The King’s Speech: film, music and emotion


The other night we watched a DVD of ‘The King’s Speech’. Throughout the film Bertie – unwilling King after his brother abdicated – struggles with a stammer and the need to make frequent public speeches.  He’s eventually helped by a very unorthodox voice therapist and in the final scene, he has to give a speech anouncing Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, with Logue (his voice teacher) in the background silently coaching and encouraging him.  It’s a touching scene, and the background music is a piece I’ve always loved – Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, 2nd movement.  Putting aside the irony of using music by a German composer in this context, it’s made me ponder about music and about film on a number of levels.

If you saw a film with and without the music, it would surely be two different experiences, and that makes me wonder if the lack of sound in still photography is one of its drawbacks (or one of its advantages?).  Although I know very little about music and wouldn’t consider myself any kind of enthusiast – in the sense of buying loads of CDs, going to concerts, and so on – I do find it affects me on a very deep emotional level.  Often, when I leave a film, it’s the ‘background’ music that stays with me, long after my memories of the film itself have faded.

Although this is surely true of many people, there are many others who don’t even seem to notice the music used – my husband, for example, rarely registers the music and he’s much more of a music enthusiast than I am.  There is a possible explanation for this: if you’ve ever studied or read anything about NLP, you’ll know that we process our experiences through our senses and that one of these senses is usually dominant in any one person.  (of course, we use all of them, but we tend to favour one in particular)  Taste and smell are difficult to work with, so NLP limits things to the three major sensory channels: visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic (feel/touch).   Unsurprisingly, given my passion for photography, my dominant sense is visual, with auditory some way down the scale.  However, Dawna Markova wrote about how the less dominant sensory channels can access our unconscious and our emotions more easily – it’s as if they have a direct path in there, without having to be sifted through our intellect or consciousness.

It may be this that creates such a strong link for me between emotion and music. The day after I saw the film I thought I’d like to hear this piece of music again but without the associated scene.  I found it on Youtube and clicked play.  Suddenly and without warning, tears were streaming down my face.  For a few moments I couldn’t understand what was going on, but then I remembered that at the time I’d first discovered this piece of music I was deeply unhappy in a difficult marriage, but one that I hadn’t completely given up hope on yet.  The music has always sounded like a combination of huge sadness overlaid with hopefulness to me, and this is what I felt at the time.  I’d played it then, over and over and over again, and hearing it now was vividly bringing back the abyss of unhappiness I was falling into at the time.  There are other pieces of music that act similarly on me: for example, I love Philip Glass but find his music so disturbing, in some way that I can’t articulate, that I simply can’t play it very often.  In this instance it isn’t linked to any particular experience, there’s just something about the music that gets to me.

Going off at a slightly different tangent, the video I found on Youtube enthralled me in a different way again. It’s a graphic version of the music that creates visuals of each instrument and note.  I’ve never been able to read music, although I tried to learn many times, but seeing it made visual in this way gave me an appreciation and understanding of this piece that I never had before.  It seemed to me I could ‘read’ it in a way I never managed with traditional notation, although obviously traditional music notation is visual too (and, in fact, imparts more information than this format does).  I’ve always found I need something visual in order to be able to listen properly; if I try to listen to a radio talk my mind just wanders off on its own path and I miss most of it.  But give me a related image or chart or something to look at while the talk is going on, and I can keep my attention on it.

Getting back to photography, something I’ve seen suggested more than once is to put on headphones and play music while you photograph, allowing the music to guide you in any way that feels right.  I’ve never tried this, but it would be an interesting exercise to play several different types of music while photographing in the same place, and compare the results.  We often rather foolishly try to separate out the senses when we talk about them, but in fact the input from each sense strongly influences the others.  Still photography lacks sound, and usually, tactile presence, limiting its input to one sense only.  Does this also put limits on its power to affect us?