I was watching Once Upon a Time recently, and it was just not selling a death scene. It should have been a significant death, but I never much liked the character, writers frequently kill characters who have completed their plot arcs, and there was another character on-screen who was recently resurrected. How does the show deal with the lack of emotional resonance? Cue the sad music.
The music tells you how you are supposed to feel about the scene. It works best when it works with the scene, rather than trying to make the music carry all the weight. You can surely recall movie scenes with epic content backed by epic music, sad scenes backed by sad music, and so on where the song brings back the scene. An example of where Once Upon a Time does this well is with the Evil Queen’s leitmotif, which is not only good but also deployed at the right times to anticipate or celebrate dark deeds.
Around the same time, I listened to Christina Perri’s new album, and I would like to call your attention to the refrain in “Human,” particularly the difference between the first refrain and the others. As we approach the first refrain, the crescendo is building, the Mannheim steamroller is building up speed, and then it all stops. The vocals are left alone with a faint piano in the background. The song is establishing vulnerability at that point, and the music contributes by taking away all the tricks and leaving her unsupported. It subverts your expectations because you know exactly what the building music means at that point, except that it doesn’t. (You can immediately contrast that with the other refrains.) You can see a similar technique with Mitch’s solo here.
Some really powerful movie moments come when the director shoots the scene straight. Fight scenes get action music; brutal beatdowns work very well with no music at all. Don’t have a cut every second or two; make it a long oner, dwell on the moment. You need actors and writing that can carry the weight, but when you are used to all the bells and whistles, a scene without them stands in stark relief.
Gaming has fewer of these moments, but the one that comes to mind is when the puzzle boss stops being a puzzle boss. Maybe you fight the boss several times over the course of the game, or he has several stages, but the last one reverts back to the core gameplay. No more tricks, no more compulsory vehicle sections or stealth or being immune to your attacks except when you lure him into a trap then hit his glowing red eye; just a straight-up fight where you can use everything you have learned all game against an opponent who deserves it. And that is a great, freeing moment in which you feel powerful and competent and like you deserve to feel that way.