious or laughable. It can use this ability to create fantastic parodies of characters or situations in the movie. One very simple example would be a character who pretends to be very evil and acts like this, however the music just gives him/her a quirky wannabe-evil march.



15. Physiological conditioning

Music can also influence and stimulate our very basic emotions like fear and therefore evoke in a best case scenario every physiological consequence  that comes with that emotion like racing heart, sweaty hands etc. Especially in the genre of horror and thriller, these effects are used extensively. A certain level of volume will make it impossible for the body and the conscious mind to detach from these emotions. Shock effects in scores/movies as well as terrifying buildups (cop sneaking in a dark basement – he’s approaching a corner – music gets louder and more terrifying etc.) are very common and work great, however quickly can feel like a cheap trick when used too often. It is also possible to influence into other emotional directions, which is more subtle and doesn’t have the obvious effect as fear etc.



16. Implying size relationships

A little boy walking alone through a huge city is just a scene that might be very suitable for this use of film music. In this case the music can enlarge the visual differences between these things by giving the boy a little innocent flute motif on top of a very low, boiling music which might symbolize the huge city. In this way, things that can’t be seen like that on the screen can be set into relationship. If this little innocent boy from above might actually be a really brave, heroic person who has done or is about to do big things the music might set him into another “size” dimension to the city even though the images don’t reveal that yet.



17. Psychologically uniting the audience

One of the most obvious case of such a function of music are national anthems whose function of course also is, to unite the “nation”. The same works in the music. Especially euphoric, heroic emotions can be used very effectively to get this collective emotion. Often, well known songs/music pieces can be used for that as they are easier accessible than music that the audience hears for the first time. However, even a very heroic score cue on top of a scene where the heroes of the movie walk through a crowd applauding a cheering at them after they fought the last big battle and won can create exactly this collective feeling of having been part of all that also with the audience.



Time to go hunting!


Your Assignment


Your challenge is to find examples of film music that represent at least 6 of the  different functions listed above.


Go to youtube and start exploring.  When you find an example, add it to a playlist inside your Youtube account.  (Every BBA mail account has a youtube video account associated with it).  


When finished, share each video by getting a link and posting it on your Unit 3 portfolio.  You can start the video at the specific point by checking the "start at" box prior to getting the link.  You will see this function when you press share this video.


There are plenty of movie clips and trailers on youtube to choose from.  Be sure to label your video selections in your portfolio with a brief description of why you think the function is present.




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