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When NOT to use film music

Updated: Sep 18, 2022

Music is a powerful tool that a director has at their disposal. It’s easy to fall into the trap of putting music all over the film, but sometimes the most effective use of score is not using it at all. Limited use of music can not only be an effective device for a given scene but can also make the scored parts of the film feel even more significant.

In this article, we’ll study a few examples of scenes with no music and analyze why the filmmakers went in that direction.

Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan is one of the most realistic depictions of war in the history of film. The action scenes use very few wide shots, instead, the audience is in close experiencing the battle with the characters. Director Steven Spielberg and composer John Williams opted not to use music during the action scenes. This really does add realism to the experience. All the sound design from the bombs, bullet flybys, and screams resonates with the viewer.

If your film or scene requires a true sense of realism, consider eliminating the music or at least reserving it for the most delicate introspective moments.

Here is a great video with John Williams talking about how he and Spielberg decided to use the score.

The Dark Knight Rises

In this case, the lack of music here may represent a feeling of isolation or desperation for our character. Most if not all Batman fight scenes in the trilogy have been accompanied by some sort of tense, action, or heroic music. Perhaps because he is always winning. In this scene Batman has been betrayed, he is older and is facing a more formidable opponent and losing.

Having no music throughout most of the scene helps us feel the same cold dire feeling Batman must be feeling at this moment. As the scene closes Batman is clearly defeated, he makes one more fleeting attempt to fight, but Bane cuts him off and breaks his back. By this point, the music slowly starts creeping in. It's not a big villain statement, just a subtle tense build. But is highly effective because of the musical silence that came before it.

If your character is feeling empty, isolated, and desperate and you want the audience to share their headspace then having no score can create an effective void.

Star Trek 2 The Wrath of Khan

The opening scene to Start Trek 2 finds the crew of the Enterprise on a training mission near the Neutral Zone. As the scene progresses, they are forced to enter the zone to rescue the starship, Kobayashi Maru. The rescue goes wrong, and the crew finds themselves in great peril. In isolation, this seems like an obvious place to put some tense action music. But as it turns out the whole scene was just a test simulation.

This may be a case where the filmmakers wanted to draw a clear line between what is preseaved to be real and fake in the context of the film. Music in this film is reserved for the dramatic moments that have “real” consequences for our main characters.

This concept can be used in scenes that depict simulations, dream sequences, and hallucinations. But be careful and use it sparingly as overuse can tip off your audience. If you have multiple scenes like this in the same film perhaps just use the first one.


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