Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Cinematic composition in relationship to Music Theory - Part I

Please note: In this article I will be using a very "unusual" way of comparing Music Composition Theory concepts and guidelines in relationship to those of the visual arts (specially visual composition). Throughout my years at college I have found that from a very general point of view, most music theory and harmony concepts can be translated in some way to visual arts. Everything from consonance and dissonance, rhythm, harmonic function, melody, form, to dynamics and articulation can be in some way translated into the visual arts. This article does not intend in any way to cover all the aspects associated to music theory or visual arts, as they are very broad and specific fields that cannot be fully covered under the scope of this article.

First of all, we need to understand that neither light nor color by themselves are going to make a shot look good; in order to achieve a very "cinematic" shot (one which conveys a sense for mood while supporting the story) we need to take all the variables such as composition, camera movement, on-screen movement (actors, objects, environments, etc..) and create a harmony with light and color that tells us the story by itself. To put it simply: all the elements that compose a shot must be in tune with the story and complement it, not lead us away from it.

Here we can make a relationship between the basic music concept of harmonic function and the elements of the shot, since we can take all the elements (from big to small) and direct them towards the story (diatonic key), while taking in consideration the proportion between the relationships of the elements. We may change the key of the shot (as in key of A, Em, F, etc..) or even a variation of it (melodic minor, natural minor), but the elements always respond to it, and cannot be isolated. Also, the story establishes the scale, the space in which we can move, and all the elements must move within this space in order to define it properly, but this rule as any other rule can be broken (it's best to understand it as a guide, and not rules!).

In the case of consonance, it can be simply defined as a harmony whose tones complement and increase each other's resonance (pleasant sound that "grows" with each other), think of it in the visual arts when the different elements push towards the same concept or idea and make it even more evident (or even give it an "accent").  On the other side, we have another very interesting concept in music which is dissonance: when harmonies push towards another sound because they feel "unresolved" or unbalanced. This generates a feeling of "push and pull" which in the end generates movement within a section. Visually, this can be understood as when some elements diversify and complement the main ones in ways different from the original, giving a sense of increased scope and understanding of the created world. A shadow of a villain which appears on the side of a shot (incomplete, we can't see him)  it is not the main focus of the shot, but it increases our perception of the space and since it's not fully visually represented, and we want to move towards it to complete our understanding of it.

When it comes to rhythm, it is already a filmmaking concept for editors, which can help generate a resonance with the mood of a given part of the story (rhythm of shots in sequence), but it can also be internally considered on a shot. Just as advanced gesture drawings consider the visual rhythm of a body pose or object, this can be applied to our shots to add dynamics and articulations that enhance the qualities that are already there and brings to light what wasn't so evident (it might be good or bad depending on the desired intention).

Melody and form work together as a the concept on which everything revolves around and we work around this, it's structured in a way that generates motion, progression and evolution of the main parts. Our story moves in time, it evolves towards the grand finale, a final resolution which in the end is just a broad superior dissonance (remember when I mentioned that we have a feeling of "unresolved", unbalanced, "incompleteness" that moves towards a resting position); the story settles after an uneven turn of events.

As a side note, it is very interesting that the works of composers such as John Williams and Richard Wagner before him, incorporate the concept of leitmotif (a theme or concept which is associated to a character, situation, place, object, etc... in terms of semiotics: a sign or symbol). This leitmotif can be slightly modified or varied and still be associated to its end subject. This opens a world of possibilities since we can now generate ideas and relationships within the mind of the listener (or viewer) and give new meaning and dimension to our works. It also can generate identification, which if used properly could create a very powerful link with the viewers emotions. But more on that later (on part II).

In Part II I won't just be covering more specific aspects of many of what has been mentioned here, but also give more insight at the last concept mentioned, and perhaps one of the most thrilling: the leitmotif as well as chord progressions and cadence.

(I will post Part II of this article when it's ready)

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