You’ve heard the overture and you were there for the piano interlude. But the Soundtrack of Life is only just beginning! Join me as I continue looking for those places where film and music intersect in unintuitive ways. Approaching this week, I reflected on my time as a violinist in my middle school and high school years. As anyone who knows me might be able to guess, I generally wound up in the “second violins” section. While all the real virtuosos got their kicks as the lead guitarists of our orchestral bands, we in the SVs accompanied their melodies with supporting harmonies (quite literally playing second fiddle). Naturally, there were days when I envied the first violins. It would have been a lot cooler, if beyond my skill level, to have been contributing the main violin sounds of whatever piece we were playing. Since that time, however, my understanding of composition has definitely increased, and I’ve come to learn the necessity of layering instrumental parts. Let’s have a look at an example with the following scene, which comes from the video game Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs.
Even without playing the game, this scene works marvelously as an example of how musical layering can bring cinematic visuals to an emotional crescendo; as the protagonist climbs towards his destiny, both the speech and the soundtrack escalate accordingly. But while finer details of the story have become fuzzier for me months after the game ended, this track has stayed with me ever since. I’d like to break down its components to try and understand why. If you will, follow along with this rendition of the piano track.
For almost twenty seconds, the main piano part is unaccompanied. It’s fairly simple and doesn’t convey a great depth of emotion. Over the next ten seconds, different notes complement the theme, stretching it in some different directions. Around thirty seconds, things really get interesting – a second, equally important piano part joins in. Now the first takes almost a secondary role; it provides rhythm and a constant musical motif while the newcomer has room to “improvise”, developing the emotional background of the first into a composite. Shortly afterwards, the first evolves into something of an arpeggio of notes ascending and descending – it maintains the original rhythm, but now it has license to experiment with the support offered by the second part. Violin sound effects are added to complement the main theme and provide extra backbone. Finally, the first part returns to the original theme, and the second rounds the piece out with more improvisation.
(image by Jorge Royan)
Orchestras, by nature, are built on the talented offerings of numerous individuals. Likewise, film is tied together by innumerable elements, whether under the broad headings of visual design, acting, or audio composition. And just as that ending scene would be incomplete without its compelling musical arrangement, that itself relies on the interplay of interdependent parts. When it comes to a holistic cinematic experience, particularly in soundtracks, nobody is really left playing second fiddle.