Filmmakers try to avoid using more dialogue than required because it does not enhance the atmosphere or further the story, and I think music is the same. If music runs all the way through a film then there is little variation and it either becomes a distracting ambience or just a very long music video - which I do not think is very effective unless it is for a musical!
In real life we hear noises rather than music (unless we are plugged into our “i-plod” or some wee ned cruises past in his modified Corsa with the toones blasting), yet we still experience all kinds of emotions, so I do not see why films need music in order to create/enhance the atmosphere.
Music also gives the film a sense of rhythm and timing, which kind of makes the story’s progression feel pre-determined. This works fine for some genres, such as comedy (which has “comedy timing”) or adventure films (because characters usually plan what they want to do for the start of their adventure) therefore the musical rhythm mimics the planning that the protagonists are doing in their head, which gives the music a purpose and enhances the atmosphere. However in frightening situations people are scared because they do not know where they are or what is going to happen, which makes them feel psychologically unstable and distorts their sense of time.
For the reason that time is distorted in frightening situations I think that music (certainly any music with a rhythm or clear timing) is inappropriate for film genres like suspense and horror. People are usually scared in unpredictable situations because they focus on the unpredictability (and what their imagination is conjuring up) rather than trying to take their mind away from it to focus on more pleasant situations. Likewise I think a good horror film is one which forces the audience to peer into the silence or blackness and imagine what is going to happen, rather than prompting them to feel a particular emotion through music. After all people are only limited by their imagination, so silent/ambient horror films should be really effective on people who allow their imagination to reign free.
Horror films that rely on music and/or shocking imagery are less effective than ambiguous films because the viewer can hardly modify the experience, so if something does not shock it does not work, and these physical objects are also open to personal interpretation – which can cause a reaction that the filmmaker did not intend and which then ruins the film for some people.
To test this, try searching video websites for clips about your non-film-related hobbies and see how you react to particular forms of music on it… For example, I am interested in motorsport and modified cars; and if I search for something very specific but with global appeal I will find thousands of very similar videos. If I make a search for “Lewis Hamilton, Silverstone, 2008” I might get ten near identical videos with highlights from the ITV race coverage, but it is very likely that all the ‘authors’ who published that copyright material on the Internet will have added their own choice of audio track to ‘enhance’ the viewing experience… I would have happily watched their video with the ITV audio (or a type of rock music that I like might be just as good) so I would be inclined to watch the full video, whereas if the author has added rap music it will have to sound quite impressive if I am to continue listening to it, but if they have added a terrible chipmunk techno rave cacophony I am probably going to abandon my search regardless of how amazing the video footage is! It may have been the author’s favourite music and they may have found it to be a perfect match with the video, but I have a completely different interpretation of their choice of music – and this differing personal interpretation ruins the viewing experience for me.
Some readers may find the link between people’s interpretation of a type of music to be of little relevance to their interpretation of a film soundtrack, but I am merely using it as a common analogy for how people interpret things in different ways, and why I think it justifies my desire to make the music in my film as minimal as necessary…
The type of film soundtrack that I use in my graduation film (which has a suspense/horror element) will obviously affect different people in different ways, but I think a lack of music is the most suitable option. From my cinema experiences I feel that many audiences feel uneasy watching a quiet/ambient film in the cinema, and although they may not appreciate this type of soundtrack (just like I do not appreciate chipmunk techno rave) the ‘silence’ will make the audience feel uncomfortable just like the protagonist in my film. The lack of music in my soundtrack will distort peoples perception of how long the film goes on for, which again imitates the perceptions of the protagonist as she explores the spooky old mansion. And finally the ambient/minimal soundtrack allows the audience to imagine the horrors that may or may not be lurking in the dark, which should be much more effective than the audience being forced to anticipate them coming (as happens with the full orchestral score in The Shining).
For an example of how well a horror/suspense film works without music, watch Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. There is very little music in this film, and all the main terror scenes are only audible from the squawking of birds.