Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

Corporeality, Musical Heartbeats, and Cinematic Emotion

Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

Corporeality, Musical Heartbeats, and Cinematic Emotion

Article excerpt

Film music's emotive power - in particular its ability seemingly to engender a state of suspense or even 'fear' when watching a horror movie - is well known, and is both recognised by spectators and exploited by filmmakers. We know, for instance, that turning down the volume may serve to alleviate some of the emotional symptoms experienced when watching a film on television, and that blocking one's ears in the cinema is far more difficult to accomplish than the less effective method of averting one's eyes.1 Yet, perhaps because of the familiarity of the effect, comparatively little attention is paid to this phenomenon in the rapidly growing field of film musicology: rather, studies are often content to posit some magical and ineffable link between so-called 'nondiegetic' film music and emotion, and to sidestep interesting philosophical or cognitive issues.2 In this article, then, I want to confront this phenomenon and tackle some of these issues head on, challenging many of our assumptions about the narrative status of film music and sound on the way. By invoking philosophical models of cinematic fiction offered by Kendall Walton and Gregory Currie, I will explain, firstly, what is happening when we think we are experiencing an emotion in the cinema as a result of film music or film sound, placing particular emphasis on 'fear'. This approach, broadly characterised by the notion of 'perceptual realism', will suggest that a number of comfortable givens in film music theory (an assumed division between the nondiegetic source of music and the diegetic source of sound; and even the concept of nondiegetic music itself) can be questioned, thus moving the study of film music and film sound further away from the psychoanalytical tradition of much 1980s discourse, and reconstituting it within the context of philosophical studies of cinematic fiction.

Secondly, with this broader context in mind, I will suggest how filmmakers can use the sound of a heartbeat, or a musical representation thereof, to realise their narrative aims in the realm of horror and suspense. This more specific task will invoke empirical research undertaken by Arnie Cox - which suggests that there is a strong relationship between our response to music and our own ability to produce sounds (2001) - to propose a 'heartbeat hypothesis'. In combining the philosophical context of Walton and Currie's theories of cinematic fiction with the empirical implications of Joanna Bourke's statement that fear is fundamentally about the body - about its 'fleshiness and precariousness' (2006: 8) - the hypothesis suggests that we are not actually afraid when watching films like The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982) or Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), but are merely simulating an imagined, fictional emotion, the sonic expression of which we situate in the film's diegetic world. Moreover, the presence of the heartbeat helps us achieve this by encouraging us to equate a fictional character's endangered corporeality with an awareness of our own sense of bodily precariousness. Once this hypothesis has been defined fully, I will use it to explore and interpret a number of film scenes that feature the sound of heartbeats or heartbeat rhythms in their scores; furthermore, I will posit that there are wider implications of this heartbeat hypothesis for the way we respond emotionally to music in non-cinematic contexts that are of interest to musicology in general.

No-Thing to Fear?

In considering the notion of 'fear' in the cinema, a number of fundamental issues about our relationship with the cinematic medium are raised, issues that have been discussed in existing philosophical studies of film. In his 'philosophy of horror', Noël Carroll, for instance, asks how we can by frightened by what we know does not exist; and why anyone would ever be interested in horror if it is so unpleasant (1990: 8). These age-old and pertinent questions have been asked of fiction as long as it has existed. Aside from Carroll's own thoughts, important responses to the first question can be found in the writings of Schopenhauer and, more recently, Gregory Currie and Kendall Walton, while a consideration of the second is implicit in Hume's study of tragedy, or in the aesthetic judgements of Kant, Edmund Burke, and Schopenhauer concerning the sublime. …

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