AbstractHave you ever seen a great movie and then rushed out and bought its soundtrack? Did the soundtrack bring back the thrill of an action chase? Or the sadness one of the movie's characters felt? Music is a big part of the movie experience. It intensifies the emotions in scenes so that you do not just jump when that hairy spider comes around the corner, you scream! In this music science fair project, you will find out if happy, sad, scary, and action scenes in movies use music with the same qualities.
Kristin Strong, Science Buddies
To determine if movie scenes of the same type are accompanied by music with similar characteristics.
Do you love to watch scary movies at Halloween? Or holiday films in December? Or maybe you enjoy the thrill of fast summer action films? Whatever type of movie you love, music is an important part of the movie experience. Music adds layers of richness to the visual experience of a movie, and it enhances the storytelling by increasing emotions or by increasing tension in a scene. Scary things feel scarier with the right music! Happier things feel happier, too. Music is also highly structured in time, so it can help keep the audience feeling the same things at the same time, or convey the passage of time. Sometimes music is central to a movie, becoming almost as big as another character, as in the science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey, or in the children's animated feature film The Lion King. Other times, the music falls into the background, and simply becomes another element of the movie experience. Either way, music has an influence on how you experience the story, action, drama, setting, characters and emotions of the movie.
There are several different musical components that affect how a piece of music sounds to us overall and that can be readily analyzed by the attentive listener. The musical instruments involved can play a key role. For example, percussion instruments (such as drums or cymbals) make a very different sound than string instruments (such as violins or cellos, like the ones shown in Figure 1, below), horns (such as trumpets), or people singing. The pitch of the melody — whether it is high-pitched (like the songs of birds) or low-pitched and deep sounding — can also affect how the music makes the listener feel. The music's key (such as if it is minor or major), tempo (or speed of the music), and volume are other musical components that can each convey different messages to the listener.
Figure 1. Musical pieces that mostly use string instruments, like the ones shown in this orchestra picture, can give the listener a different experience than musical pieces that primarily use other musical instruments. (Columbiamusicartist, Wikimedia commons, 2014)
In this music science fair project, you will investigate if filmmakers consistently use the same musical characteristics, like musical instruments, pitch, key, or tempo, to accompany scenes that are of the same type. Does minor-key music often accompany sad scenes? Does music with a fast beat often accompany action scenes? Try this science fair project to find out!
Terms and Concepts
- Musical instruments
- How does music influence the experience of a movie?
- How is a song characterized?
- How does a minor key sound compared to a major key?
This source provides a tool for measuring tempo in a song:
- AnalogX. (2001). TapTempo. Retrieved October 13, 2008.
This source provides a list of musical terms, with definitions:
- Ferrara, L. (n.d.). Glossary for Music Appreciation. City College of San Francisco. Retrieved May 1, 2014.
This article explores how minor and major keys sound to people from different cultures:
- Ball, P. (2010, January 8). Does a minor key give everyone the blues? Nature.com.. Retrieved October 7, 2014.
Materials and Equipment
- DVD player
- Children's full-length feature movies with instrumental or classical music soundtracks, the songs do not all have to be acoustic. (10)
- Optional: Timer or stopwatch
- Lab notebook
- Select 3-4 scene types to investigate, such as action, scary, happy, or sad scenes.
- For each scene type that you choose, find at least 5 examples from ten of the children's full-length, feature movies. It is unlikely that you will find all scene types in one movie, so you will need to gather scenes from different movies until you find five examples of each scene type. For example, one movie might have a lot of action scenes, so you might be able to get three action examples from that one, and find two more examples in two other movies. Another movie might have a lot of scary and some action scenes, so you might be able to find both action and scary scenes from that one. Each example scene should be at least 20 seconds long, and should be accompanied by music, preferably instrumental or classical music.
- In your lab notebook, make a data table like Table 1, below, for each type of scene you want to investigate. This means you should have 3–4 data tables total, one for each scene type. Table 1 has been made on action scenes as an example.
- Try to figure out which main instruments are being used to accompany the scene. For example, do you hear mostly the banging of drums or the clash of cymbals? If so, write down "percussion" in a data table like the one below. If you hear violins or cellos, then write down "strings." If you hear big brassy sounding trumpets, then write down "horns."
- Listen to the scene again and see if you can hear rising or falling scales. A rising scale is like the sequence do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do, while a falling scale is the reverse. When you listen for a scale, you do not have to hear a whole scale to say you have found a rising or falling scale; it can just be part of it; for example, do-re-mi. Write down your observations in your data table.
- Listen again and focus on the melody. Is it high-pitched like the songs of birds? Or low-pitched and deep sounding? Record your observations.
- Listen again and see if you can tell if it is in a minor or a major key. A minor key might sound sadder or more serious to you, while a major key might sound more cheerful. Examples of minor-key songs are "Summertime" from George Gershwin's opera, Porgy and Bess , or "My Favorite Things" from the movie The Sound of Music . "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" is an example of a song typically sung in a major key. Write down your observations about the key for each scene in your data table.
- Listen again and pay attention to the volume of the music. Is it quiet or loud? Write down your observations about the volume in your data table.
- Finally, count out the beats per minute, or tempo, of the scene. You can tap or clap out the beats yourself for 10 seconds and then multiply by 6 to get beats per minute (bpm), or you can use a software tool to measure the tempo. Record the tempo you measured.
|Example Data Table for Action Scenes
|Action Scene 1
|Action Scene 2
|Action Scene 3
|Action Scene 4
|Action Scene 5
|Analysis of All Action Scenes
|Dominant Instrument(s): Examples are percussion, woodwinds, horns, piano, strings, or vocals (singing).
|Rising scales? (Yes/No)
|Falling scales? (Yes/No)
|High-pitched melody? (Yes/No)
|Low-pitched melody? (Yes/No)
|Minor key? (Yes/No)
|Major key? (Yes/No)
|Slow tempo (less than 70 bpm)? (Yes/No)
|Fast tempo (greater than 110 bpm)? (Yes/No)
- Repeat steps 4–9 for at least 4 more scenes (of the same type of scene) so that you have analyzed at least 5 scenes total for that scene type.
- Repeat steps 4–10 for the other scene types you want to analyze. Be sure to use a different data table for each different scene type.
- When you are done making your data tables, analyze each one. For example, when you look at all the action scenes that you evaluated, is there a dominant instrument that was used in every action scene, or in nearly every one? Was the tempo consistently fast in all the action scenes you evaluated? Did you see rising scales? Falling scales? Or was there a mix of both? Record your analysis in the last column of each data table.
- Look at and compare the last columns in each data table. Do any features stand out? When filmmakers make an action scene, how would you describe the instrumental or classical music that they use to accompany the scene? How about the music for scary, happy, or sad scenes?
Ask an Expert
- Test some volunteers. Play short segments of music from different types of movie scenes for volunteers and ask them what type of scene they think the music accompanies. How accurate were your volunteers? Is there any overlap between types of scenes? For example, did some of your volunteers think sample music from happy scenes belonged to an action scene? Or that sample music from a sad scene belonged to a scary scene?
- You could repeat this science project but try analyzing different types of classical music instead of movie soundtracks specifically. For some ideas on how to do this, check out the Science Buddies post "Sounds Like Halloween."
If you like this project, you might enjoy exploring these related careers: