Music and Film


I’ve been lately intrigued by the different ways in which music is used in films and would like to share some of my thoughts in light of a few specific examples.

Most films and tv series have a theme song or music in the beginning and end, but there are others, mostly outside or in the margins of the mainstream films, in which music is used very sparsely. In many films music is also participating in the storytelling, or even has its own agency. Such techniques were already perfected by Richard Wagner with his aspiration for “Gesamtkunstwerk”; an artwork where all the artistic elements – music, poetry, acting, staging, lighting, etc. – serve more or less equally in the telling of the story. Some film composers, such as John Williams (e.g. Star Wars, E.T., Harry Potter), have taken their cue from Wagner and Wagnerian devices such as leitmotifs can be found in their works.

2001: A Space Odyssey

The opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, without the preceding Ligeti piece.

The director Stanley Kubrick, on the other hand, chose to use mainly existing compositions in his films. While there may have been an economical motivation for this practice at some point of Kubrick’s career, the artistic rationale for his choices of music are intriguing. For instance, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) begins with a fragment (ca 3 min) of György Ligeti’s Atmosphères while displaying a blank screen. This is followed by the “Sunrise” fanfare from Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, beginning the composition’s journey towards one of the most used pieces of music in films up to the point of being a cliché. Both compositions are used in the film as leitmotifs. There juxtaposition, however, add another layer of reference to the film – with a real life element. While Ligeti admired Kubrick’s work, he wasn’t fond of being placed in such proximity with 19th century composers (Johann Strauss II’s famous waltz An der schönen blauen Donau is played during a scenes picturing a moonwalk and docking to a space station), nor the fact that Kubrick failed to obtain the rights for using Ligeti’s music in the film.

The space station docking scene with Strauss’ An der schönen blauen Donau. I love the way he takes his time with this scene. Something you don’t see in contemporary films very often.

These juxtapositions, however, are very powerful in anchoring the film’s depictions of future to the cultural heritage of the viewer (in a rather western-centric manner), but also supporting the main storyline of human evolution. Music in this film is also able to draw lines between the distant moments in the human evolution the film portrays and centre them to the present.

A Clockwork Orange

Poster of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwor Orange from 1971.
Poster of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange from 1971.

In A Clockwork Orange (1971, also by Kubrick) music has an important agency. (Spoiler alert: The end of the film is revealed.) Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the culmination of symphonic composition, plays an important role as part of the “cure” of the overly violent main protagonist. The Hollywood hit Singin’ in the Rain, on the other hand, is sung by the protagonist while performing his violent acts.

The Singin’ in the Rain scene from A Clockwork Orange.

While this juxtaposition of a popular, happy song from a family film and extreme violence is certainly effective in underlining the madness of the protagonist, one could also argue that the music in this film adds another dimension to the story about a man who doesn’t fit into the society (to put it mildly). Musically, the film would seem to claim that popular culture is the problem and the Classical music and culture (including science) are the solution, or “cure” – for the protagonist in a very concrete way. But this “cure” is applied by re-conditioning Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (fourth movement), which the main protagonist also listened quite voluntarily earlier in the film, through the Ludovico Technique. In fact, it is his keenness on music – and “Ludwig van” particularly – that “cures” him as he is forced to witness the violation of this art in the test.

The Ludovico Technique scene from A Clockwork Orange.

So the question remains, whether the music used in this film is a statement of the particular kinds of music and their place/role/status in the society or is that relation arbitrary in the overall scheme of the film to portray the fringes of our social norms? In short, nothing in Clockwork Orange is quite what it seems and I’d recommend you to not only watch it, if you already haven’t (and if you can stomach it), but also to do some reading on the contradictory reception of this film. My apologies for spoiling the end here, but the film is more about the process the main protagonist goes through rather than the end result, in my view.

Deux jours, une nuit

As the icing on the cake as well as a form of catharsis, two exquisite musical interludes drift into the dialogue-fuelled effort as a way of re-setting the momentum. Sarah Ward (

While Kubrick was certainly aware of the interpretative layers music was adding to his works, and the extent to which they were in his control, many film makers – mainly outside of Hollywood – seem to be rather cautious in their use of music. I recently saw Deux jours, une nuit (2014) by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, which is a great example of this. First, there’s no music during the opening or closing credits. In fact, the film has music in only two scenes, both of which happen in a car and the music is played by the protagonists through the car stereo. Music in this film is part of the storytelling, but it’s not telling the story but rather part of the story, part of the protagonists’ life:   In the first scene, the husband of the main protagonist plays music from the car stereo while they’re driving, but the main protagonist asks him to turn it off as in her current mental state she cannot handle it. On the other scene there’s a third person in the card as well, things are looking promising and Van Morrison’s Gloria from the radio provides them with an opportunity to enjoy and celebrate the moment.

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