Collage picture of Music composer and film scorer Tamer Karawan and Pianist Muhammed Naglah Collage picture of Music composer and film scorer Tamer Karawan and Pianist Muhammed Naglah

The underlying effect of music in film and the art of film scoring

Wed, Apr. 4, 2018
CAIRO- 4 April 2018:Although audiences mostly experience film visually through their eyes, the auditory element is also essential, the accompanying music subconsciously triggering various emotions and reactions.

Describing the crucial effect of music in film, composer Bernard Herrmann once said, “I feel that music on the screen can seek out and intensify the inner thoughts of the characters. It can invest a scene with terror, grandeur, gaiety or misery. It can propel narrative swiftly forward, or slow it down. It often lifts mere dialogue into the realm of poetry. Finally, it is the communicating link between the screen and the audience, reaching out and enveloping all into one single experience,”

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Music composer and filmscorer Tamer Karawan - photo courtesy of Tamer Karawan

The world’s universal language, music, has long been defined as an indispensable part of the film industry and has developed into a fixed element of the filmmaking process. In the past decades film scoring has helped create a harmony between the music and the various elements of filmmaking to craft the final piece of art.

Music creates an independent, dramatic scene in its own right, says Muhammed Naglah, a young aspiring music composer and distributor who has collaborated in the production of silent animation shows. Naglah, who composes music for short films, explains to Egypt Today the value that music adds to any visuals, including art exhibits where live music is played as guests take in the artwork, adding that it plays strongly on the subconscious mind, and is an essential element that gives depth to any experience.

Attempting to revive Egyptian heritage, Naglah’s music often pays homage to various aspects of local culture. He frequently plays live piano to accompany screenings of classical films in the heart of downtown Cairo, aiming to revive the spirit of old, silent movies. “The live piano recitals evoke the audiences’ personal experiences and inner emotions,” he says, recounting that as the music was so in tune with the spirit of the film, the audience forgot there’s someone playing the piano next to the screen.

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Music composer and filmscorer Tamer Karawan - photo courtesy of Tamer Karawan

Characteristics of film scoring

Despite the flexible rules of composing a film score, certain characteristics should stand out vividly in any score, according to a study by prominent media psychologist and award-winning screenwriter Stuart Fischoff. Dedicating a full career to film and music, Fischoff argues that film and music both resemble a unified effect in a work of art where one plays a visual role while the other is auditory.

Among the important characteristics of film music is providing a narrative of the scenes, communicating elements of the film setting and emphasizing the psychological states of the characters, as well as delivering a collective emotional tone or mood to the viewer. All these elements vary, depending on other external factors including the plot of the film and the filmmaker’s vision, among others.

“Different elements like the film’s language, editing, flow of dialogue, lighting and editing have to be synchronized to produce a [harmonious] product, these functions need to work together in parallel to deliver a strong musical outcome to accompany the visuals,” explains renowned Egyptian film score composer Tamer Karawan. “Consequently, a film score has to be coherent and operate as a complementary element to the final outcome.”

Fischoff describes music in film as a “highly expressive sensory element.” Whether music, sound effect or speech, sound in any film manages to fill the void created by a total silence that would otherwise be irritating.


Evolution of music in Egyptian cinema

In the early decades of the 20th century, music was used as a mood enhancer and a friendly accompaniment to a visual product, starting with the old silent melodramas and comedies of Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy. As Fischoff described in his studies, “Music was mainly composed to make up for the absence of speech,” producing an overall refined mood through the basic live piano performed during the screening. It was very easy to mimic a certain mood in any scene at the time; for example, a scene of a villain was accompanied by the sound of a piano recital featuring a diminished minor chord progression, while a scene presenting a hero was accompanied by a piano recital of a boosted-up anthem.

“Music for film in the older decades consisted of either soundtracks or existing music compositions that accompanied the film. Back then choices were limited, and therefore, the type of music chosen had, and still has, a major influence,” Karawan elaborates.

As the cinema industry evolved worldwide through feature-length films, the music accompaniment also grew. Music developed to add other sound effects and melodies to visuals through violin, at first, then cello, and later other instruments that synched together with an orchestral quality. Consequently, music in film was similar to that of a symphony orchestra and the material was supplied by musicians and conductors.
Soundtracks were also used to accompany films, viewers would even often remember these films by their soundtracks, as is the case with Pretty Woman by Roy Orbison in 1990 and the song El Ard law Atshana (If the Land Is Thirsty) by Walid Elalfy in film El Ard (The Land) by the late director Youssef Chahine.

The use of soundtracks in cinema has created a great sense of emotional belonging between viewers and films as it manipulated an audience’s emotions, says Karawan. He argues, however, that a soundtrack is only a “garnish” or the “cherry on top of the cake.” “A piece of music composed especially for a film is part of the actual ‘cake’ and plays a major role in having a deeper effect in manipulating emotions, unless a film is originally built in a way that makes the use of the soundtrack the greater influence,” he argues.
Karawan points out that this dynamic flow was also implemented in Egyptian cinema in the old classical Arabic films of the “golden-age cinema” and developed intensively during the 1960s.
“Film score composers such as Fouad El Zahary and Egyptian musician and composer of the Palestinian national anthem Ali Ismail, among others, had begun to be invited into the Egyptian cinema industry to compose new film scores during that time,” he adds.


Effects of film score on cinema

To be able to understand what music does to films, one should observe a visual production before and after it has been scored, first in the rough cut or editing phase, and then in final cut. The huge difference the score has made on the dramatic effects, the perception of voices, faces and characters can immediately be felt.

“When I compose a film score, I take several steps before reaching the actual phase of composing; including reading the scenario, understanding the filmmaker’s vision and the type of music he expects,” Karawan says. “I then compose my music based on the final film production phase in which the movie is completely edited and finished. Working on this phase gives me a specific type of energy that I don’t get from earlier phases of filmmaking.”

Apart from strengthening a certain psychological state and manifesting a sense of continuity, a film score should be built by a composer who is not only a musician, but who is also qualified to understand the verbal and body language of a film, according to Karawan. A composer should also be aware of the cinema industry, filmmaking process and topics tackled.

“In general, music is a subjective art and at the same time, it is abstract, and therefore easily stirs feelings; a certain music piece can entirely change the message of a film or scene,” he says. Karawan adds that the multiple roles of a film score include working as a perfect ending for a film with a silent final scene, for instance, covering up for actors’ mistakes or creating an ethnic theme.

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Pianist and music composer Muhammed Naglah during one of his performances accompanying a silent film- photo courtesy of Naglah's official Facebook page

Films without music are more realistic

Despite the marked effects music can produce, there is an ongoing debate concerning the use of music in film. Artists in the 1950s led a movement toward realism, including directors who felt obliged to go with the trend by excluding music scores from their films or drama works. The goal behind the “cinematic purism” movement was a more realistic version of human lives that didn’t include any background music or sounds that dictated the flow of dialogue. The movement was short-lived, with most concluding that excluding music from films led to a dead movie.

Naglah argues that such a movement could turn a film into a documentary, while Karawan describes this debate as “pretentious” and unworthy of discussion because realism could also be depicted with the use of music, stressing that there is no generalization in the matter.

“We have been in a cycle where we are used to listening to music while watching a film. Music is able to make up for certain feelings that can’t be fulfilled solely by film directors or visuals, therefore it is not easy to exclude music to create more realistic works,” Karawan explains. He adds that the decision of adding music to film depends on many variables, including the type of film, performance, editing and the topic, which means it is a subjective matter.

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Pianist and music composer Muhammed Naglah during one of his performances accompanying a silent film- photo courtesy of Naglah's official Facebook page

The art of composing film score

A successful film score composer of many drama works and films, Karawan says that some of the special projects he enjoyed working on include Fi Sha’et Masr El Gedida (In the Heliopolis Apartment), Bab El-Shams (The Door to the Sun) and Alwan El-Sama El-Sabae (The Seven Colors of the Sky). What made these films special, he adds, are the cooperative relationships he had with the movie directors, which he believes is essential in composing film scores.

Naglah, on the other hand, prefers composing for drama works as it gives him different colors and options to work with and a freedom that a composer should use wisely. But in both cases, composers need to understand the basics of classical composing as a reliable composing technique and writing an orchestral composition, including the use of string instruments. A composer should also be aware of the diverse music types a film needs; for example, a film may need music that is composed using only one instrument or orchestral music to fit a big setting and mood.

The art of composing, like any other type of arts, is challenging; but these challenges bring out the best of cinematic work. “I love works that pose challenges, some of the challenging films and drama worksthat I composed for include Wahet El Gheroob (The Sunset Oasis), a serious drama set in the 19th century and was the result of extensive research, and so it was challenging to come up with music that that depicts this historical era and citizens of that time,” Karawan explains.

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Pianist and music composer Muhammed Naglah during one of his performances accompanying a silent film- photo courtesy of Naglah's official Facebook page

It is important to tackle works in an unconventional way, a traditional story of love and betrayal such as that of Ana Shaheera and Ana Al-Kaha’en (I Am Shahira, and I Am the Betrayer), a series currently being aired, which features music composed by Karawan. Karawan says that he used untraditional methods to convey emotions, including orchestral instruments, classical guitar and cello, alongside a light sound of oud to sync together unique tunes and melodies that stir feelings.

Karawan continues to pursue new challenges in film scoring and is currently working on a film score for Amra and the Second Marriage, a film by Saudi filmmaker Mahmoud Sabbagh set for release this year.
 
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