Incidental music is the subtle, when it’s done well, track in the background, behind the dialogue and sound effects in a television program, a radio show or, my primary focus here, a movie. Ideally it should barely be noticeable, punctuate important moments in the story, and provide a slight cue for the emotional reaction of the audience. Of the many ways that modern directors (or editors) ruin movies, overplaying incidental music is among the most obscene.

Incidental music is one of the clearest insights we have into what the makers of the film want us to think and feel in reaction to what's happening on the screen. Sometimes the director wants to feel something we don’t want to feel. Often when this happens, they'll turn up the volume on the strings in the background. Most often this happens at the end of the film, when the hero has done something allegedly noble and pseudo-wise, and the movie wants us to think: wow, what a stud, wouldn't it be nice if I was him.

Notice the incidental music! When you’re watching a lame movie, in particular look out for action films (especially summer blockbusters) and stupid comedies, take a moment to notice when the score decides to get loud, often when characters are hugging or kissing or looking deeply in one another's eyes, or shaking hands or acknowledging common ground, or cursing their fate or plummeting to their doom or leaving the burning building, or evacuating the leaky submarine or evading the approaching space armada or firing a black arrow at a dragon, or escaping Jason or escaping Freddie or escaping Pinhead or escaping Adam Sandler, or doing any one of those thousand movie things we're expected to consider to be kick-ass, or admirable, or funny, or tragic, or cruel. Here’s a hint! They aren't, always.

Don't think what you’re expected to think! Rebelling against incidental music is the first step towards becoming movie savvy. I've noticed that my own attitudes towards movies began to change around the time I started hearing the incidental music. Once you notice how badly they want you to weep, applaud, cringe, whatever, you'll start to lose your respect for bad cinema. You'll start to appreciate good cinema. You'll begin to see the difference between them.

Art should not act upon you, it should interact with you. Fight the music! It doesn’t work if you can hear it.

Music that is composed specifically for use in a play, film, commercial, radio or TV program, computer game, ceremony or other such event is called incidental music. Music not written specifically for such purposes but nevertheless used in these ways can also be called incidental music.

The use of music in dramatic productions goes way back to early Greek plays, but truly significant use of musical elements did not appear until the 16th century or so. Music for the plays of Shakespeare and others continued to be written into the 19th century by composers such as Schubert, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn.

Since that time, incidental music has steadily increased in popularity and importance. In the early 20th century, strong partnerships developed between playwrights and composers, a trend set by Ramuz and Stravinsky with "A Soldier's Tale", and continued by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill with "The Threepenny Opera" and other works, the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, and the modern musical plays and films. Indeed, the relationship of music, acting and dance in 20th century stage and screen musicals is so intimate that one finds it difficult to call the music incidental in any sense. In many cases, the music has become more familiar and appreciated than the play or movie to which it is incidental.

In today's world, audio-visual media have taken center stage in entertainment and advertising, and the production and licensing of incidental music for programs and commercials on TV and radio, and computer games has become a major industry. Remember the millions of dollars paid by Microsoft some years back to use just a few seconds of a Rolling Stones tune in the Windows introduction campaign? Indeed, we now have what might be called incidental video in the form of music videos produced as a backdrop for popular music.

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