Audible Interiors: Music and Emotion in the Hollywood Film Score - The Avid Listener

March 16, 2015

Audible Interiors: Music and Emotion in the Hollywood Film Score

Stephan Prock (New Zealand School of Music) 

Music in film has the power to make audible the emotions, thoughts, and desires of characters on screen. During the silent film era, music was often continuously performed to convey the feeling of a scene because, though their words might be displayed on the screen, characters could not color speech with their tone of voice. The ability to synchronize recorded sound with images changed the way films communicated with audiences. Though the addition of speech was the most obvious transformation, the move to sound film in the late 1920s also established a clear distinction between what has come to be called diegetic, or “source,” music and nondiegetic music (also commonly referred to as the “underscore”). Diegetic music comes directly from within the world of the film, as when characters listen to the radio or dance on stage. Nondiegetic  music, on the other hand, comes from a place outside the world of the story. Although many movies blur these two categories, the distinction allows us to describe more precisely how music works in film. 

The diegetic performance of “Black Sheep” by Envy, Scott’s former girlfriend, with the band Clash At Demonhead. Scott (Michael Cera) realizes that the band’s bass guitarist, super-vegan-powered Todd, is the third evil ex of his current girlfriend Ramona. In order to date Ramona, Scott must defeat all seven of Ramona’s evil exes. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010), UNIVERSAL PICTURES.


The conventional emotive functions of nondiegetic underscores matured during what some call Hollywood’s “Golden Age” (or in “Classical Hollywood Cinema”) from the 1930s to the 1950s. The soaring orchestral scores of composers like Max Steiner (Gone with the Wind, 1939) and Erich Korngold (The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938) are typical. It may seem paradoxical that nondiegetic music plays such an important role in illustrating a character’s interior life when the music comes from outside the world of the story. But nondiegetic music can work just like an omniscient narrator in a novel: it has the supernatural authority to tell the reader/viewer what a character is thinking or feeling.

Max Steiner’s score for Casablanca (1942) is a great example of how both diegetic and nondiegetic music can bring a character’s interiority to life. Curiously, Steiner didn’t write the most well-known piece of music in the film, the song “As Time Goes By.” It was composed by songwriter Herman Hupfeld for a 1931 Broadway show. Even more surprising are the reports that Max Steiner hated it. But because the scene in which the song appears as source music had already been filmed and could not be reshot, Steiner was forced to use it in the underscore as a musical motif that refers to the relationship between Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman). Nobody at the studio realized that the song itself would become so popular that the old 1931 recording by singer Rudy Vallée would become a top hit of 1943.1

“As Time Goes By” sung by Rudy Vallée. Recorded by Rudy Vallée and his Connecticut Yankees for Victor in 1931. 

Part of the reason for the forgotten tune’s surprise popularity is the scene during which it’s played: the moment when Ilsa says to the pianist, “Play it Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’ ” After some additional prodding, Sam starts singing the song. The camera cuts to a prolonged close-up of Ilsa’s face, and we see tears well up in her eyes. A powerful emotion is signalled—one crucial to the entire story—though it passes unexplained. Suddenly Rick angrily enters the scene. Sam stops playing, Rick sees Ilsa, and Steiner’s orchestra picks up the tune in the underscore. Drawing the melody out in a much slower tempo and shifting to a minor key darkens the mood and focuses the audience on the emotional tension between Rick and Ilsa—even after Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and Captain Renault (Claude Rains), with his light-hearted tone and manner, enter.

The first appearance of the song “As Time Goes By” (composed by Herman Hupfeld) from the film Casablanca (1942), WARNER HOME VIDEO.


Throughout the film, Steiner continues to use the originally diegetic music—the song, now familiar to the audience—over and over in the underscore to great emotional effect.

Another wonderful example occurs at around an hour and seventeen minutes, just before Victor departs for the underground meeting of the French resistance and Ilsa confronts Rick. Victor and Ilsa are in their hotel room, and he asks if she was lonely in Paris. She answers, “Yes,” and the underscore plays Rick and Ilsa’ signature song, “As Time Goes By.” The solo violin suggests her feelings of loneliness in Paris before she met Rick and the sad state of that relationship now. Soon after, as Victor says to Ilsa “I love you very much,” we hear Victor’s hymn-like motif, reminding her (and us) of his noble idealism and her deep admiration for him. The juxtaposition of these two motifs also suggests the conflict Ilsa feels between her duty to Victor and her love for Rick. It is the musical underscore that provides the emotional and narrative explanation of the dramatic context, which might otherwise be ambiguous. 

Victor asks Ilsa if she was lonely in Paris. Casablanca (1942),WARNER HOME VIDEO.


Though no longer the only, or even dominant, approach to film scoring, the orchestral underscore remains an important means of illuminating the otherwise invisible world of character interiority. John Williams’s emotion-laden motifs for many of his films—The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Schindler’s List (1993), Lincoln (2012)—illustrate the enduring power of the underscore to help us identify with what characters on screen are feeling. In Hollywood cinema, at least, sometimes music really is a window into the soul.

For Discussion

  1. Identify another scene in Casablanca where the song “As Time Goes By” appears in the underscore. What is the emotional tone of the scene? How does the appearance of the song in the underscore illustrate the interior thoughts or feelings of the characters on screen?

  2. Identify a scene from a film in which the music played a crucial role in portraying a character’s internal thoughts or feelings. What particular aspects of the music contribute to this portrayal?

  3. Why has the employment of the specifically orchestral underscore continued to remain such a powerful tool for projecting character interiority in film? In what genres of cinema does it seem to be particularly suited and why?

1 The ability of films to give added value, especially emotional or sentimental resonance, to songs led in the 1950s and 60s to the widespread practice of intentionally using movies to launch and promote hit songs, even whole albums; for example, in a film like The Graduate (1967), whose songs by singer/songwriter duo Simon and Garfunkel (“The Sound of Silence,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “Scarborough Fair”) were featured in the soundtrack album that reached the number one spot in 1968.


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