{Sound & Film} Aaron Copland on the Functions of Film Music

Mr. OsCarter | 奧斯卡特
3 min readAug 14, 2020


Aaron Copland / photo from IMDB

Aaron Copland (阿隆·科普蘭), the American film score composer in the 1930s, believes that film music can support the storytelling on the screen, but need to be “make sense”. Referring to his collection of essays Our New Music, no matter how dramatic and successful the music is composed, composers should make sure to connect a good implication between music and the motion pictures.

Copland (2010) insists that “music must be as secondary in importance to the story being told on the screen” (p. 86),

it can only use as supporting the story plot in the screen, and it is always in a subordinary position. Hence, moving images must be put in the first place, whereas the film soundtrack was a passive device to support the visual medium, in order to present the narrative.

Copland (2010) lists five functions of film music and three reservations about music scoring.

In general, the five functions are

  1. Establishing time and place
  2. Underlining characters’ interiority
  3. Providing neutral background filler
  4. Building continuity
  5. Creating dynamic shaping and giving a sense of closure

On the other hand, three reservations refer to the use of

  1. Idiom
  2. Leitmotif
  3. Mickey-mousing.

About the 2nd function (underlining characters’ interiority), film music is similar as the traditional theatre music, which illustrates a dominant feeling and serves to intensify emotional impact in the film (Copland, 2010), such as applying love theme to emphasize a romantic meeting.

Also, music can counter to the mood of presenting images to surprise the audience. For instance, placing a dissonant chord in the middle of the sentimental scene can halt the audience immediately (Buhler, 2019). The aim of placing a counter mood is to “steal the music in” (Copland, 2010, p. 87), for avoiding audience to aware the entrance of music suddenly.

About the 2nd reservation (leitmotif), Copland questions that leitmotif is only a patchwork of music, composed mechanically without enhancing the audience’s understanding. When two leitmotifs announce alternately to match the switching of a theme in the scene, the rapid change of leitmotif causes a breathless atmosphere in music. It turns to be a negative approach because the breathless musical statements mess up the acoustic role on underlying the ideas of the scene.

Although Copland agrees leitmotif is an easy way to pin a motif on characters, music should represent broadly to connect and underline the idea of the visual pictures (Copland, 2010). Yet leitmotif turns to be an essential formula, in order to draw attention to an inappropriate plot structure in the film.


Aaron, C. (2010). Our New Music. In M, Cooke. The Hollywood film music reader (pp. 83–92). Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Buhler, J. (2019). Theories of the soundtrack (Oxford music/media series).

ATTENTION: This article is edited from my past university Honours Project.

Feel free to leave your comments below. Don’t forget to click the “follow” button for more latest articles!



Mr. OsCarter | 奧斯卡特