It goes without saying that lots of music that is attached to TV shows, movies, or video games is often meant to supplement the visual aspect to whatever media we are presented with in our daily lives. If we’re watching a movie, the things that we’re hearing occupy roughly half of our attention (if we are to base that entirely off of the common five senses), and we obviously won’t want to be hearing dialogue or clothes shuffling the whole time, so music plays a critical role in a lot of what we see and do.
Of course, it isn’t as simple as throwing in your favorite rap album to a sitcom, because music plays with our emotions and subconscious a lot–meaning any thing we’re watching would have to also have music that helps us get into the mood we’re meant to be feeling at that given moment. A sad song to help us feel sad when a character experiences the same emotion. An intense battle hymn to accompany the climax to our favorite action movie. Whatever will help bring out the emotion that scene is meant to give us.
With video games, soundtracks often do their best to supply a bold theme, as well. Many good soundtracks are capable of evoking the feeling of the game just by listening to that music. An action game will typically have much higher tempo music than a story driven game simply by virtue of how it is meant to be played. Journey, a short and extremely simple yet abstract game, focuses entirely on exploration and the beautiful landscapes and art style. It has lots of slow, drawn out melodies played by violins and soft woodwinds. As far as I can recall, there is very little percussion throughout the entire soundtrack (timpani, usually, which itself adds a soft beat of its own). This makes the audience relax as they view for the game for what it really is. Journey is not a game to be won, but a story to experience.
Contrast this with my favorite game ever, Dragon Quest VIII, and you’ve got the blaring brass in the overture that screams “buckle your pants, we’re going on an adventure!” You’ve got cymbals slamming and drums pounding. Basically, the common elements of this soundtrack involve all the instruments one would associate with a classic Arthurian knight’s tale. Everything is loud and big, but not fast. This game has plenty of action, but really it’s about the world and seeing loads of different monsters and places. Lots of the music in this game is very “open”, with ascending notes that give the impression that a door is opening into a different world. It has plenty of strings, but here the strings play a harmony, for often it’s the brass that gets the forefront in these pieces.
With music that isn’t meant to be actively listened to, there are two super important things that are necessary to help subliminally tell the audience what mood they should be in. Those things are tempo and instruments. The tempo translates directly to how fast you want your audience’s heart to be racing. With Journey, there isn’t a whole lot that will scare you. You might as well be reading a book on a quiet rainy evening. With Dragon Quest VIII, the tempo is often quick, but it gives the impression of a brisk walk down the country side or playing tag with some friends. With something more horror or action based, you want their heart to be pounding, as in “Oh no this demon is going to get me if I don’t run faster” sort of pace. If you set the tempo at that pace, your job is already halfway done.
The next time you’re binging Netflix or simply out at the movies, try to listen to the film score. Pick out the instruments being used. Think about how different that song would be if it was an electric guitar, or xylophone, or tuba playing that melody. It would feel out of place, sure, but chances are that sort of switch would work just fine in a different movie with a different theme.