A Study of Music in Film

“Discuss how music in an audio-visual medium may have a significant and equal impact on the understanding of the narrative, storytelling, emotion, or meaning of the AV piece. Listening to music without sound can leave the audience feeling a bit lost. A film score; whether we’re consciously paying attention or not, helps us to understand deeper aspects of a film’s plot line. The film score is a tool implemented by both the director and composer to convey a mood and let the audience know what emotions to feel.”

Music scoring can synchronise different times, places, themes, character traits, and emotions. Different Instruments are associated with different time periods, cultures etc. This plays into consistent linking of elements over the course of a film. This in turn  is implemented with use of recurring leitmotifs to illustrate motivic ideas and themes. Time and Placement is extremely important in the music in: In scene changes and foreshadowing the plot. 

Lala Land is a 2016 musical film which was written and directed by Damien Chazelle. It follows the story of Mia and Sebastian, played by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, and their relationship as they attempt to navigate their way through living in LA, pursuing their dreams and careers as a jazz musician and an actress. It tied the record for most Oscar nominations (with All About Eve and Titanic) with fourteen nominations, and it won six, including ones for Best Original Score and Best Original Song.

The main musical genre in La La Land is jazz. Therefore most of the instrumentation is jazz based. There is heavy use of brass instruments, such as trumpet and trombone, and most of the numbers involve a walking bass line on the double bass. The primary instrument is the piano, which is weaved in through the character of Sebastian, his love for jazz music, and his talent and passion for playing the piano.

Lala Land pays homage to old, on screen musicals such as Singing in The Rain and My Fair Lady. Therefore it uses music in the same way that musicals would in order to allow their stories to progress and allow the story to have a powerful emotional impact. By definition, a musical is a form of performance that combines songs, dialogue, acting, and dance. The storyline has music woven into it in order to enhance the emotions felt by the characters and the intensity of the scenes.

A strong example of this in Lala Land is ‘Mia and Sebastians Theme.’ This is the main leitmotif used in the movie. A leitmotif is a recurrent theme throughout a musical or literary composition, associated with a particular person, idea, or situation. In Lala Land, this leitmotif is representing the relationship between our two protagonists. We first hear this simple, melancholic piece when Mia is walking past the bar that Sebastian is working in. He is playing piano, and just as Mia walks past the door, he fades into playing this. It acts as almost a form of gravity for Mia, pulling her into the bar to watch him play. This is, technically, the first time the characters meet. 

The theme is repeated throughout the movie, mainly during pivotal moments in the couples relationship. “Planetarium” mainly uses the theme in different variations. This is the pair’s first kiss. When they break up, and Sebastian is forced to play piano at a friend’s engagement party, he plays a different variation of the tune. Finally, the theme is played at the end of the movie, when the couple meet again and we see how their story could have ended. The theme is both melancholic and uplifting, and it’s simplicity, beauty and sorrow represents their relationship perfectly.

“Planetarium” is another example of how Lala Land follows the structure of a musical. Most musicals have a ‘dream ballet,’ an all-dance, no singing production number that reflects the themes of the production. This also occurs in the end in the form of ‘Epilogue.’ Both of these pieces use the leitmotif in different forms to show the intensity, magic, and utter heartbreak felt in this relationship. The purpose behind dream ballets, is that they allow the music to tell the story. Music can explain emotions more than words ever could, and so these large, instrumental pieces gives the audience a rawer, powerful glimpse of how powerful and intense the bond between this couple really is.

Most musicals have epilogues. In on screen musicals, an epilogue is traditionally a montage of clips, showing what has happened to the characters. In Lala Land, the epilogue is a montage that shows a happy ending for Mia and Sebastian, as opposed to the heartbreaking ending we actually get. The epilogue also uses a collection/ medley of the songs used throughout the film. In this case, the medley uses instrumental versions of the songs used throughout the movie. They start out being played on a full orchestra, mainly strings and then slowly descend into being played in minor keys with vocals in order to add a melancholic and sorrowful feel to the pieces. It finally ends with just Mia and Sebastians theme on piano. The epilogue shows a happy, bittersweet ending, so it’s only fitting that the music used is also bittersweet. Since the couple are now no longer together, the music is no longer as joyful and represents an ache and a longing felt by the characters as they now know they can no longer be together. 

This is a technique used throughout the movie. In the “Summer” montage, we are presented with a cheery, upbeat and free jazz piece, played on the trumpet and piano, which is backing up images of Mia and Sebastian dancing in clubs, walking hand in hand in the sun and other happy summer themed activities. The peppy and cheery music enhances the feeling of their blissful and easy relationship and love for eachother.

At the beginning of the movie, Mia and her friends are getting ready for a big party. As they are getting ready, they begin to wonder who will be there and it they would meet ‘the one’ there. The excitement felt by the girls is enhanced through the fast tempo and peppy melody lines. The beat builds consistently through the song, building our anticipation, as does the sequence and call and response between the brass and the woodwind. After Mia sings to herself in the mirror, the anticipation builds again before climaxing in an intense and fast tempo piece, with a thick texture of vocals, brass and finger clicking in order to illustrate the fast paced, crazy world of LA and wannabe LA starlets.

The main purpose of the music in this movie is to allow the audience to have a deeper view of the characters love. This may be the love they have for each other, the love Sebastian has or his jazz music or the love Mia has for acting and her aunt. When Mia has the audition for the acting role in the movie in Paris, she sings ‘Audition (Fools Who Dream).’ In this, she tells a story of her aunt who used to live in Paris, and how everything started for her with her aunt. It’s a simple, repetitive melody which allows Mia to become vulnerable. Through her vulnerability, we see the love and passion that she has, both for her craft as an actress and the love she has for her late aunt.


With Sebastian, we see the love he has for his music whenever he plays. His pieces on the piano are either intricate and powerful pieces or else simple yet emotional ones. When we first see him play, he is playing Christmas carols, which he eventually swings into a long, complicated and passionate piece which ends in Mia and Sebastians theme. This theme is simple and emotional and manages to convey a lot of emotion and intimacy.

A prime example of this is another recurring song throughout the movie. ‘City of Stars’ won Best Original Song at the Oscars and is another song used in the movie that is used to represent their relationship. It’s very simple, using just the piano and simple ascending and descending scales of repeated notes. The piece is simple and melodic and captures the feeling and theme of the movie perfectly as it is simultaneously beautiful and heartbreaking. The song helps to portray their love perfectly as it is simple and effortless but at the same time it has an intense and emotional feel that you can’t really put your finger on. It just seems to make sense. 

We also see the music echoing their relationship when the pair first spend time together voluntarily. Their relationship starts out as them being very coy and flirtatious which is emphasised in the song ‘A Lovely Night.’ The song lyrics are the two characters teasing each other in a flirtatious manner “you say theres nothing here/ well lets make something clear/ I think I’ll be the one to make that call.” This is emphasised by the jaunty, syncopated rhythm on the right hand of the piano, as well as the trills on flute, which seem to imitate a fluttering heart, and the ascending motifs on strings and harp. The brass section sounds almost triumphant and cocky, which is how Sebastian is acting throughout the piece. The first half of the song climaxes with a drawn out major chord on the brass and strings as the characters look out over the city of LA, almost hinting at the start of something big and exciting, before they look straight at each other. 

Like musicals, Lala Land is divided into ‘acts.’ Traditionally, the first act of a musical is always the more cheerful and positive act and then the later acts are more dark and emotional. This is clear in Lala Land through the use of different instrumentation. In the first act the instruments used are mainly high strings such and violins and brass. As we progress into the second act, the strings shift down to the cello and lower string and the lower instruments in the brass section in order to portray and enhance the darker and more difficult emotions present in the story as the characters begin to realise the fragility of their relationship and as it slowly begins to fray and fall apart. This echoes the movie itself. Without realising, the movie has gone from a light hearted, colourful movie that is almost dream-like in essence, to a more solemn, sober one that is almost unbearably too close to real life. This is enhanced by the sudden theme change in the music. Gone are the smiling girls in bright dresses dancing under the stars, and in comes Mia, in jeans and a t-shirt, crying in a room to a piano.

In conclusion, La La Land is a perfect example of music having a powerful impact on the understanding of an AV piece. If you were to watch this movie without the soundtrack, it would simply be any other love story or romantic comedy. The use of music and the fact that it is loosely based on a musical allows us to relate to the characters a lot more, and therefore their story affects us in ways it probably wouldn’t have done would the music not have been present. Sometimes, if an emotion is too large for words to portray, music can portray it for us. It can carry the weight of emotions such as love, heartbreak and the pain that goes hand in hand with said emotions. Without the music in this movie, you would not be able to feel the pain and heartbreak half as well as you could with, and then the movie simply would not be as powerful. Due to the music in La La Land, we are forced to feel the love and comfort these characters bring to each other, as well as being forced to feel the pain, sorrow and longing they both feel at the end. Without the music, this movie would simply be just another movie, but the music is what makes it so incredible and without it, it would not have been so successful.


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