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Setting the Score with Source

August 8th, 2014 by Jonathan Katz

A character flies down the street in a brand new hot rod.  He makes a turn at breakneck speed, burning some rubber.  All the while, we hear rock music turned up to eleven as he careens down the road.

But when he parks the car, that loud music is now much softer, and sounds like it’s coming out of the car radio!  How did this happen?  What’s the difference?

When music appears in a film, it falls into one of two categories: source and score.

If the music is coming from headphones, a radio, a speaker, even a human being’s mouth, it’s source music.  The characters can hear it, the audience can hear it, and its origination point is clear – it’s coming from somewhere within the world of the film.  Think of a character singing “Happy Birthday” or a couple dancing to music at a party.

If the music is not coming from an identifiable source, it’s score.  The characters can’t turn it on, nor turn it off, and they certainly can’t hear it.  The music is there to heighten the scene, highlight the story, or even help to connect a montage together.

“A Hard Day’s Night” begins with the Beatles comically avoiding screaming crowds of fans as they make their way to the train station.  It’s all set to the title song, but it’s being used as score.

How do we know?  The Beatles are running around without their instruments, and Paul isn’t even with them!  He’s busy hiding behind a newspaper.

The music isn’t coming from anywhere on screen.  It’s only there to entertain us, highlight the craziness, and introduce us to the film.

Not too much later, on the train, the Fab Four take a much-needed break from their capers and settle in for a card game.  It isn’t too long before instruments appear out of nowhere, and we get the second song of the film, “I Should Have Known Better.”

This time, we see the Beatles perform, and the music is clearly coming from their instruments and their voices.  Here, the music is source.  As further proof, there is a small audience of girls listening to them.  Since other people within the film can hear them, the music is source.

However, what makes “A Hard Day’s Night” so brilliant is that it blurs the lines between source and score.  Are the Beatles really playing that song on the train right now?  Those instruments did, after all, appear out of nowhere.  Yes, we can see John Lennon singing, but the scene feels more like a music video than a character breaking into song and dance.

In fact, it was this film that pioneered so many of the music video techniques that we’ve become used to.  Imagine that – the Beatles innovating things that were ahead of their time.  Who knew?

Check out the film and decide for yourself what is source and what is score.  No matter what you decide, the timeless tunes of the Beatles continue to inspire and entertain us all.

Visit the Hulu Summer Film School page to view A Hard Day’s Night and learn more about Soundtrack, Score, and Sound Design. 

Last comment: Aug 21st 2014 1 Comment