Meaning and Interpretation of Music in Cinema

Meaning and Interpretation of Music in Cinema

by David Neumeyer


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By exploring the relationship between music and the moving image in film narrative, David Neumeyer shows that film music is not conceptually separate from sound or dialogue, but that all three are manipulated and continually interact in the larger acoustical world of the sound track. In a medium in which the image has traditionally trumped sound, Neumeyer turns our attention to the voice as the mechanism through which narrative (dialog, speech) and sound (sound effects, music) come together. Complemented by music examples, illustrations, and contributions by James Buhler, Meaning and Interpretation of Music in Cinema is the capstone of Neumeyer’s 25-year project in the analysis and interpretation of music in film.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253016492
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 08/17/2015
Series: Musical Meaning and Interpretation
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

David Neumeyer is Marlene and Morton Meyerson Professor of Music in the Sarah and Ernest Butler School of Music, The University of Texas at Austin.

James Buhler is Associate Professor of Music Theory in the Sarah and Ernest Butler School of Music, The University of Texas at Austin.

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Meaning and Interpretation of Music in Cinema

By David Neumeyer

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2015 David Neumeyer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01651-5


Music in the Vococentric Cinema

A simple, typical example of sound practice in the Hollywood studio era (roughly 1930–60) may be found in a few moments from The Dark Corner (1946), an A-level film noir obviously meant as a stand-alone sequel to Laura (1944). An evening party at the lavish home of Hardy Cathcart (Clifton Webb) includes a dance sequence that begins with a straight-on view of members of Eddie Heywood's band (figure 1.1a), followed by a pan across the dancing couples to Cathcart and his wife, Mari (Cathy Downs, figure 1.1b). The sound level of the band is maintained during the pan but drops a little as Webb's voice enters at the original, higher sound level; the band is now offscreen and in the sonic background. The couple, in medium shot, are seen at a very modest angle (to emphasize the dance), but on the reverse to Mari (figure 1.1c), a standard shot / reverse shot with an eyeline match is used, confirming the priority (and, with the tighter framing, also the privacy) of their conversation. The backgrounding of the music serves narrative clarity and happens in collusion with the camera: the pan charts distance covered, but no attention is paid to a drop in volume for the physical circumstances of the room (in other words, the band actually should be louder as Cathcart and Mari talk). Music begins as performance, but it leads before long to the voice.

The work presented in this book is grounded in two assertions: the integrated sound track is basic, and the cinema is vococentric. These are elaborated as three general principles, the first of which recognizes that the sound track is the film's audio system and asserts that, as such, the sound track has priority over any of its individual elements. The second acknowledges that the sound track is constructed — the overriding priority in the classical system being narrative clarity, not acoustic fidelity — and it is hierarchical, with the voice (speech, dialogue) at the top, music and sound effects below. The third follows directly from the second: film music is stylistically plural. It is in fact any music used in a film; that is, no special status is given to symphonic underscore.

The three principles will be familiar to those who know my published work over the past decade or more, including texts coauthored with James Buhler. In the present volume, however, I have radicalized my position through a claim that the narrative sound film is vococentric. In a sense, the claim of vococentrism is simply a restatement of the first two principles above: if the sound track as a whole is the proper object of study, then analysis and criticism must always take into account — begin from — the internal sound track hierarchy. I will seek to convince the reader — as I am myself convinced — that, reductive as this model may appear, it yields results that are truer to film as an art. Furthermore, it is both richer and more nuanced with respect to music than the all-too-common approach in which film is seen as a backdrop for interpretation of its music. Analysis and interpretation are also greatly enriched by the recognition that, although the sound track as a whole has priority, its internal hierarchy guarantees a dialectic among its elements. As we shall see, the fact that the sound cinema is vococentric does not mean the hierarchy is mechanically expressed in every filmic situation. The voice (as speech) is the benchmark, but other elements, and especially music, often compete with it. Beyond that, I will argue that two basic structures — of action (agency in the image) and of speech (agency in the sound track) — give rise to the basic formal units of spectacle and dialogue.

This Book's Title, Part 1: Meaning, Interpretation

In order to position the kind of work that arises from the three principles outlined above in relation to the critical practices of the music studies discipline, it will be useful to examine the four keywords in this book's title. The first of them, "meaning," may be defined as whatever arises from acts of interpretation as they operate on cinematic texts or, more specifically for my purpose here, on cinematic texts as read in terms of the musical component of their sound tracks. Making sense of that definition, however, requires a comparable definition of "interpretation," preferably of course one that does not collapse into the circular by including the word "meaning." I respect the distinction between meaning and interpretation implied by the title of this Indiana University Press book series — one would not need both of them if the two terms were really pretty much the same (as many of us came to assume for a while in the 1980s, when terms like "narrative," "interpretation," "criticism," and the like were expanding dramatically, seeming to co-opt whole fields in a rush to the multidisciplinary). The paired words in the series title suggest that "meaning" is better defined as what arises from the effects generated by texts, which for most films (like most literature) very particularly means narrative effects. "Interpretation," on the other hand, is a handy umbrella term for critical practices, that is to say, what it is we do with — or how it is that we respond to — the effects that texts generate.

The two terms as defined here align well with Robert Hatten's "historical meanings" (or "stylistic knowledge") and "hermeneutic inquiry" as they are expressed in the following passage from his book Interpreting Musical Gestures, Topics, and Tropes: "We maintain that the 'aesthetic' is no illusion, ... that we still have access to relatively objective (by which I mean intersubjectively defensible ) historical meanings — both at the general level of style (which can be reconstructed to a degree that the evidence will allow) and at the more detailed level of a work (which must be interpreted not only from stylistic knowledge but also through hermeneutic inquiry)" (2004, 6; emphasis in the original). David Bordwell makes a similar distinction based more directly on disciplinary practices and in a negative formulation that reflects his pessimistic view of the state of film studies in the 1980s: "Interpretation of individual films can be fruitfully renewed by a historical scholarship that seeks out the concrete and unfamiliar conditions under which all sorts of meaning are made. Further, interpretation should not overwhelm analysis of form and style; the critic should not strive to reduce every effect to the conventions of interpretive reason" (1989, 273).

The distinction between meaning and interpretation is connected to a historical trajectory beginning with nineteenth-century critics, commentators, and historians who gave priority to the author, often radically in the notion of the genius and masterwork. This view began to be contested as early as the 1890s and was under siege by the 1930s, by which time priority was shifting to the text, specifically the text as system (whether construed as organic or mechanical). Early structuralist models and the interpretive practices exemplified in literary studies by the New Critics represent this phase well. By the late 1960s, the opposition closed system / infinite meaning began to shift criticism into its poststructuralist phase, and with that change attention swiftly moved away from the text to the reader (or viewer, audio-viewer [Chion 1994, XXV], critic), most directly through interpretive models of deconstruction in literary studies (eventually imported into music, as well) and reader-response theory, but also through cognitivist analytical models, most prominently for music studies through Lerdahl and Jackendoff's (1983) generative theory of tonal music and for film studies through Bordwell's (1985) narrative theory. Only in recent decades has the balance been righted somewhat because of attention given to empirical audience-response research (Bordwell 2008, 20).

This author-text-reader tricolon is simply a historically mapped version of a model of communication dating to the 1920s and closely linked to information theory (Shannon and Weaver), to linguistics (Jakobson's six communication functions), and through linguistics to literary theory and interpretation (cited in Cobley 2008, 15). The literature on these issues is very large indeed — almost all of literary theory over the past fifty years and a significant part of film theory from the 1960s through at least the mid-1990s is fundamentally concerned with it — and each of the positions has its strong, sometimes strident, advocates. I do not argue that any should be privileged; in practice, they obviously can, as Jakobson's model already made clear (the "poetic" function, for example, simply gives priority to experience of the text, etc.).8 Instead, I assert that the interpreter must always be clear in locating the focus and — the harder part — be willing to acknowledge its limitations. Bias toward the author is always in danger of collapsing into the hagiographic (and becomes indistinguishable from promotion or marketing). Bias toward the text too readily turns formalistic (tending to praise complexity for its own sake). And, finally, bias toward the reader-critic can, paradoxically, be merely willful, even when it is plainly constrained by the conventionalized patterns of interpretive rhetoric, whether or not tied to a more or less fully articulated ideology.

Without making particular theoretical or ideological claims, then, I find that separating textual effects from interpretive practices — at least provisionally — has greater heuristic value for the study of films, and sound and music as integrated within them, than does insisting that they cannot or should not be separated. In any case, this separation results in selective emphases, not a brick wall, and it creates priorities for interpretation, not an unbridgeable ideological divide (unless the critic chooses to foreground one, of course). Bordwell helpfully separates what he calls "comprehension" from "interpretation": under each heading he includes two types of meanings that the reader or viewer might construct. Under "comprehension" fall referential meanings and explicit meanings. Referential meanings are those that attempt to make sense of the diegetic world and character actions, whereas explicit meanings try to reconstruct the film's (author's) goals and intentions based on what is directly presented. Under "interpretation" are implicit meanings and symptomatic meanings. Implicit meanings go a step further than explicit meanings, to the abstract level of thematic statements, whereas symptomatic meanings assume a critical stance in the sense of "reading against the grain," assuming a fissure between a film's presentation and themes, and its underlying ideology (Bordwell 1989, 8–18).

Bordwell, however, also says one should not "assume that the four sorts of meanings constitute levels which the critic must traverse in a given sequence. ... There is evidence [for example] that whereas beginning interpreters of poetry do read referentially and have trouble making the thematic leap, skilled interpreters try out implicit meanings from the start and often neglect the 'literal' level, or summon it up only to help the interpretation along" (1989, 11). Given that it can require some effort to pay specific attention to music and its effects, however, the literature has profited from careful descriptions, that is, attention to referential and explicit meanings that include music and sound. Robynn Stilwell uses such examples in the context of her theoretical construction of the diegetic/nondiegetic pair, the opposition that has come under criticism repeatedly since it was clearly formulated in relation to film music by Claudia Gorbman (1987). Stilwell argues against abandoning or radically reconceiving the opposition: "Because the border between diegetic and nondiegetic is crossed so often does not invalidate the separation. If anything, it calls attention to the act of crossing and therefore reinforces difference" (2007, 184). It should be noted that Stilwell's argument is consistent with Gorbman's original description: "Significantly, the only element of filmic discourse that appears extensively in nondiegetic as well as diegetic contexts, and often freely crosses the boundary line in between, is music. Once we understand the flexibility that music enjoys with respect to the film's diegesis, we begin to recognize how many different kinds of functions it can have: temporal, spatial, dramatic, structural, denotative, connotative — both in the diachronic flow of a film and at various interpretive levels simultaneously" (1987, 22). What Stilwell calls the "fantastical gap" is a "border region," "a transformative space, a superposition, a transition between stable states" (2007, 200). Presumably because her essay is concerned with filling out the definition of the "fantastical gap," her examples tend to concern themselves with Bordwell's level of "comprehension" rather than "interpretation." We will look briefly at her discussion of the main-title sequence from the Jane and Anna Campion film Holy Smoke (1999).

Among the powers of the "fantastical gap" is the ability to flip a "default" cluster of terms that associates underscore with empathy and subjectivity (as in "point-of-view music," where we effectively "hear" a character's emotions) and source or diegetic music with anempathy (emotional neutrality or indifference) and objectivity (as, for instance, in the dance scene from The Dark Corner discussed above: the music is simply expected in that real-life situation). "Holly Holy," a song by Neil Diamond, frames the main-title sequence of Holy Smoke. As such it acts as a "simple, extended sound advance, a transition from nondiegetic to diegetic," a design that is "technically unexceptional" for historical-statistical reasons: "Many films begin with credit music that is full sounding and apparently nondiegetic but 'shrinks' to the diegetic space of the first postcredit scene." What does require explanation (Stilwell's "A closer look, however, reveals ...") is the reversal of functional roles: "Relative objectivity in the nondiegetic [gives way] to relative subjectivity in the diegetic" (Stilwell 2007, 197) — that is, what is at first just a song for the conventional formal frame of the main-title sequence becomes closely linked with Ruth's (Kate Winslet's) response to the cult's partying ritual (that is to say, Ruth of the film becomes associated with Holly of the song). The remainder of Stilwell's analysis is a detailed explication of this process, beginning from a thematic linking of song and film. The song "is clearly about a search for meaning and redemption, reflecting Ruth's search for 'the real stuff' in India," a search that leads her to join a cult, which she has effectively already done by the time the song is over. First attracted by "a happy group of young, mostly European women in Indian dress" (figure 1.2a–b), Ruth follows them to a multistory building. She reaches the roof to find the cult members eating, talking, and dancing (figure 1.2c). "The transition from nondiegetic to diegetic takes place slowly, in an almost dreamlike fashion. ... It is only [during subsequent nighttime shots] at the peak of the music, the drive to the recapitulation of the chorus from the bridge, that the visuals ... and the music coincide [we see dancers shouting words in time to the music], confirming that it is indeed, or has become, diegetic. This creates a sense of arrival, of the completion that Ruth will find here" (197–98).

Stilwell's description, then, reads explicit meanings that include music, as if to answer the question "Why did the directors use this song for the opening?" and makes use of referential meanings as needed. In the limited context of this example, that would be enough, but interpretation clearly guides the reading. From the observation that the design used here is unusual (and the implicit assumption that establishing sequences often provide significant information about the film that follows) comes the thematic statement about this opening in relation to Ruth's life goals. Stilwell's analysis is obviously text centered, as befits the goal of her essay. It would have been author centered if used in a critical appreciation of Campion's career. It would have been viewer/reader centered if it was the background for an exploration of responses to this opening, plausible "hermeneutic windows" (Kramer 1990, 9–10) being a moment of stylistic excess near the beginning (the nondiegetic status of the music is disturbed when we see a close-up of hands as Ruth and her friend ride a crowded train and we hear the audience clapping in the sound track) or, in the final moments of synchronization, the curious fact that we see only men (and them not too well) in the darkness.

An extension to Bordwell's third category, symptomatic meanings, would have led well outside the scene to a cultural, political, or religious critique of cults or of the parallelisms the Campions establish between Ruth's joining the cult and her parents' attempts to stop her (through the person of cult deprogrammer PJ Waters [Harvey Keitel]). In the following comment from his review of this film, the late Roger Ebert stops just short of this step, inviting his readers to take it for themselves: "Ruth comes onscreen as one kind of person — dreamy, escapist, a volunteer for mind-controlling beliefs — and then turns into an articulate spokeswoman for Jane and Anna Campion's ideas. ... It's difficult to see how the Ruth at the end of the film could have fallen under the sway of the guru at the beginning. Not many radical feminists seek out male gurus in patriarchal cultures" (2000).


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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments
Part 1: Meaning and Interpretation
1. Music in the Vococentric Cinema
2. Tools for Analysis and Interpretation
Part 2: Music in the Mix: Casablanca
by David Neumeyer and James Buhler
3. Acoustic Stylization: The Film’s Sound World
4. Music and Utopia: A Reading of the Reunion Scene
5. The Reunion Scene’s Contexts
Part 3: Topics and Tropes: Two Preludes by Bach
6. Performers Onscreen
7. Underscore: Four Studies of the Prelude in C Major

What People are Saying About This

author of Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music - Claudia Gorbman

David Neumeyer’s lively engagement with an entire generation of multi-disciplinary scholars yields robust frameworks for understanding how music works in 'verbocentric' narrative film. Meaning and Interpretation of Music in Cinema is a work of great erudition, clarity, precision, and authority.

author of Celluloid Symphonies: Texts and Contexts in Film Music History - JulieHubbert

Neumeyer is a gifted writer who knows how to engage a reader from page to page.

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