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Dave Grusin on the Psychology of Film Music


Referring to the effects a score has on a film's audience, Dave Grusin comments, “it's not always a conscious thing, but works in the subconscious too."  He feels that the function of a score is subliminal and psychological, adding, “I believe there's a mystery about the emotional response a listener gets from a piece of music. I can't define how it works, but it's there in some way.”

As a young person Dave Grusin's creative and discerning mind was already interpreting the relation of the feelings film scores evoked to the action on the screen.  He was able to observe and absorbed the almost indefinable ways that music could affect one's thoughts about images and dialogue. “How you respond to a Mahler symphony will certainly differ from your reaction to a Donna Summer record, but in both cases something happens to you. You're maybe not even aware of it.”  

The  film composer is responsible for drawing out these more subtle emotions.  “What we try to accomplish in film scoring is to channel those responses in an organized way, so that an audience can be moved in one direction or another without actually knowing why.”  According to Dave Grusin, “that's the most functional use of film music.”

He also feels, “that's the magic of film-making. We're all dealing with atmosphere, and we try to enhance it for an audience. They don't have to be aware that, 'oh, he just used a square wave and modulated it with eight LFOs.'  They shouldn't be aware of it; they should just be made to feel, in some kind of manipulative way.

Thus, music can say things in a film without using words.  This can work for or against a composer's design, and Dave Grusin has seen this happen.  “It's kind of dangerous because of that. Frequently it says things you never intended it to say, and it gets in the way of the intent of the director.”

One director who never found Dave Grusin's music undermining his conceptions is Sydney Pollack.  They have made nine films together (including “Three Days of the Condor” (a psychological score if there ever were one) and “Bobby Deerfield”), and once they completed their first in the early 70s, there have been only two Pollack-directed motion pictures for which Dave Grusin did not do the music.


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Photo credits:
1 - Claudia Thompson