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Why the Right Song Matters: ‘The Social Network’ Case Study

Jesse Eisenberg and Joseph Mozello Play Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz in The Social NetworkCreative Commons License photo credit: newscred

At some point we’re all caught doing it: scouring through piles of music looking for a song.

But not just any song — the song. The perfect song.

The piece of music that will bring the audience to tears, or make them fall out of their seats laughing, or simply twinge their heart strings in just the right way.

Music has such a profound effect on videos that finding the right song — even for a simple sequence — is a crucial task. Chosen poorly and a scene will fall flat. Chosen correctly and the scene will retain an emotional resonance that’s unforgettable to an audience.

Case Study: The Social Network Soundtrack Music

Today we’ll look at the music from the film The Social Network, a movie nominated for five Academy Awards in 2011 and awarded the Oscar for Best Original Score.

While composing your own score akin to the haunting music Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross achieved is a hurdle (that’s why we give you music for free!), we can at least get an idea of the ability of music to change the mood, tone, and pace of a video, movie, film or media project.

An Important Change for the Soundtrack

In the original script for the movie, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin placed a note for music to play in the opening sequence. This is significant only because screenwriters rarely decide what music, if any, plays in a finished film unless it is closely tied to the subject matter.

Later, when asked about the simple line, Sorkin replied the song he had in mind was Paul Young’s cover of “Love For The Common People.”

His theory behind this choice was to channel the old John Hughes movies of the 1980s — movies like Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Uncle Buck — all films that treat teenagers and their problems with the utmost seriousness.

By recalling the themes of Hughes’ films with musical recognition, Sorkin was prepping the audience to expect a certain type of movie. A movie that had tones of adolescene, big-world problems, and, in a way, Sorkin set out to subvert the cheesy ho-hum expectations the John Hughes movies suffer from.

But like any Hollywood movie, when the director becomes attached, a lot can change. When David Fincher was named to the project he immediately began to impose a style of his own onto the film.

One of the major decisions Fincher made was to hire Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails to compose the score. It was a bold move and, honestly, not many were sure how it would turn out.

Fans of the movie will agree that as soon as the haunting opening theme “Hand Covers Bruise” starts playing, it was a smart choice by Fincher. The dark, brooding hum covered by a sad, yet whimsical piano, perfectly suited the movie. It was complex, it was deep, it was emotional.

Changing the Music and Changing the Tone

So, were the two pieces of music that different?

You can decide for yourself by watching the opening sequence of the film scored with both pieces of music. First up is the sequence with Aaron Sorkin’s original choice of song:

[youtube video=”-ZUcDCjLA-8″]

For comparison, here is the song “Hand Covers Bruise” from the finished film:

[youtube video=”P9cgYvkaSU8″]

The change between the two pieces of music is quite drastic.

On one hand, in Sorkin’s version, you have a light-hearted pop song full of vocals, synthesized drums, and layers of instruments. There is even an entire bridge section with brass instruments.

On the other hand, in Trent Reznor’s version, you have a piano instrumentation that lacks any kind of musical structure save for a simple melody. It builds with anger but soothes with simplicity.

It’s important to note that had Sorkin’s version been used, the introduction would most likely have been edited different. But still — the effect of changing the soundtrack is profound!

Even Reznor was surprised by it’s effect saying, “The lights go down, the movie comes on. And I got goosebumps and I was like, ‘[explicative], we did that?’”

Why the Right Song Matters

It’s rare to find instances of tone changing so drastically in Hollywood motion pictures. Normally, to get a comparison like this, you have to perform it on your own while pain-stakingly looking for the right song.

But despite how difficult that search is, this case study proves that finding the right song is a fight worth fighting.

With Sorkin’s song, the movie would have been taken in a completely different direction and taken on a different persona. Whether that would have been good or bad, it’s hard to say.

With the composed piece of music, the movie became something else entirely. It adopted a tone of darkness, of complexity, of betrayal. Without changing any images, modifying any cuts in the edit, the entire emotional impact of the scene was shifted.

And that’s the power of choosing the right song — that’s why it matters so much.

How do you think Sorkin’s soundtrack compares to the completed soundtrack in the film?

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  1. first, thank you for the editorial…i have learned so much…i think the director was right in not using the song that the screenwriter has suggested…i have not seen the movie, so i really don’t know the flow of the story…all i know is that, it is about the creation of facebook…looking at the video, the setting is at nightime, and the main character in this video does not project a face that is happy, as if something worries him and he walked in dark roads…i think the first song(including the lyrics of the song) is not in harmony with the emotion that the video wants to project …unlike the second song, which for me enhances the emotion of worriness, darkness that the video exudes. as i listen to the second song(i think it should have been better if the video in the first song was also used in the second for the viewer to feel the impact of the song) you can feel the emotions that the video wants you to feel…again, thank you so much…since i started as a member here, i really learned a lot about music…to use WAV file instead of mp3 for better quality… the difference between diegetic and non-diegetic songs (i realized i could also use diegetic songs, to create something different than the usual usage of non-diegetic songs in my videos)…

  2. “One of the major decisions Fincher made was to hire Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails to compose the score.” — Atticus Ross is not in Nine Inch Nails. He has assisted in production on the last 3 NIN releases, and is part of How To Destroy Angels (which also features Trent and his wife Mariqueen). But, Nine Inch Nails is just Trent Reznor.

  3. TheJesus'Follower

    I would prefer to make an introduction with the first song because the second one makes me want to throw up, it is sad and obscure, not a good mood. In fact I think this movie was boring. It was too long and I couldn’t watch everything. Horrible.

    • I think your review of the second song is on point and I believe that is exactly the mood they were going for. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the film — I thought it was excellently crafted — but not everyone likes everything :-) thanks for the comment!

  4. Just informational re: your narrative. Methinks you got a bit confused and inadvertently created an interesting name mash-up: David Fincher and Atticus Ross became the Main character of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch. Specifically you stated, “While composing your own score akin to the haunting music Trent Reznor and Atticus Finch achieved is a hurdle…” The Atticus Finch reference struck me because I just closed in performing in a stage production of that Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and Gregory Peck film novel and I’m a former English teacher. Overall, however, your tutorial is excellent!

    Thanks for doing this!

    • Ah! Good catch. Fixed it now :-) thanks for pointing that out. It is kind of funny how instead of the name being wrong, it came out to be one of the most famous literary characters.

  5. Information here is great!! Like to see more “How To’s” like this. The site is easy to navagate and your samples are good. Are the Free downloads at the top quality? I downloaded a couple of the .aiff files and they see to be a little muffeled. Other than that things look good! would like to see some offers on full musical orchestration which could be used in more serious productions.

    thanks leo

    • I’m glad you like the how-tos! There will be a new one every wednesday peppered in with the new music, so keep checking back!

      As for the quality of the songs, the WAV files are the original files sent to us by the composer and we use that to make AIFF and MP3 versions. So, if you want to best quality we can deliver, it is the WAV format.

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