Role of background music in Films  
Salil Chowdhury

"Nobody really knows, at least I don't know the role or the purpose of
background music. But, it is correct to say that background music used thoughtfully and correctly brings life to a film".

The title of my article may sound rather serious but what I will be saying is simple to comprehend. I am not addressing the experts that is because I am not an expert, and secondly I compose music for ordinary people like my mother, brother, sister, wife, friend etc.

I have been associated with films or as they say with "cinema" and I always felt that the background music is more important that the songs. That doesn't mean that I am ignoring the songs. It is true to say that songs give a film its life - but if there is anything which is like the soul of a film then that is the background music.

When you watch a film you are using both your eyes and ears. Background music complements a large part of what you hear. While watching a film you may not always be conscious of the background music but the background music can make a scene much more effective (it can also make it less effective). Background music can be defined as an interpretation of the feelings in a scene.  In other words, it reflects or translates the visual images musically. But, there are times when it is not possible to complement a scene with music. We then become subjective. The composer’s own feelings are reflected in his background music.

The famous composer Hans Eisler was once asked to compose music for an anti-fascist film. There was a scene where a fascist general was captured by the freedom fighters. The general was badly hurt and appeared very weak and he was given blood in a hospital for the guerillas. The reason he was being kept alive only because only then they can get all the information on the enemy's movement from him. Obviously the scene was very serious and tense. What would be the music for this scene ? Hans Eisler says that he did not compose suspense music - instead he composed victory march, that is because it was a victory for the masses. So, what was expected was not really expressed in the music. This is what I call subjective, in other words, what we heard was the personal musical expression of the composer's feelings.

That was about subjective/objective side and now comes the perspective side. In other words, to evaluate the scene whose perspective and judgement should we use ? There was a scene in B.R.Chopra's film "Kanoon" where the killer comes in and stabs a businessman dead who was holding a glass of milk. In the evening the body had been lying around in the room when a cat enters the room through the open window and starts drinking the milk. A burglar was walking down the road smoking a cigarette. He was quite pleased to see the open window and the room looked dark, so he climbed up the drain-pipe and entered the room. He could not see anything in the room so he started walking slowly feeling things around him. As soon as the cat heard the footsteps it jumped out of the window and toppled the glass of milk. The burglar slipped on the toppled milk and fell right on top of the dead body. Looking for something to hold on he felt the knife-handle sticking out of the dead body and gripped it. He realised then that he was on top of a dead  body and his fingerprints are all over the knife-handle. He panicked and tried to climb down the drain-pipe. Just at that time two policemen were waiting there and they caught him red handed.

What could be the background music of this scene ?

The question here is about the perspective or point of view. From whose point of view we should be watching the scene ? The audience knows that there had been a murder but the burger doesn't know that, the police  suspects the burglar and had seen him climbing up the drain-pipe but we are not sure if the police knows about the murder. The burglar who was quite pleased to see the open window has different opinion and lastly the film director who obviously knows all these events and has his own point of view.

So, the composer now has to decide from whose point of view he should compose the background music ? This obviously would depend on his own feelings and judgement. On combining  and evaluating all these different point of views I decided the music should reflect the very mixed feelings.

To start with the businessman did not know but the director knew. The question here is that something dreadful is going to happen but should we let the audience know that ? I discussed this with the director and decided not to let the audience know. We then looked at from the audience perspective. I translated the shock caused by the murder into music - then to hold on to the tense situation I used only the cat's meow. Then we looked at the burglar's perspective - he was quite happy when he discovered the open window and started climbing up the pipe - so I held on to that time using some light music. But as soon as he entered the dark room we arrived at the audience perspective - in other words - "what will happen now"? A feeling of suspense and as soon as the burglar discovered the body the music stopped - for a few seconds. Right then the full orchestra screamed loudly  to express the burglar's panic and fear.

As soon as the burglar started climbing down the drain-pipe we went back to the audience perspective. The audience is waiting in suspense again with the feeling "now he is about to get caught" and expecting the burglar's arrest and as soon as he was caught we went back to burglar's perspective. We expressed his fearful surprise into music.

This is what I referred to as mixed perspective.

There is another perspective which does not depend on any kind of background music - in other words music becomes totally irrelevant. Suppose there is a scene where a wife just lost her husband and at the same time you see a loving couple sitting on the river bank singing love song. May be this song is used in the background as an irony.  

Besides all this there are so called incidental sounds which have been used quite successfully by many film directors. For example - our Bimalda (Bimal Roy). When the heroine in the film "Bandini" was trying to poison someone , he used the bright light and the sound from some welding from an adjoining automobile workshop as the background music. I think no music could have expressed that effect and the reaction.

Here I remember Satyajit Roy's "Pather Panchali". As the sweet seller is arriving he had brilliantly used simple children's melody on a one-string violin (Ektara) to create the right atmosphere. Besides this he had used the insects dancing on the pond to express the happiness of the leading lady beautifully. This was obviously a joint achievement by the film director and the composer.

We will now look at the role of silence or quiet moments in a film. We need them both to create the right background. How long the silence would continue before sound or music comes in to make a scene effective will depend on the joint feelings of the film director and the composer.

Frankly speaking nobody really knows, at least I don't - what is the role or purpose of background music. But, it is correct to say that background music used thoughtfully and correctly brings life to a film. We can use numerous types of sounds or music for a particular scene - on the other hand total lack of sound or silence can lift a scene to new heights.

We have all been experimenting for a long time. Ultimately though the success of background music is dependent on the audience. However, it is true that background music, be it the silence or music can be very valuable to  the film.

While watching films with various types of audience I continue to feel that I am learning everyday.

Can't really say more than that.

Salil Chowdhury

Published in Bengali weekly magazine "Desh" in 1971.

Translated by Gautam Choudhury fron the original Bengali article "chalochitre aboho songeeter bhoomika"