There are two main types of film music: diegetic music coming from within the scene where characters are playing musical instruments, at a concert, or listening to the radio; and non-diegetic, incidental music which primarily serves to cue film audiences’ emotional response.
Incidental music in film is motivated by the plot and designed to respond to, enhance, and interact with various aspects of mise-en-scène and cinematography. Filmmakers may license specific performances of classical or popular music, or they may commission pieces specifically composed for their films. Sometimes, characters in a film would play music, too.
There are many renowned film music composers who specialize in matching musical leitmotifs to films’ needs and narratives. Some directors work with the same composers on multiple occasions.
Steven Spielberg has worked extensively with John Williams (of Jaws, Star Wars, Superman, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park fame), Christopher Nolan works regularly with Hans Zimmer, Joe Hisaishi served as composer for more than 100 films, especially animator Hayao Miyazaki’s films (such as My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle), Kenneth Branagh has collaborated frequently with Patrick Doyle, Danny Elfman has composed music for sixteen of Tim Burton’s films, and Wes Anderson’s first four films were all scored by Mark Mothersbaugh.
Music and Racial Diversity
Composers and musicians from different cultural and racial backgrounds have also made important contributions to film music and made a lasting impact on not only various national cinemas but also Hollywood.
From 1920s through 1940s, Mexican composer Maria Grever had a strong presence in the male-dominated film industry. She studied with French composer Claude Debussy, and composed songs for many movies.
Chinese-American composer Tan Dun draws on Western and Chinese music to structure award-winning music. He received an Academy Award, a Grammy Award, and a BAFTA award for his score for Ang Lee’s 2000 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (listen to the soundtrack here). He also composed the scores for Gregory Hoblit’s Fallen (1998), Feng Xiaogang’s The Banquet (an adaptation of Hamlet, 2006), and Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002).
Lin-Manuel Miranda, a filmmaker and song writer of Puerto Rican descent, incorporates Hip Hop and Latin music in his composition. Renowned for his Hamilton and Oscar-winning Encanto, Miranda’s music will be featured in Rob Marshall’s 2023 live-action remake of Little Mermaid.
Music and Racial Stereotypes
It should be noted that film music can and has been racialized. Tropical music is invariably used for Latin American settings. Film studios have, for instance, appropriated generic Latin sounds and rhythms to either make “Latin America feel safe to Americans,” more romantic, or even more “dangerous,” as Josh Kun, interim dean of the USC Thornton School of Music, points out. “This idea that there would be one sound was a problem then and frankly, is a problem now. That one set of sounds becomes a sonic stereotype.” Read more about Latin composers in this NPR article.
Music can support (strengthen) or contradict (counterbalance) the image.
The final scene of Ed Fraiman’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2005) in the BBC Shakespeare Re-told series uses light music to support Puck’s lighthearted Epilogue. Puck delivers his Epilogue from a sun-drenched treetop. In this instance, the film music matches the mood and helps to tell the story.
Music Contrasting the Narrative
Film music can also play a more ironic role when there is contrast between music and the image. Counterintuitively pensive music, Radio by Marco Beltrami, accompanies shots of the launch and explosion of nuclear missiles in the final scene of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (dir. Jonathan Mostow, 2003). The song is available on Spotify. John Connor (Nick Stahl) survives the attack, with his future wife, in a bunker. He narrates the start of apocalypse over the peaceful music, which underscores Connor’s Pyrrhic victory, a victory that is tantamount to defeat because the “victor” sustains such a devastating toll.
Music Adding Irony to the Narrative
The musical soundtrack can cue comedic effects or frame a scene of otherwise hostile confrontation as a harmless, lighthearted interlude. In She’s the Man, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Viola (Amanda Bynes), Olivia (Laura Ramsey), and Monique (Alexandra Breckenridge) have an argument over their male love interest. This takes place in a polished ladies’ room at a country club.
Olivia confesses to Viola her crush on Sebastian who is in fact played by Viola, unbeknownst to any one in her school. (At this debutante luncheon, Viola is forced to present as Viola.) Monique, Sebastian’s girlfriend, overhears their conversation in the stall and joins the three-way argument.
The soundtrack, consisting of classical music, is initially kept at a volume, accentuating only key sentences, as they raise their voice. As they break out into a full-on physical fight, the soundtrack switches promptly to Georges Bizet’s overture for his 1875 opera, Carmen. The fast paced beats conjure images of toreros, Spanish bullfighters, in a ring. The music adds a parodic spin and ironic distance to what would otherwise be a shallow cat fight scene–women fighting over male love interests–in a chick flick.
The allusion to Carmen is quite appropriate in this instance, since the opera chronicles the downfall of Don José, a soldier who is seduced a gypsy named Carmen. Throughout history, Carmen has been regarded as a seductress, femme fatale, victim of patriarchy, and even feminist.
Similar to Carmen who moves relatively freely through different social spaces, Viola impersonates her twin brother Sebastian to cover for his absence from school and to realize her dream of playing soccer. In this instance, Viola is within a female-only space, the ladies’ room, which is traditionally regarded as a safe space for women. There are many possible interpretations of Viola’s going in and out of the act of impersonating her brother, ranging from one focusing on female empowerment to to condemnation of her upholding binary ideals of femininity and masculinity.
Official video clip provided by Paramount Pictures.
Music, or a theme song, can define a character, foreshadowing their entrance or accentuating their heroic, or villainous as the case may be, reputation. Music that serves as motto for famous characters often consists of short and highly recognizable notes.
One of the best known theme songs is John Williams’ “The Imperial March,” also known as the Darth Vader’s theme in George Lucas’s Star Wars franchise. The now iconic beats have come to define Lord Vader, a Jedi-turned-antagonist and a master of the dark side of the Force. He is one of the Emperor’s most trusted servants.
The march is set in a four-beat time with dotted rhythm. After the opening theme, the song accelerates through the four beats of the bar before the melody begins. The melody is in an “abnormal” minor chord that suggest a gritty and biting dissonance in Darth Vader’s personality and power.
The music sounds menacing because, rhythmically, the march has a forward-driving tone that is offset by the powerful brass instruments’ low registers. Its minor chords accentuate the song’s downward spiral. Musically speaking, one could feel Darth Vader and the Empire bearing down on the rebels and film audiences.
In the following scene in Richard Marquand’s 1983 Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, the Imperial March precedes, sets up, and signals Darth Vader’s arrival and appearance.
As the ramp opens downward, the camera pans upwards from his black boots. His black costume blends into the dark and dimly-lit background. The Imperial March accentuates Darth Vader’s menacing presence as he walks down the ramp and enters the camera’s frame in full length.
Similarly, in the following scene, 19 minutes into Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (dir. Irvin Kershner, 1980), the Imperial March cues the arrival of Imperial-class Star Destroyers en masse as well as the appearance of Darth Vader on the bridge.
As the orchestra transitions from harmony to dissonance, and as the opening repetition of the four-beat riffs gives way to the melody, we hear Darth Vader’s iconic heavy breathing through his helmet.
The camera cuts to a medium close-up shot of the back of Darth Vader’s shining black, ovoid helmet. The helmet flares outwards towards his shoulder; the helmet’s shape is inspired by Japanese samurai helmets. Interestingly, it is unclear whether we are looking at the front or the back of Darth Vader’s helmet, since the scene is so dimly lit that his helmet blends into the darkness of the space. As the camera pulls back, it becomes clear Darth Vader is looking out the window on the bridge of a destroyer. The soundtrack solidifies his sinister presence as the camera continues to zoom out, showing the back of Darth Vader as an enigmatic silhouette in front of large windows.
One key feature of the Imperial March is its four-beat structure with surprising twists. The first three beats consist of a single, repeated G note. They are evenly spaced. The fourth beat switches to a minor key in a three-beat structure in quick succession. The famous melody, or Darth Vader’s theme, begins in the fifth bar, which enhances the overall tone of militaristic dominance.
Music Accentuating Famous Speeches
In Kenneth Branagh’s films, the function of music is to cue and direct emotive responses. In Branagh’s 1989 Henry V, Patrick Doyle’s heroic musical theme—already threatening to engulf Derek Jacobi’s passionate delivery as Chorus earlier—swells to float Branagh’s speech “once more unto the breach” (1.3.1), setting the tone and stage for King Henry V’s speech to motivate soldiers to launch another attack of Harfleur.
In act 3, scene 1, Upbeat music swells as Branagh’s Henry V says “we few, we happy few” to rouse the spirit of his soldiers who are outnumbered by the French army. In the play, this speech is given on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt in northern France during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. Since the battle occurs on St Crispin’s Day (October 25), the speech has come to be known as the St Crispin’s Day speech. The swelling score drowns not only the ambient noise but also the king’s speech. Scholars tend to agree that Doyle’s scores are characteristically sweeping and grandiloquent.
Music as a Character
Music could play key roles in some scenes. The blood-thirsty, vengeful shark in Steven Spielberg’s 1975 Jaws arguably exists not visually but musically. It is cued by John Williams’ Academy Award winning film score. The iconic shark theme consists of a simple alternating pattern of the notes E and F, and E and F sharp. The score begins with distant chromatic rumblings of a double bass before solidifying into the “march” for the shark, which is offset by dissonant seventh chords.
The alternating pattern of the notes E and F gives the invisible shark “legs,” as if the shark is walking faster and faster towards its victim in the water. The music signals impending, approaching danger that is invisible, lurking under the water.
Music plays a similarly significant role in King George VI’s final speech in Tom Hooper’s 2010 The King’s Speech. Played by Colin Firth, the king, even after intensive speech therapy, still suffers from a stammer. In this scene, he prepares to address the country on radio in 1939 when Britain declares war with Germany. His speech therapist and friend Lionel Logue is in the small studio with him.
Logue has meticulously marked up the king’s script with cues for pauses and intonation. The script resembles a musical score. The cues serve to remind the king of words that he tends to stumble over.
With the rhythmic second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 on the soundtrack, Logue provides hand gestures silent to help the king move through the speech. It looks as if he is conducting the king’s speech.
The king gives the speech in a solemn pace and with emphatic pauses to the compelling pulsation that persists throughout Beethoven’s symphony. The king’s pauses synch up with the symphony, beginning with a repetitive rhythmic figure in the calm melody played by cellos. The tempo of this particular movement is a moderately paced allegretto that hints at an underlying melancholy but not depressing sorrow. The constant repetition of themes and rhythm interweaves counter melodies, rising up through the instruments and sustaining an ominous undertone.
Music here is both a cinematic element and a heuristic curative device for the character.
Music is a character and part of characterization in such films as Bryan Singer’s 2018 Bohemian Rhapsody, which chronicles the rise of the legendary British rock band Queen and lead singer Freddie Mercury; Peter Farrelly’s 2018 film Green Book, a biographical comedy drama about African-American pianist Don Shirley; and Milos Forman’s 1984 Amadeus, a fictional biopic of Mozart.
In the following scene in Amadeus, Mozart plays court composer Salieri’s little march in front of of Emperor Joseph II. He improvises to “improve it,” declaring “that doesn’t quite work, now does it?” and then adds flourishes. Salieri is jealous and resentful of Mozart’s talents.
Using Music Sparingly
Music does not have to fill every scene of every film. Renowned Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa uses music sparingly. The melancholic score by Tōru Takemitsu is used sparingly for only 32 minutes in the 160-minute-long Ran [Chaos], Kurosawa’s well-received adaptation of King Lear.
Further, he employs atonal soundtracks that seem to work against what is being depicted in a scene, creating a sense of detachment and dissonance.
Alexa Alice Joubin observes that “there is a jarring or jolting effect that is not present in post-1990s Hollywood film adaptations of Shakespeare, such as those of Kenneth Branagh.”
By contrast, the soundscape in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, an adaptation of Macbeth, creates a chilling effect. Satō Masaru’s Throne of Blood soundtrack is presented in an understated manner, yet its piercing bamboo flute at times resembles shrieks.
Music in Throne of Blood plays a number of roles in the grim cinematic narrative. A more conventional use is found in the scene where Kunimaru Tsuzuki (Duncan) and his retinue arrive at Washizu’s (Macbeth’s) castle.
Shots of farmers in the field are supported by light music and beats. As the new lord of the North Castle, Washizu seems content in his position and new community.
The blissful, if brief, scene of farmers working under pleasant sunlight and young characters rejoicing in some kind of paradise stands in stark relief to the rest of the film, which advertises a grim outlook based on Shinto-Buddhism’s idea of retribution.
Most of the other scenes in the film use atonal music either to convey messages that seem at odds with the visual themes or to create a sense of alienation. Nature is depicted as a fearsome force that is indifferent to human suffering and striving.
One sonic strategy Kurosawa employs is using sounds to contrast with visual or verbal signs. When Lady Asaji denies she is possessed by supernatural powers, drum beats and the high-pitched Noh flute suggest otherwise.
Sometimes the film reframes otherwise familiar sounds to create a sense of horror and perversion. For example, early in Throne of Blood, when Washizu (Macbeth) and Miki (Banquo) encounter the mysterious mountain spirit (a composite of Shakespeare’s three witches), composer Satō uses Noh musical motifs to create a sense of estrangement in the dense forest.
We encounter the lost soldiers through Kurosawa’s signature long shots and panning shots as they gallop disoriented back and forth through the woods.
Diegetic sounds of rain, galloping, and whinnying are interwoven with the Noh flute that exists outside the world of Washizu, creating a sense of otherworldliness. The single long pitch of the flute is unsettling.
Alexa Alice Joubin writes that “familiar sounds become terrifying because in this context the familiar sounds evoke the unknown. Everyday sounds such as horse galloping become eerie and unnatural in the soundscape. As the narrative progresses, the flute seems to become an aural signifier of supernatural power or spirit.
Atonal music and unpleasant sounds signal potential sources of violence and, therefore, fear.
In film, a disembodied voice is often more authoritative, mesmerizing, sinister, or all of the above. We hear the laughter of the mountain spirit, for example, in the fog.
The occasional note of the flute piercing the silence further heightens the sense of isolation.
Music plays an important role in Baz Luhrmann’s campy film William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996). Many scenes draw on the patterns of pacing, cuts, and use of music that are typically found in MTV-style music videos.
Your Turn: Analyze the use of music in the opening sequence of Luhrmann’s film beginning with the operatic music.
Answer Key: This opening sequence features an aurally rich, multilingual soundscape. A soundtrack of Craig Armstrong’s “O Verona” accompanies the live-action shots in “fair Verona” in the second iteration of the Prologue.
In terms of the operatic soundtrack in the MTV-like sequence with a male announcer, “O Verona” was inspired by Carl Orff’s musical setting of the medieval poem “O Fortuna” (as part of his cantata Carmina Burana). “O Fortuna” was not available for licensing, and “O Verona,” replete with echoes of the motif of “O Fortuna,” served as a stand-in.
Listen to O Fortuna here:
“O Verona” is a spin-off and possibly a parody of “O Fortuna” for both pragmatic and metacinematic reasons. Equally significant is the fact that the choir sings the Prologue in Latin, interspersed with the announcer’s purposeful, methodic, and measured delivery of the Prologue in English. From the 1980s through the early 1990s, “O Fortuna” was used and abused in countless films, such as Excalibur (dir. John Boorman, Orion Pictures, 1981), and trailers of period, fantasy, and action films.
Due to its overuse, it became a cliché and began to take on ironic meanings. Starting in the mid-1990s, “O Fortuna” has appeared in such parodies as the trailer of South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (dir. Trey Parker, Paramount Pictures, 1999).
- Cooke, Mervyn and Fiona Ford, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Film Music. Cambridge University Press, 2017.
- Joubin, Alexa Alice. Shakespeare and East Asia (Oxford University Press, 2021), chapter 1 (Kurosawa’s and Ninagawa’s uses of music).
- Leonard, Kendra Preston. Shakespeare, Madness, and Music: Scoring Insanity in Cinematic Adaptations (Scarecrow Press, 2009).