The Soundtrack of Life, Part 2: An Old Piano

It’s very exciting to be jumping into the first proper week of our new series, The Soundtrack of Life! For the first time, I’ll be examining music in the context of film to see what we can learn as we immerse ourselves in not one, but two of the most profoundly influential cultural and artistic media to have ever been discovered.

I’d like to start not with big questions of significance, but by looking at a more technical side of things. What about the role vibrations play in shaping our perceptions? In doing research on this, I found answers ranging from the scientific to the spiritual. Generally speaking, my inquiries along these lines point to the vibrations in music having some effects on the brain that remain puzzling to clarify or even classify. Perhaps we could focus more on the emotional effects that different instruments can induce through their various unique “flavors” of sound. Maybe, then, we can learn more if we see the contrast between the way they effect us when they’re used in films. In a film soundtrack, this is particularly important, because the composer wants the viewer not only to feel a certain way, but to somehow connect those feelings with what’s happening on screen.

Let’s take the piano, for example. Ordinarily, a piano that is well-tuned produces notes that are clean and relatively distinct; an out-of-tune one has a kind of plinking warble. The first instrument can be said to have a sort of crisp, mathematical quality that can appeal both to the intellect and to the soul. Meanwhile, the second piano conjures up a sense of age (even decrepitude). Where we might see the one in a way that is respectable or poignant in ways we can’t articulate, the detuned instrument demands a conscious response. For instance, let’s look at this clip from The Godfather:


Certainly, we are pulled more into an older time, but that dissonance makes us more aware of what’s going on – the turmoil of the Corleone family is eloquently mirrored by the slightly “grimy” sound. One could imagine a stressed-out mob boss sitting at these keys, the dust of disuse and disrepair being disturbed in the process as the instrument, ordinarily for show, is used for the first time in years…just like the Corleones are facing real pressure for the first time in years.

Old piano

(image by Till Westermayer)

You can see that it’s not a straightforward affair to put these kinds of connections into words, but this wouldn’t be one of my articles if I didn’t try, English major that I am. I really hope you’ll stay invested in this series and keep an eye out for part two next week!

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Richard Lyne

Richard is an ACU graduate who was graduated summa cum laude from Abilene Christian University's honors college with a major in English and a minor in business administration. He hopes to return to school for an MA degree at some point, but is currently managing a coffee kiosk at the local grocery store in Denton, Texas. He has written for the Appetizer since spring 2015.

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