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From Pianist with Projector


The film composer Bill Conti scored a number 1 pop hit with Gonna Fly Now in July 1977. Prior to that, he had worked on a few minor films but was still relatively unknown. It was his collaboration with Sylvester Stallone, at that time fresh off the success of Lords of Flatbush (huh? That's right, just as equally unknown) in the film Rocky that launched both into greater prominence. Gonna Fly Now, also known as the theme song to Rocky, still remains an iconic tune and has even been taken up by orchestras around the world as part of a concert programme.

The trumpets in the opening of the tune start with a regular rhythm for two bars before playing syncopated rhythms in the next two. This syncopation in the introduction gives it a sense of propulsion into what is coming ahead - a main theme marked by even further syncopation, which overall gives the music a sense of drive complementing the visual elements of the film. Who can forget Rocky Balboa, shadow-boxing as he runs, bricks in hands, while the triumphant tune and its catchy beat play in the background?

The pianist Alfred Brendel once remarked that syncopations "should not sound like average notes", and when it comes to playing them, "their unwieldiness has to be made audible as they reach into the next rhythmical unit". In other words, if we encounter any syncopations when playing piano music, rather than merely just play them at the same volume, bring them to the fore. Brendel also remarked that "each syncopated note carries more emphasis" than notes of the same duration - a syncopated crotchet, in the grand scheme of things, is more important than a crotchet played metrically. One of Brendel's suggested techniques when it came to playing syncopated notes was to imagine "driving the wrist gently in the direction of the piano lid".

Stallone produced, directed and of course starred in Rocky - perhaps from the realisation that in order to elevate himself into the public eye in the best possible career-enhancing way, he had to exert control in all these areas. In this sense he foreshadowed the likes of future actors/directors such as Tom Cruise and even the whole business of vanity publishing. Can't get someone to publish your writing? Self-publish it! While Conti drew inspiration from the film footage for his music, Stallone later had the important scenes reworked and edited to suit Conti's music, showing a conviction that in a visual medium, the music and scene have to work together - and sometimes the music even has a greater importance than the screen.

Music in film can be said to fall into two general categories - diegetic or non-diegetic. Diegetic music is music where the source is known from the context. For example, if a character is in a car, and puts the radio on, we know the resultant music comes from the car. Non-diegetic music, often termed as "background music", has a source not known from the music. It influences our mood by subtly commenting on what we see.

There is the perception that scenes with fast-moving action use faster music, while sad, emotional scenes draw on slower, sympathetic music. This generally holds true - for example, Gonna Fly Now uses fast music to accompany the montages of Rocky training. But sometimes music can be used in contrast to the action - think to battle scenes such as from Platoon and Hamburger Hill, where the fast-paced fighting is underscored by soft, sustained strings, moving diametrically to the action, adding subtle but powerful commentaries to the visual element; as the screen is filled with montages of fast-paced action, the slow sustained strings silently protest against conflict and the loss of life it entails.

And what if the non-diegetic Gonna Fly Now that accompanied the scenes of Rocky heaving weights, running in all climates, sparring and chugging down protein shakes were replaced by something less energetic, say, something along the lines of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata? The mood is instantly changed - set to the new music, the whole Rocky montage will take on a more regretful edge, as if to suggest that the protagnoist's success will later prove to come at a price, and that the small personal victory will come tinged with sadness. If - when watching a film - we experience a disconnect between what we see and what we hear, we can be sure that the director has intentionally created this sense of unease.

Tempo is only one of the many ways music can move diametrically to screen - the typical example being a fast action scene set to slow music. But there are also other ways to evoke contrast between the visual and the aural. Visualise a scene where two characters are hatching an evil plan. Normally this calls for music in a minor or atonal key, to mirror, through the music, the evil that we see on screen. But what if we hear happy choral music in a major key instead? The music leads us to believe the villains have no remorse for what they are about to do, and our distaste for these characters is evoked unconsciously and quickly just from a short passage of music, and more effectively than if we were merely made to watch previous multiple scenes of treachery.

Music in film has grown in importance since its inception. In the early days of the silent film, a pianist in the corner of the room played popular Classical tunes of the day, the theory being that the non-diegetic music masked the awkward silence of huddled audiences around a whirring projector. Some argue the piano music was more intended to blanket the cacophony of the machine itself. Both reasons could have been equally valid. But there is no arguing that music has quickly transitioned from being an external source to being an internal and integral part of a film, as audiences have quickly grown to accept it without having to question its source each time they hear it.

And can you remember the last film you watched that had little or no music? My guess is it was probably about a barren landscape, stuck on a desert island, or being marooned on a planet - where the absence of music was just as deliberate to create the sense of desolation. When the omission of music can be equally effective as its inclusion, it speaks volumes about its growing prominence in film today.

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