Picture the legendary “I’m flying” scene from Titanic, with young Jack tenderly cradling starry-eyed Rose against the ocean breeze as Celine Dion croons in the background. Now imagine the same scene, but with Rose soaring through the waves of the Atlantic to the well-intentioned twangs of “Cotton-Eyed Joe”.
It’s no secret that music holds the incredible power to drive visuals, leading audiences exactly where they’re meant to go when utilized properly. The overall path and trajectory of the song, or “arc” as we like to call it, is how music is able to set the tone so effectively. In fact, the arc of a song is so important that we trademarked the word for it.
The arc may may meander through a journey or start out low and calm, only to rise up in a swell of inspiration. Whatever the path it takes, crafting a well-defined arc will help one understand the story, theme, or character involved in a song. “If you think of the start of a song as point A and the end of the song is point B, arc describes everywhere that the song goes in between those two places. And kind of how it gets there, as well,” explains Bob Werner from Marmoset's Original Music Team. “Some songs are a line and blast from Point A to Point B without a lot of dynamics or change. That can work really well for certain styles of music. Others are incredibly dynamic, rising and falling with massive crescendos and huge resolutions.”
“It's also about feeling. Volume can also be a big part of it. It's all about the additive nature of it. How many instruments are playing at once and how loud they're playing are some variables in what the arc is doing,” adds Madeline Dowling, Marmoset Music Supervisor. In other words, the arc acts as a sort of roadmap, guiding your song to where you want it to go. Without a clear direction, it’s all too easy for the message of the song to get muddled up and hopelessly lost.
It can also be a vital aspect to consider when in the realm of music licensing. Short form projects, like in advertising for instance, tend to seek out different arcs than longer form projects like films and shows. “Short form, particularly advertising, often want some sense of ascension, or build. Some excitement, tension or drama that builds behind the picture. It helps to tell a story really quickly. Films and television shows sometimes demand the opposite. They want something that's gonna be much longer and more drawn out. And maybe that arc is much more subtle or nuanced. It has little undulations, but not these massive peaks or massive swells,” says Bob.
All good and well for musicians, but what does this mean for filmmakers or producers?
“Arc helps to maintain interest and mash together the picture and story,” says Madeline. “The whole point of music in any visual media is to tell the audience how to feel about what's happening on screen. Sometimes that's a very literal representation of what's happening on screen, or sometimes the music is in contrast to it.” The right music and arc can make or break the picture, either amplifying the visual’s message or taking away from it. Therefore, it should be one of the most important considerations filmmakers or producers prioritize when choosing music. Understanding the arc of your project in both the macro and micro sense will go a long way in the effectiveness of the end product.
The potential for different types of arc is nearly limitless. The most important aspect is simply being intentional about it. “Most styles of music seem to work best when the composers are really intentional about the arc. If you want it to be steady, or if you want it be a straight line, really commit to that. Really be intentional about it. That way the points where you might momentarily break from that mold become really dramatic and exciting,” advises Bob. “ When it feels like it's carefully done with intent and crafted to support the arc, that shows. And I think your audience, whether they know it or not, will perceive that.”