• Helmut Calabrese, Ph.D.

Temporal and Spatial Perception in Film Music

Temporal and Spatial Perception in Film Music

“The presence of music in film is illogical and paradoxical on several grounds” (Cohen, 2013).

Why do we need music in film? The film does not have an orchestra that part of the visual image nor does the film show the cameras and crew that appear in the audience’s vision. Nothing that represents the production of the film is manifested in the motion picture. Yet, the creation of a motion picture, has over the course of more than a century, adopted evolutionary processes that ameliorate the gesamtkunstwerk—total work of art. We have reached a point of scientific cognition where we recognize the human brain translates audio/visual information into semantic meaning. This essay explores temporal and spatial perception in motion pictures in a non-empirical examination. In this essay, the words sound and music are used interchangeably.

Since art manifests life, creating the gesamtkunstwerk is a natural process of the filmmaker’s vision. Motion pictures allow us to represent life, to record life, and to encapsulate life in a time binding manner (Korzybski). What are the elements of reality? Answering this question furnishes us the data necessary to understanding how reality is represented in motion pictures as it has evolved to its present state. From the still pictures, silent films, talkie films and films with music, at each level, the filmmaker takes what he believes to be elements of reality and “paints” them on the motion picture canvas.

The elements of reality are the phenomena that humans can perceive through their senses. We see, we touch, we hear. These senses are the primary entrance points to our consciousness, our human interfaces. If we are in room that is completely silent, completely dark, and we are completely devoid of any sensory information, we still recognize life because of our breath and thoughts. In this scenario, we can be totally centered on ourselves. Our perception of time is suspended, and reality as we know it from the extraneous world is also suspended. In this experiment, we are replicating life as it was when humans lived in dark caves. Our imbedded genetic memories process perceptual information when we experience levels of reality unconsciously. In this experiment, if we introduce a sound such as the air coming through the vents, our perception of time changes. The sound of air introduces a perception of time that was absent in total silence. Sound has temporality; it has the ability to begin and end. The “presence” that sound creates catapults us out of our dormant silent state into the “living” state. Music creates this “presence.”

How does film music create temporal presence? Music is a temporal art form. Music is formed by a sequence of rhythmic “events” that form it into a unified whole. Music utilizes several elements to create a sequence of time. One element is meter. Meter as pulse assists in the division of time to force the entrance, anticipate and delay sounds. Anticipation in music can mirror anticipation in motion picture’s character movement, camera movement, lighting, and speech. Sound creates the bridge that allows the audience to make the “ontological leap”(Heidegger) that is necessary to complete the vicarious “audio visual contract” (Chion) which they accept by engaging in experiencing motion pictures. When words fail, and our sight deceives us, sound enlightens our path to perceive reality. The ability of sound to create a perceptual structure such as anticipation adds to the gesamtkunstwerk.

Another example of the human, environmental and camera behavior is the repetition. The human may manifest repetitive thoughts and movements. Sound/music can instill in the audience the emotive power to replicate repetitive phenomena. Sound/music can utilize an ostinato to create this “presence” and engage the audience to participate emotionally through the use of the ostinato sequence.

Motion pictures are spatially two dimensional. But human sight is three dimensional. Sound/music adds this depth through its unique properties.


Cohen, Anabel j. Film Music and the Unfolding Narrative. “Language, Music, and the Brain,” edited by Michael A. Arbib. 2013. Strüngmann Forum Reports, vol. 10, J. Lupp, series ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 978-0-262-01810-4.

Korzybski, Alfred. Science and Sanity. Institute of General Semantics, Englewood, NJ, 1958.

Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. Perennial Classics. 2001.

Chion, Michel. Audio Vision. Columbia University Press. 1994.

Copyrights © 2020 Helmut C. Calabrese. All Rights Reserved.


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