Silence (or non-scored scenes) in film is a beautiful thing. I have a knack for confusing people by saying that even as a film composer, there is nothing I love more than film that works perfectly without music. There’s an ingrained sense of cinematic perfection when it achieves its narrative goals without the aid of music. These moments contain something that music could never offer…complete and total silence (by that I’m still acknowledging the existence of dialogue and sound effects).
If we are to believe that music is an ingredient that when added to a particular scene helps achieve a variety of narrative goals then one might reasonably deduce that perhaps that scene is flawed in some way. Is this true? If the scene needs help by employing music does that make it an inferior scene to one that is successful wholly on its own?
These are rhetorical questions that don’t necessarily need answering. Because of the extreme variation in cinematic storytelling and the many obstacles contained therein there is no definitive answer. However, I pose the question merely to get your brain tuned to the frequency of judging silence vs. scoring. I think the art of spotting a film (deciding where music should go in a movie) is dying. Gone are the days where I’m noticing clever choices in spotting which used to be frequently exhibited by composers like Bernard Herrmann, Miklós Rózsa, and perhaps the best spotter of them all…Jerry Goldsmith. Their creative decisions on where to put music (or more importantly, where not to put music) vastly effected the overall success and quality of their scores and ultimately their respective films.
For example, let’s look at a classic scene in NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) directed by Alfred Hitchcock. There is a moment where Roger Thornhill (played by Cary Grant) ascends upon a lone crossroads in the middle of nowhere to await instruction from his unknown mystery source. He stands there patiently…waiting. The scene is unusually long and not much, if anything, really happens. A car drives by, a man appears and waits, a bus passes…all benign, boring, and without a clue of justification.
So how does the master, Bernard Herrmann, decide to score benign and boring? He doesn’t. The scene, in its entirety, is left completely unscored. Why? Isn’t Herrmann worried about losing at least part of the audience here? It’s a valid concern.
This entire scene is about perpetuating one question…What the hell is going on? Roger is internally asking it to himself. We, as the audience, are asking this of ourselves as we experience this along with him. It’s the “elephant-in-the-room” of this scene. There isn’t a note of music Herrmann could have written that could better express the awkwardness of the moment better than silence. It’s the inherent function of silence that works so utterly beautifully here. Moments later the scene is thrust into overdrive as Roger is peculiarly attacked by a nearby crop-dusting biplane. Again the question accelerates and perpetuates…”What the hell is going on?” It isn’t until the scene is completely over and the crop duster plows into the side of a tanker truck that Herrmann finally enters the music.
As many times as I’ve seen this scene, I often wonder if it were made today how many composers would automatically score this scene. I think a high percentage of them probably would. It’s a powerful lesson more composers should heed.
Silence is a powerful thing…and as an added benefit, it’s far less work.