Film Scores and the Social Construction of Emotions (Lynch and Kubrick) – Part 2

Playing against our expectations and how music can twist our emotional construction and beliefs on scenarios of reality for its own ends.

 “Music is a “mirror” that allows one to “see one’s self”” – Slobada and O’Neill quoting DeNora (1999 p51).

I mentioned early about the dark to side to my argument but also how it backs up my initial ideas more effectively then the positive examples.  However due the rather dark nature of the films and particularly the scenes in the films where the score manages to subvert our expectations (and disturb us as the viewer by questioning our own social, emotional construction built up for years) I’ve left them till last.  When we are witness to violence in real life we associate the act of violence with various emotions.  Anger being the most common.  It is this basic rule of thumb that has lasted since the creation of audio-visual fiction and the idea of a melancholic (and often overly dramatic) score that has added to our general dislike of a violent reality (no matter how much we appear to enjoy it from the safety of our own homes in the cinema).

With this basic social emotion built up, it took quite a long time for film to work against this idea but when it finally did, the result was shocking and reaction was staggering.  The first and best example to look into is Stanley Kubrick’s seminal A Clockwork Orange.  The film follows a group of “Droogs” (slang for young gang members) who are “Ultra-Violent” and engage in robbery, violence and sexual assault.  Rape is something that we as people have strong views on anyway and can be rightfully seen as a detestable act of cruelty.  We haven’t needed any emotional re-enforcing on this subject simply due to extreme nature of the action.  And yet A Clockwork Orange does something different to what we expect and subverts our expectations to the point of physical discomfort (or more to accurately the score does).  The scene in question shows the gang rape of a writer’s wife but it is in its score that we find the most interesting elements.  It must be pointed that there is no non-diegetic music till the very end of the scene.  Instead what we get is Alex (the main Droog) singing the wonderfully happy song Singing in the Rain (from the Stanley Donen film of the same title).

This isn’t trying to tell us, the viewer, to see the act of rape in a new light.  Nor is it trying to soften the scene for the public.  What the score does is actually challenge our emotional identity and instead of re-enforce our beliefs like the previous two films have done; it tries to break them down therefore creating a highly disturbing effect on the audience.  Jung describes a similar effect calling it his “Fourth endopsychic factor”.  “Here the shadow-side, the unconscious side, has full control so that it can break into the conscious condition” (1977).  This all sounds terribly dark but this is an exaggerated version of what I believe the musical score is attempting to do to and Jung’s statement is a more complex description of this emotional deconstruction we witness.  Sloboda and O’Neill mention this briefly at the end of their piece but never was dark side of it taken to such an extreme.  The music here isn’t part of any sort of emotional construction (and certainly would not be even vaguely social) but is the complete opposite of the argument.  It is the deconstruction of emotions and their original basis, proving not only that music is an influential cultural resource in the building of emotions but also showing a weakness in the initial essay of not choosing an influential (influential in the sense that it’s meant to manipulate) genre of music as the example to put the test candidates through.

Since A Clockwork Orange, filmmakers have used this technique often to add that extra quality of disturbia to their work.  The use of a piece of music associated with the more happy elements in life (and often popular music too, perhaps even unconsciously turning acts of violence and rape into something commercial) is slowly becoming the norm.  It is however not having the opposite effect on the acts as logic should dictate.  The association made makes the listening to of the songs in question more disturbing outside the contexts of the film rather than making the acts of violence and rape in reality seem less disturbing.  This is simply because the use of this music merely makes us question our whole emotional identity rather explicitly change it.  This ties back to the first films as well as it is the vital point that Sloboda and O’Neill make (also quoting DeNora) that the music is just one factor in the whole process of emotional identity construction and it will therefore take more than just one factor to tear down years and years of movement, change and progress.

Again Jung demonstrates this though not talking about film music but simply the effect I believe the film music is causing.  “To have overwhelming emotions is not in itself pathological, it is merely undesirable.  We need not invent such a word as pathological for an undesirable thing because there are other undesirable things in the world which are not pathological, for instance, tax-collectors” (1977). This doesn’t however offer comfort to the viewer who will still find the clash of emotional associations in the scenes disturbing.  This isn’t the only odd use of music in the film and not even the only emotion it’s used to create.  “A version of this Rossini piece in A Clockwork Orange is used precisely for its comic effect” states Donnelly in his The Spectre of Sound (2005).  This shows that Kubrick not only wanted to use music to make us question our morals but also perhaps even our very own sense of humour.  If proof were needed to the effectiveness of this technique, directors have used it time and time again after Kubrick and even the modern directors of today have experimented.  David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is a brilliant example of this with the film itself even taking its name from the song it subverts (though Donnelly states “Song tie ins have led to films being named after songs” implying it was for financial as well as creative reasons.  This point is however up for debate).  In fact the whole film itself is one big example of this sort of psychology where the dark and disturbing nature of the small town where the film is set only becomes apparent at night but even then, the music the local people listen to stays the same and the seemingly innocent songs by the likes of Roy Orbison and Bobby Vinton come to represent the violence of a highly disturbing character played by Dennis Hopper.  Kim Newman states quite correctly that “Lynch stages marvellously evocative and subtly chilling sequences in which Isabella Rossellini and Dean Stockwell respectively find new nuances in Bobby Vinton’s title song and Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams””(2011).  It is these “new nuances” that seek to deconstruct our emotional reaction and are the reason why the sequences themselves are disturbing to watch.  Again the violence in real life won’t be any less upsetting because it’s portrayed on screen with happy music.  It’s the onscreen violence and clash of associations that will again make the scenes (and actually in this case the whole film) disturbing proving again that Sloboda and O’Neill where correct by default.


The modern day equivalent has seen David Fincher using Enya’s Orinoco Flow to soundtrack the potential torture of the main character in his remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo which gives the same effect (though interestingly Fincher has used a normal and melancholy score for the various scenes of rape in the film which perhaps signals a movement of full circle back to scoring techniques similar films like the ones previously discussed.  This however could also have something to do with the increased pressure from the media to portray violence as specifically bad with the recent slew of violence for entertainments sake films).  Kim Newman mentions A Clockwork Orange when talking about an equally disturbing film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.  “The Strongest and hardest sit through scene is a videotaped home invasion which, when the image become static because Henry has dropped the camera on its side so he can kill an interloping son, recalls A Clockwork Orange (1971).  As Henry and Otis blankly review the tape on their television McNaughton relies on an audience’s instinctive wish to turn away from the material” (2001).  Rather interestingly the whole film is scored in a sinister way but due to the dating of the electronic music, it can have the same effect as using a generic happy piece of music (and Newman wrote this after the score had had time to age).

Overall this use of music in film is the perfect example of social emotional construction (or destruction as has been explained).  This is the opposite of the effect DeNora has described and that Sloboda and O’Neill have described but in being so, it actually reaffirms their argument far better than actually trying to show how music is used positively as a cultural resource.


“- For the human psyche is the womb of all the sciences and arts” – Jung from Modern Man in Search of a Soul (1944)

Looking at the examples given one can only agree whole-heartedly with the views of Sloboda and O’Neill.  Though my initial criticism of not taking into account a more controlling genre of music still stands up, the overall ideas of music being one of the many cultural factors in the social construction of emotions is a strong one that can be used to explain a large number of scoring techniques in film and the reactions we give to viewings as well as increased emotional awareness of everyday scenarios.  I have merely covered two emotional regions in the scores (and not even delved into those particular regions in any major detail) and found their views to be largely accurate when it comes to music in film.  The collective process of the cinematic experience itself is almost like the emotional building of life in a microcosm with the audience (which is in itself a social environment) being given an emotional construction, that would in a normal scenario take years to form, handed to them on a plate for a few hours at a time.   A similar thread of argument comes from Malcolm Budd’s psychology and the emotions.  When talking about ideas from Kendall Walton he states:

It cannot be literally true that we pity Desdemona, or are horrified by Oedipus’s self blinding or are envious of Orpheus’s musical talent, or are distressed by the death of Anna Karenina – even if there should be tears in our eyes when we read the account of her suicide.  For as we know, these people never existed.  But – this is Walton’s thesis – it can be make-believably true that we experience pity, horror, envy or distress or the events in which they participate.  For when we experience a representational work of art we can use the work of art as a prop in a game of make believe in such a way that, make believably, we experience a certain emotion and, make believably, the object of this emotion is something represented in the work of art” (1992).

This experience repeated over and over again (even when the social aspect is perhaps taken away with the increase in home viewing options though this doesn’t matter too much with Sloboda and O’Neill stating that “It is a significant feature of emotional feelings and displays that individuals experience to everyday musical scenarios that we have outlined that although they may occur in solitude, their point of reference is the relationship between the music user and others”.) must logically have some sort of effect on the way we view our lives (with Sloboda and O’Neill warning that “Most of us are not aware of the fact that our musical activities are completely enmeshed in a social and cultural world.  Our engagements with music leads us to “forget” or become unaware of the grounds on which our feelings are based”) and one cannot help but feel that the ways in which the films are scored must have an effect that we take into our everyday lives even if, after years and years of prolonged exposure, we are still monumentally unaware of its effects.

Adam Scovell

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