In a Guardian article on The Hobbit‘s score, London Philharmonic percussionist Andy Barclay said:
“I always go to see films I’ve played on thinking, ‘I’ll listen out for that bit’; and then I get to the end and realise that I haven’t listened to the music, which is a compliment because you shouldn’t be. If you don’t notice it, then it’s probably been good.”
This is an age-old debate amongst us film music wonks, but Barclay’s comment gives me an excuse to revisit it today.
Barclay’s statement (“if the music is good you won’t notice it”) has been suggested by many people, including composers—and it’s simply not true. One of the greatest joys and thrills of moviegoing for me is noticing the music. I realize this is because I am obsessed with the art form, and listen to it almost exclusively (both “on and off the screen”). But plenty of people are equally obsessed with other aspects of filmmaking, and are constantly busy noticing the performances, or cinematography, or editing, or script. These are all fine crafts, the sum of which create a movie, and a deeper and more meaningful film-watching experience can be had when you start to notice the individual crafts and layers—just like noticing the nuances in your meal yields a richer experience with food.
Film music can draw unflattering attention to itself, take the viewer out of the moment, or be mixed improperly. But that just means it’s a bad score, or an inappropriate score, or a poorly mixed score. The mere occurrence of being noticed isn’t what makes it bad.
Really bad performances draw attention to the performance, as does histrionic acting. But really fine acting, if you’re paying attention, can be noticed and appreciated all the more for having done so. It all comes down to your perception, your education, and your “appreciation” of the craft.
The fruit of blissful ignorance of the crafts is “not noticing” them (and, believe me, I’m ignorant of many), and bad or badly scored music sticks out like a bad hairpiece. But “he who has ears to hear” will notice film music—the good, the great, and the ugly—and be all the more richly filled for it.