How Movies Communicate Values Invisibly -- Through Music


To Be Presented on January 9, 2005

10:45 AM Sunday at the

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

By William S Jamison

I have chosen this topic, not because I do not like movies or do not like the music that helps make movies such a wonderful experience, but because we are Americans, and as Americans, we are very concerned that we remain free and autonomous individuals. In order for us to remain free we have to know how others may use technologies and other means to manipulate us so that we lose some of our autonomy to their control. In light of that issue, the music used to communicate values in movies has become increasingly sophisticated in manipulating the emotions of the audience.

We should think about how powerful music is. Perhaps it is correct to say that the first meaningful communication we receive is the musical sounds of our mother's voice. It seems music is very closely related to language. It might even be more useful to think of it as a language, or languages, since different cultural music communicates different things. If I listen to western music, and it is music I like, I will probably understand the emotion that is being communicated by the different aspects of the music. If it is Japanese music -- say ancient Kyoto Court Music (you can listen to a sample here), I may find it just as unfathomable as the Japanese language.

New technologies have also enabled us to discover a bit more about how music effects the brain. So we now know that it is very important to teach your children not just to listen to music but to play music. And this at a very young age. Some of what happens with this is now known as the Mozart effect and is now supported by studies that show a certain type of music, highly exemplified by Mozart (but not by popular music from the '30s, or by much of the music of Philip Glass). Baroque Music is supposed to be especially good. Note that it is the types of repetitive patterns and complexity that seems responsible for this. It also seems that we were wrong in thinking music was handled by one side of the brain and language by the other. It does seem to start out that way, but once you become good enough at music the music begins being handled by the same side of the brain as language. There are all sorts of interesting studies being done on this. Studying music improves language learning as a result.

It is also at least the case that young children as young as 3 can identify the emotions being expressed in music. This sounds way to old actually, since a soothing lullaby is just the thing to put us asleep and calm us down -- well, sometimes.

There is very interesting work being done on how the waves of music effect the waves of the brain. I found it interesting to discover that the brain hums. (It supposedly sounds like fluorescent lights.) When you are concentrating on something you have a nice hum. When you are distracted -- such as folks with ADD -- their is a lot of static. Using music as therapy seems to help folks with ADD through biofeedback. When you hear music it affects your mood changing your mood to that of the music -- an exception to this is if you do not like the music and you fight it. An interesting aside to this concerns people that like to listen to sad music. It would seem that listening to sad music would make you sad, and it does, unless you have happy associations with that particular music in which case it makes you happy listening to the sad music. It also seems that an easy way to tell music is sad is by the key: music in a Minor key is sad, music in a Major key is happy -- at least sometimes. One study I read suggested a relationship between

bullethappiness = fast, staccato
bulletsadness = slow, legato
bulletanger = fast, legato
bulletfear = slow, staccato 

How well can we identify the emotion expressed by a piece of music? This might sound like a "Duh" sort of question, but let's give it some sort of quick check.

I have some pieces I will play and I will ask everyone to write down what mood they associate with each piece.

(We will do this experiment.)

All selections were from John Williams' scores for movies -- and one piece from the Olympics.


Delivered at conference ‘Music and Manipulation’, Nalen, Stockholm, 18 September 1999 by Philip Tagg:

Leroy Anderson Official Web Page:

This page is maintained by William S. Jamison. It was last updated July 11, 2016. All links on these pages are either to open source or public domain materials or they are marked with the appropriate copyright information. I frequently check the links I have made to other web sites but each source is responsible for their own content.