This Is Your Brain on Film Music…
I don’t know if it’s the approach of my 50th birthday (this won’t be the last you’ll hear about that, trust me), but I’ve been obsessed with the concept of aging lately—where I am in life, where I’m going, where I’ve been, and how I’ve changed. Part of that change is a preoccupation with how many brain cells I have left. I keep my brain fairly active reading and in a quest for learning new things, but you won’t find me doing crossword puzzles or conquering a new language (at least not right now) to keep the ol’ neurons firing. My partying in the ’80s probably killed most of the good cells. The intervening decades have taken care of the rest.
One of the few constants I’ve had from my early teens is my love of film music. Would that account for any particular brain waves?
We film music devotees are a strange breed. We listen to music that belongs to another medium, but often without any reference or knowledge of the particular film a score accompanies. When that happens, we don’t care. And why should we? It’s about the music, right? Still, we judge music by a) how it works in context of the film, b) as a standalone listening experience, c) by certain cues, or d) some combination of the above.
We listen to this music for pleasure and/or education. We listen to it in 3- to 5-minute bite-size chunks (with the occasional super-sized combo cues) or less. We ask our brains to process these lumps of music with a variety of factors—everything from memory and nostalgia to pre-existing themes (or not), as a standalone piece, or how it fits into the grand design of a score (and sometimes an entire career).
We do all this without conscious thought most of the time. For some fans, the only consideration on the table is whether or not they like the music. For others, factors like film context and musical development come into play.
So what do all these various thought processes say about the brain power of film music fans? There’s no right or wrong answer and there’s certainly not one answer. Everybody’s story is different.
The way I think and process music has changed over the 35+ years I’ve been listening to film music. I rarely listen to pop music anymore (outside of Rufus Wainwright, who is definitely not the traditional definition of “pop”) because it’s missing the sweep and scope of film music. A four-minute song may be a perfectly conceived story or drama that plays itself out within that short span of time. But for me, no matter how good the craft is, that encapsulated world is more akin to a cue in search of a score.
I’ve always preferred listening to full scores rather than cues or compilations. With that in mind, you’d think that I would appreciate the classical works that are so much a part of my musical education. Alas, now I find that I seldom have the attention span to give to an entire 45-minute symphony. Is it because symphonic movements are longer than the bite-size chunks I’m more accustomed to now? It makes no logical sense yet there it is.
My love of opera has always been predicated more on the orchestra parts rather than the singers or the inherent drama. If there’s enough to listen to in the pit, I’m happy. Yet the energy it takes to listen to a three-hour opera requires deeply buried reserves of commitment and focus that I don’t seem to have these days.
Jazz has always been a tough nut for me to crack. It’s a genre of music I’ve always felt I should like, and there is a lot of it I do like, but its improvisation and lack of structure has always been difficult for me to grasp. Still, it’s a nice way to cleanse the palette every now and then when I’ve had an earful of orchestral musings.
None of this is logical, consistent or set in stone. It’s all just vague generalities that annoy me if I think about them too hard. So what is my brain like on film music? More akin to a sitcom or (God forbid) reality TV than feature film, less Hans Delbrück and much more Abby Normal. But I’m okay with that. I think…