What I’ve Been Reading: A Review of “Meaning and Interpretation of Music in Cinema”


David Neumeyer, Meaning and Interpretation of Music in Cinema (Indiana University Press, 2015).
David Neumeyer (University of Texas at Austin) expands his significant contribution to film music studies with this magisterial volume, which is in three parts. In the first part, Neumeyer deploys a series of close readings of numerous film scenes to demonstrate that the sound track as a whole—dialogue, music, and sound effects (99)—is the proper object of study. This commitment is grounded in “vococentrism”: human voices dominate the sound track, just as human faces do the image track (100) (Vococentrism is obvious whenever music gives way to dialogue; without the human voice and human agency, neither film image nor film music would make sense.) Music supports film narrative, but editing and mixing, synchronization of sound and image, acoustical fidelity, and excessive expressiveness shape how one hears and interprets film music.
In part 2, Neumeyer crafts a series of close readings of Casablanca that utilize concepts outlined in part 1; the closing pages, in which Neumeyer considers sound effects, dialogue, and music in the final minutes of Casablanca, provide an outstanding example of what his consistent attention to the sound track as a whole can reveal about incredibly nuanced meaning in film.
Finally, in part 3, Neumeyer explores sound tracks that include J. S. Bach’s C Major Prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, or the prelude from his Cello Suite in G Major. He considers ideas about the domestic, nostalgia, and the pastoral embodied in these excerpts. Here he addresses the ideas of topic and troping while exploring how these musical excerpts embody a range of ideas about the domestic, nostalgia, and the pastoral. When characters on screen perform these pieces by Bach, simplistic oppositions between the diegetic and nondiegetic and empathetic and nonempathetic break down.
Throughout the book, Neumeyer summarizes and draws upon a vast body of critical work in film and film music studies and offers ways to understand scholars’ differently nuanced ideas about film and film music as a cohesive body of analytical and critical approaches. Numerous photographic stills and notated musical examples reinforce his arguments.
Highly recommended.


Review by Stan Pelkey (April 6, 2016)