Lesson Plan: Film Scores Addendum


Ian here—

This is just a quick addendum to my music-themed lesson on Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013) from my Intro to Film course, which I posted earlier. This bit doesn’t have as much to do with synesthesia, which is why I separated it out, but it is something that I incorporated into the same lesson.

It is truly a shame that the 2015 special “Diamond Luxe” edition Blu-ray release of Gravity seems to already be out of print, fetching steadily-increasing prices. I’m happy to have it on my shelf, because I’ve actually found it to be one of the best pedagogical tools one could hope for when teaching film sound.

The reason? That particular Blu-ray edition is the only place that you can find the “Silent Space” cut of the film. Unlike other alternate cuts of films, “Silent Space” doesn’t have a different running time from the original film. Scenes aren’t cut, added, or re-ordered. The visuals of the film aren’t altered or re-edited at all. All that is changed is that the film’s musical score is removed. That’s it.

For a film like Gravity, the effects are nothing short of revelatory. In my original post, I noted how Gravity effectively “cheats” on its promise to deliver a scientifically-accurate sonic experience. During action scenes, it tends to rely on Steven Price’s score as a sound effect, engaging in an unusually sincere attempt at “Mickey Mousing” for a contemporary action/art film hybrid. Just for reference, here is a clip that I embedded in the previous post to demonstrate this. I wrote there that the “dopler effect-like whizzing of Price’s unusual electronic instrumentation here makes the distinction between score and sound effect seem academic”:

Now, here’s the same clip in the “Silent Space” cut. The much stricter adherence to the film’s conceit of accurately rendering the soundlessness of space is transformative, calling attention to just how much the original cut relies of Price’s score to create tension and anxiety:

Sonic Suspense

Very quickly, I would like to turn to one of my favorite topics: suspense. I am consistently fascinated with Alfred Hitchcock’s definition of suspense, where he characterizes it as the effect of a knowledge differential between audience and character. Here’s Hitchcock’s famous distinction between surprise and suspense, in full:

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating int he scene. The audience is longing to warn the character on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb beneath you and it’s about to explode!”

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed.[i]

So, much like a Stirling engine, which is powered by the heat differential between two gasses, the engine of suspense is powered by a knowledge differential. A gap between viewer and character knowledge must open up, in order for this emotional response to build.

There is one particular moment in the “Silent Space” cut of Gravity that calls attention to the role that a film’s score can play in feeding this knowledge differential. We usually think of suspense as the audience seeing something the character’s haven’t (for instance, Hitchcock’s paradigmatic example of us seeing an anarchist placing a bomb under the table). Sometimes, though, suspense can arise from the audience hearing something that the characters don’t.

This can include hearing an extra-diegetic score that the film’s characters have no access to. The paradigmatic example of score infusing otherwise innocuous scenes with suspense is, of course, John William’s work on Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975). Jaws, though, unfortunately isn’t available on Blu-ray with its score removed. Gravity is. So let’s look at a quick moment from it, first without the score:

Here’s a question: when did you first notice the debris whizzing by Dr. Ryan Stone? Certainly, the shot is framed in such a way as to virtual guarantee that the audience notices it before the character does, provoking that feeling of anxiety Hitchcock describes so well. But viewers still have to look at the image relatively closely. How soon did you see the debris? 7 seconds in? 22 seconds in? Longer?

Now, let’s watch the same scene with the score:

The effect is one of a third party intervening. Before, there was only what Dr. Stone knew, and what the audience realized before her. But here, we can add what the score “knows.” The score itself, with its gradual crescendo, seems to know that there’s danger lurking, even before the audience can confirm it. Since viewers hear what the score knows, we start visually scanning the frame earlier, with greater urgency. Even if we don’t see the debris right away (and it is, admittedly, quite small), we can feel the score’s restless unease. We know something’s up, and so the feeling of suspense latches onto us earlier.

This can lead into a productive discussion of film narration, and the variety of ways in which films can open up a knowledge gap between its viewers and its characters. When I taught this before, it was a way to fill up the last ten minutes or so of an already-packed lecture session. If I teach it again, though, I might detach it from my sound week, and instead connect it to a lesson on storytelling and film narration. It’s fairly versatile!

[i]. Truffaut, Françoise, with Helen G. Scott. Hitchcock. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967. Pg 73.

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