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The importance of music in film

The soundtrack for the film O Brother, Where Art Thou threw national spotlight back on to bluegrass music. The 2000 film is a modern adaptation of Homer's Odyssey; the protagonist, an escaped convict played by George Clooney, has to survive various obstacles in an escaped bid to prevent his wife from marrying another man. The producers of the film, the brothers Coen, so wanted the sound of authentic country music in the film, that not only did they hire a record producer specially to source for it, but also wrote the entire film around the sound track when it had been completed. The entire film! The result is one where perhaps the music is central to the film, but thankfully the film had some coihseion to it; otherwise it might have ended up as a visual dressing of pre-existent music, akin to the film Pretty Woman, where a group of songs were loosely strung together and then a film written around these.

In a film, music has the power to influence via mood and suggestion. The film soundtrack features classics like "Down to the River to Pray" and "Man of Constant Sorrow" and would eventually go on to sell over seven million copies. And while sales of the album topped the country music album charts quickly, the album would take a somewhat more circuitous route to the top of the pop charts. And in doing so, it brought back to the fore a style of music - bluegrass - that had been absent from the pop charts for over fifty years. The soundtrack had been released nearly half a year before the film made it to movie theatres, but it was after the movie had come to the end of its run and its visual pulling power was waning, that the soundtrack topped the pop charts, taking two years, and in doing so becoming the album with the longest route to number one.

The opening of the film is a good illustration of the importance of music in film and the power it has in setting context and influencing opinion. Music in film can be said to be diegetic or non-diegetic. The former means that the music source is known from the scene - for example, we may see a car in the shot and music may be heard as it approaches, and dies away as it speeds off. We assume the music to have come from the car. Non-diegetic music is background music - we are aware it is there to colour our impression of the scene, but do not question where it has come from.

In the opening sequence, we see scenes of fast-paced movement across countryside, which are interspersed with credits, while the iconic banjo of bluegrass music and singing link the montage. The bluegrass music sets in our minds the background to the images - we are in America, in the early 1920s. But if we kept the visual images, and replaced the music with another - say, Wagner's Ride of the Valkryies - then the opening sequence takes on a heroic touch, influencing us to think we are viewing a great escape.

Or if we replace the music with one of Schoenberg's piano compositions, the atonal music set to the same scene will influence us to think we are watching some kind of horror movie, like the movement of an unseen apparition.

Music can have a strong important influence on the visual. When the Coen brothers committed to writing a film around the music, perhaps they knew what they were doing.

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