Summer School Spotlight: Music and the Animated Film

Release Date: 6/6/2012

Summer school classes are a great way to pick up some extra credit hours, and they often focus on topics that might not be offered at any other time. The classes cover in 3 to 6 weeks what would take 16 weeks during the regular semester. In this spotlight, we'll take a look at one of Dr. Sharon Gorman's courses, MUS 3013 - Themes in Film Music: Music and the Animated Film.

Music course helps students develop an appreciation for the aural experience

As the closing music for the animated movie Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind began to play, the students in Dr. Sharon Gorman's class listened intently as they jotted down some last minute notes. The movie ended, and Gorman turned to them and asked "What did you think?"

As it turned out, Joe Hisaishi's score wasn't at all what the students had expected in an animated film. The composer's minimalistic approach - especially his extensive use of silence throughout the film - was very unfamiliar to them, and at times, they said, the movie score actually made them uncomfortable.

"I think that that's good for them to know," Gorman said afterwards as the students gathered their things to leave. "I think they're used to music being always in the background and not really listened to. But now that they're forced to listen to it, and hear, the silence is anxiety provoking. "

Listening (and hearing) is what Dr. Sharon Gorman's movie music classes are all about. Her most recent class, Themes in Film Music: Music and the Animated Film is the latest version of these movie-themed music courses she began teaching several years ago. The concept for the courses sounds simple - watch the selected movies and analyze the music as you watch. But what her students gain from the courses is much more complex and lasting. Gorman said the classes have turned out to be the perfect way to not only teach her students about music, but to teach them to become better listeners. Not just better listeners of music, she says, but better listeners in general. "I think you start [learning to listen] with music," she said, "because that's the thing we just don't pay attention to. We take it for granted."

The inspiration for the classes came after Gorman began looking for an alternative to the traditional music appreciation course that was listed in the university catalog. "What was here when I started was music appreciation," she said. But Gorman felt that her students didn't seem to "connect" with that class - they seemed to think that it was about "classical" music, and they just didn't like classical music. "I taught it two or three times before I just said there has to be a better way to teach people to appreciate music than forcing them into this general class where most of them don't even have an interest in it," she said. She found herself thinking if only she could teach a course where the subject was something they were already interested in. That's when the idea for the movie-themed courses came to her. "It may not be that they love classical music," she said, "but maybe they love movies. And if I have that 'in' I can show them that actually they do like classical music. They just don't think about it as classical music."

And thus, began a series of not-so-traditional music appreciation courses which have become immensely popular with Gorman's students. Over the years, her movie music courses have examined different types of music from a number of films. One semester she focused on music from The Lord of the Rings films; in another class, she asked her students to explore the beautiful melodies that John Williams wrote for the Star Wars films; in yet another class, they explored the music associated with heroes and villains. But for this summer course, Gorman said she decided to explore a new type of movie - the animated film. "You can basically cover almost all the different types within animated film," she explained, "even though it's a little bit more restrictive than regular film."

For the first week of this course, Gorman began with movies that are familiar to almost everyone in this country - classic movies from Walt Disney Studios. "We started with cartoons, so we looked at like Mickey Mouse cartoons," she said. "Then we moved to Fantasia. After Fantasia we did Beauty and the Beast, which I think has been their favorite of the whole thing (should have saved that one for last!). Then we did [The] Lion King. It's another example of a Disney film, but done by a different composer."

The second week took the students into less familiar territory, films with modernist scores, which may use electronics or use weird combinations of sounds, dissonance - things that would create some discomfort in the listener, Gorman said. They watched Tim Burton's The Corpse Bride, listening to the fanciful score by Danny Elfman, and identifying elements he pulled in from different musical styles. They watched Coraline and Secret of Kells, both featuring scores by French composer Bruno Coulais. And finally, they watched Fantastic Mr. Fox with music by Alexandre Desplat, who would later go on to score the final two Harry Potter films.

In week three, Gorman focused on anime films, including Princess Mononoke, a Japanese animated historical fantasy film by Hayao Miyazaki. The music for the film was composed and performed by Joe Hisaishi, the same composer whose minimalist score for Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind had made the students feel so uncomfortable. "We talked today about minimalism…about taking just a small piece of music, just a few notes, and repeating it over and over again, and how this particular effect doesn't always tell you how to feel," she said. "Because it's only a small bit, often it's you watching and listening that creates the idea of what it means. It doesn't mean anything in and of itself." She wasn't really surprised when the students expressed their discomfort with these scores - after all, they're very different from the movie music they're used to, such as the wonderful lyric melodies that John Williams created for the movie Star Wars. "It definitely has a meaning and has an emotion behind it, but the minimalism makes you do the work," she said.

For every film they watched, Gorman gave the students a worksheet where they were asked to answer specific questions as they watched the movie and listened to the music. She also created a handout for them, figuring out what musical terms they need to know in order to understand the music. "I try to keep that to a minimum," she said, "because they're not music majors for the most part." What's important, Gorman said, is not knowing all these musical terms, but understanding the basis for the melodies they're hearing. "I don't want them to have to understand 'major,' 'minor' and all different types of stuff, but I want them to have an idea if you have a different basis for your melody," she said. "I want them to be able to write intelligently about what they're hearing. If they don't understand how rhythm works, or know the typical way that we describe things…. So when we're talking about pitch we're talking about high and low or loud and soft. You don't talk about higher or lower dynamics."

"Yesterday when we started anime," she said, "we talked about the difference between Japanese melodies and western melodies. I took them to the keyboard in the next room, and played a pentatonic, or a five-note scale, which is what a lot of Japanese melodies are based on, versus your do-ray-me scale." She said she then asked them, "How did that sound? If you're going to make melodies based on this set of notes, they're going to sound different."

While this pentatonic scale was clearly new to her students, Gorman said they weren't as familiar with the music in the Disney movies as they thought they were either. We all know the famous songs that play throughout Beauty and the Beast, right? Or do we?

"When we did Beauty and the Beast, there are what we call leitmotifs in there - melodies that are associated with particular characters or ideas. And they had no idea - they knew the songs from Beauty and the Beast, but they had no idea that he could take that melody and use it without the singing through other parts of the film in order to indicate how a person was feeling or what was happening even though they weren't saying anything," she said. "Of course this is used not just in animated films, but in a lot of other films as well. So for them, it was like 'Wow! There was a lot of stuff to listen to that we didn't even know was there!' They pick it up really fast. By the third day, they were like 'Ok…yeah…I hear that…I hear that.'"

Ultimately, it's the recognition of things like these leitmotifs that Gorman wants her students to grasp - things that will help them to develop a real appreciation for a movie as they watch. Or rather as they audio-view the movies, because, as Gorman said, "We talk about 'audio-viewing' rather than watching, because really, you don't just listen and you don't just watch…they come together."

She said she often sees the changing attitudes most when she reads the student responses to the online discussion forums she uses for the classes. "I pose a set of questions," she said, "[about] the issues that have come up with this type of film." She said that some of the discussions have gotten pretty lively. "Some people would say 'Well, I like the way that works' and someone else would say 'No! That's horrible!' They would fight back and forth about what works and what doesn't," she said. But Gorman said she lets them disagree, and doesn't take sides in the debate. "I told them it's what you hear and what you think…I'm not going to tell you what's better music," she said.

Helping her students recognize the superior uses of music in a film -superior uses of pop music, superior uses of classical - is what Gorman said she is aiming for with her analysis sheets and discussion forums. "I'm not telling you that you can only have classical music in order to have a film done well…that's not true," she said. "But it's also not true that just sticking a popular pop song is necessarily going to work for the film." ("Unless it's John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, right?" she said with a mischievous grin, "because that's perfect.") She recalled a recent discussion her students had on the forum about the use of a song that was popular when the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was made. "It's music by Burt Bacharach, a really popular composer of the time." She shook her head. "And, you know, they're cowboys! They're train robbers! You know? And 'raindrops keep fallin' on my head' - I mean, you know, it doesn't work. It doesn't work!" She laughed. "I didn't say that outright, but they said it…they caught it. They said, 'first of all, it's not raining, and this really bothers me.'"

Gorman thinks that as her students develop their listening skills and deepen their appreciation of how music is used in movies it will fundamentally change the way they watch (and listen) to films. She said there are always one or two students every term who make a point to come talk with her about a recent movie experience. "There was Sam McFall this term," she said. "He had taken Lord of the Rings with me, and he then he went back and took Movie Music this term. At the end of the course, he said, 'Do you have any other analysis sheets for other films that we didn't do in class, because I kind of want to make this a hobby.'" So Gorman said she dug through her files, found some analysis sheets and put them out on Moodle for McFall. "After the last Harry Potter came out, he came and said, 'Did you hear the new Harry…' - he didn't say 'did you see,' he said 'Did you hear the new Harry Potter?'" she said with a laugh. "And we talked about it! We actually had a discussion about what worked and what didn't."

Gorman admitted though, that her students come back to complain sometimes too. "They say 'We can't just watch a movie anymore, and so we annoy our friends," she laughed. "They think somehow, if you're thinking too much, it's not fun anymore. But thinking is fun!" Gorman said. "Anna Mendenhall had taken Movie Music with me and she was complaining that they were getting together on the weekend, a group of friends, to watch some Grade B horror movie. They were picking out leitmotifs. She told me, 'I couldn't just watch the horror film…it wasn't even a good horror film!' It's funny… but it warms my heart!"

"That's what I'm about!" Gorman gave a big smile. "I think that [this is] a generation that hasn't been taught to listen, in any way. They're used to filtering out sounds. You don't listen to everything - there's too much going on - so you don't listen to everything or you'd go crazy I suppose. But music should be listened to. And you can be manipulated by music as easily as by anything else, but if you realize it, it has to have your permission first."