Young Frankenstein

This Is Your Brain on Film Music…

As I approach 50, I’ve been obsessed with the same questions most people ask at this stage of life. I also wonder how well my brain is functioning these days. I keep it fairly active reading and in a quest for learning new things. I’m sure the level of good brain cells is on a steady decline by this point. But one of the few constants I’ve had from my early teens is my love of film music. What does my brain on film music look like?

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 the 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, in 3- to 5-minute bite-sized chunks or less. Then 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 brainpower 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. I feel I should like it. And there’s a lot I do like. But its improvisation and lack of structure have always been difficult for me to grasp. Still, it’s a nice way to cleanse the palette every now and then after 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 does my brain on film music look like? More akin to a sitcom or (God forbid) reality TV than a feature film, less Hans Delbrück and much more Abby Normal. But I’m okay with that. I think…

  1. I think we’re sharing pretty much the same experience Jim, although I’m on the doorstep of my 55th (gasp!).

    I have nearly a 1000 LPs of classical music, but rarely listen to classical like I did back in college and the years that followed. My attention span has diminished somewhat in recent years and it is not only hard, but sometimes downright next to impossible to sit down to listen to one of the music dramas/operas by Wagner or a Mahler symphony although they are some of my all time favorite pieces of music. Film music seems to fit the bill for my listening habits now more than ever for some of the same reasons you mentioned.

    I’ve been a lifelong jazz fan, but it has never been my favorite at any particular time and I never was really into pop music all that much. Over the years, like classical, I’ve thrust music such as traditional Irish and Space Age Pop into the forefront for some stretches of time, but they have faded in and out. Once they have ebbed a bit I always return to film music as my main musical interest. I suppose it will be that way until the end, which somehow seems a bit closer now than I care to think about…but still a long way to go!

    So you’re not alone out there Jim with what you’re experiencing. Us film music fans have much in common it seems even when there are so many things we can differ about overall. We are not alone out there!

    1. Weird, isn’t it? I’m most concerned with any detrimental effects it may have, if at all, on my ever-shortening attention span. :)

  2. I seem to have a similar problem, although it seems to have nothing to do with age and everything to do with the internet. Through being able to order CDs that have interested me within a few seconds of discovering that they exist, I ended up plowing through all possible genres of pop music between the ages of 15-21 (everything from old-school punk to dubstep, country to rap, indie to mexican skacore to gypsy). This then resulted in me discovering Classical, Opera and, most importantly film scores. Now that I have amassed such a collection of music though, and explored most avenues and alleyways of each style, I finding it a struggle to be satisfied with listening to a single album all the way through without thinking “Oh wait, I want to listen to that one instead” before I get more than a few tracks in!

    Though I find that a good test of my attention span is TV box sets, something like The Wire or LOST, where I can just watch an entire box set all the way through without watching anything else in between!

  3. “If your brain is on film music”? As an even older devote (62) I will voice sympathy with your thoughts about film music (and classical). One constant that you may be glad to hear is that the music I love still has the ability to make me feel the passions of youth. The younger readers may not get give a damn about that my thoughts in that regard, but the day may come when this source of emotional rejuvenation will be a welcome diversion to them as well.

    1. “Passions of youth”…well put, Roger. It has that effect on me as well at times. At other times it’s work. LOL But I can’t complain. I could be stuck in an office listening to all the white noise.

  4. I enjoyed your thoughts on this topic (unfortunately took the idea of a “9 Favorite Jazz Scores” suggestion off of the table), I think film music with or without the film itself provides emotional immediacy (whether it’s blood and thunder or gentler, comtemplative music (ex.: A Patch of Blue or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)

  5. since my favourite film composer is dimitri tiomkin, i want to know if it would ever be possible for a complete performance of his magnificent LAND OF THE PHARAOHS could ever be perfomed in a concert hall with full orchestra and choir? this woold be a wonderful project for anyone to undertake and i want to know if it would simply be a case of having all the sheet music availble, financial considerations, getting all the performers to assemble for such a project,etc. the choral parts would be especially breathtaking. thanks for any information.

    1. While that does sound like a great concert, I can’t imagine anyone doing it. The film certainly isn’t particularly well known. Even the LSO concert last October had trouble selling tickets and that had much more well-known films included in it. But who knows, maybe one day…

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More Stories
Of Mice and Men & Our Town film scores
CD Review: Of Mice and Men/Our Town