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Film: Does Music Matter More Than Dialogue?
November 6, 2020 — Alfred Hitchcock once said, “To make a great film, you need three things — the script, the script, and the script.” It is hard to argue with a filmmaker as legendary as Hitchcock, but there is one other thing the master of horror would have to agree with, and that is music can make or break a movie. After all, the sharp violins from his magnum opus, Psycho, are often considered the gold standard for original music in film. Music is rarely written into a script, but maybe the three things you need to make a great film are instead: the script, the script, and a soundtrack to pull it all together. Of course, dialogue is an essential part of most movies, but one could argue that without music supporting certain critical scenes, the dialogue within would fall flat.
It is hard to imagine a time when we could not hear what the actors say, but in the early days of the motion picture, there was no audible speech in movies, and what little dialogue existed was placed on title cards between scenes. In those days, scenes were more often dictated by the music, making it much more essential to films than any dialogue. In the 1910s and early 1920s, movie theaters usually hired a pianist or organist who played during the film, doing much of the work to set the tone – it was not until 1927 that the first movies with audible dialogue, aka ‘talkies,’ were released. So, in the early days of cinema, music definitely mattered more than dialogue — when did this change, or did it ever?
Throughout the history of cinema, films have gone back to using only music when they want to stand out and be artsy, like the 2008 French film Idiots and Angels. There was a significant surge of movies like this in the 1970s, but every decade has seen its share of ‘silent films.’ A couple of notable recent examples are 2011’s Oscar winner The Artist and the 2010 documentary Miner’s Hymns.
Using just music, rather than dialogue, to set the tone as the pre-talkies did is much less common today. But modern films continue to do it sometimes, as we have seen from some award winners. Take Disney’s Wall-E or the French animated comedy The Triplets of Belleville — both rely almost entirely on scenery and music to tell the story with little dialogue to fill in the gaps. There are also some recent movies with enough dialogue to fill a few pages of a script, but still a fraction of the dialogue that most have. One movie that immediately comes to mind that relies on music more than dialogue is the 2011 film Drive starring Ryan Gosling. Drive is largely credited as the godfather of the retrowave movement; the soundtrack is packed with synthesized sounds, and they are front and center throughout.
There is no better argument for music over words than horror movies. To quote Hitchcock again, “There is no terror in the bang, only in anticipation of it.” No amount of dialogue can create what music does in these movies. Even if you do not consciously recognize the music in horror films, it crawls under your skin and makes your heart pound without asking. The slow build-up of music often present creates a tension that no dialogue could hope to accomplish. Dialogue in this genre is often corny and predictable, while the music is harsh and erratic.
We watch movies to experience something, and music is fundamental to creating that experience. Dialogue tells you what is going on in the film, yes, but the music forces you to feel what is happening. There have been plenty of movies without dialogue and plenty without music, but while a film without dialogue can be artistic, a movie without music feels lonely and out of place. Ultimately, the best argument for music over dialogue is that movie soundtracks are sold separately from the film, to be enjoyed by themselves, but a movie’s dialogue rarely gets similar treatment.
Does music matter more than dialogue? One could argue that the answer is “yes”, but a much more substantive argument is that the two are both essential, working in tandem (along with many other things) to create the final product. If I had to choose one, however, I would choose music every time, since mood is the driving factor of any decent film, and the music drives the mood. I am sure many will disagree with this sentiment and argue that there would be no movies without dialogue, but there are plenty of films showing movies without dialogue are possible. In the end, it comes down to personal preference and which elements you find most important.