People often assume that I like big orchestral ‘Hollywood’ scores, like John Williams’ music or similar. Although he made some great tunes, this is definitely not where I get my inspiration. Here are some examples of, in my opinion, great uses of music in film, in no particular order. I’ve added many clips for reference, though they may not all be great quality. Try to pay attention the how loud the music is compared the other sounds in the films. In most scenes, the music is very obvious and either harsh sounds are used to add dramatic effect, or there is very little sound, to give the music space. While this is not always the best thing for a movie, it really makes the scenes stand out.
BEWARE: MANY SPOILERS!
There Will Be Blood
Jonny Greenwood – Convergence
When the well blows up, H.W. becomes deaf and the sound is cut at moments. This contrast between sound and ‘silence’ adds to the dramatic buildup. We hear the noise of the oil, but when Daniel drags H.W. to safety, the noise fades away and the music starts. The music takes the concept that Steve Reich introduced, phases shifting because of slightly different tempo’s, but uses it in it’s own way. All the percussion starts with its own tempo. In the end they all line up. The music builds and builds, when we cut back to the well, which is on fire by now. By the time it’s dark, the percussion is lined up and keeps going for a while. We now know it’s a pretty stable situation, but we’re not there yet. “What are you looking so miserable about? There’s a whole ocean of oil underneath our feet. No one can get to it except for me.” The music comes to an abrupt ending when the well blows up.
The Royal Tenenbaums
Nico – These Days / Elliott Smith – Needle in the Hay
Notice how the sound fades before the music starts, and the music starts suddenly. It doesn’t try to mask the fact that there is music. This helps to set the right tone immediately. And it’s beautiful.
Another interesting example from the same movie is ‘Needle in the Hay’ by Elliott Smith. The music cuts away when the door is opened, and the continues on the start of the next shot. It’s not subtle at all, and puts a lot of emphasis on the reaction of the family.
Jonny Greenwood – Baton Sparks
Here the music also instantly sets the tone. The movie doesn’t mess around and is very clear: I want your attention. Quickly after that the music fades to something more subtle. Interestingly, the music doesn’t tell you about the time in which the movie is set, or what the main character is thinking or feeling. It creates its own little story, as if you’re watching Freddie from a distance.
Goodfellas has a very clear musical direction, which is interesting, as there was no music supervisor working on the film.
Most music is from the time the movie is set in. In the first half of the film it’s usually pretty old-fashioned music, representing the mafia culture. It’s often borderline diegetic. The fast pace, great editing and acting make sure there’s not a single moment that ‘needs’ the music to work. In many scenes there is soft diegitic music playing, which then fades/cuts to being a non-diegetic soundtrack or the other way around. This is very often used in film, but because the music is so well chosen and fits the time and feeling, it feels effortless.
Then, halfway through the film, Henry Hill makes his own plans and starts selling drugs, without the knowledge of his boss. This is when the tone of the music changes, and Gimme Shelter, from the Rolling Stones fades in. Of course this is at a time when rock and roll stands for rebellious behavior. Occasionally we go back to the ‘old-fashioned’ mobster lifestyle and we go back to the ‘old-fashioned’ music.
So the music tells the part of all the ‘great’ things of being a mobster. A few scenes show us the other side however, like the scene where Henry beats up the neighbor. There’s no music, just the sound of the sprinklers. The sprinklers make the setting feel familiar for the viewers, maybe. We’re in suburbia, the sound it impersonates real life.
Finally, when the mob dream is over, there’s no music anymore, until we get to the credits. Henry is now a ‘normal’ guy, and again we hear the sprinklers.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Aram Khachaturian – “Gayane” Ballet Suite / György Ligeti
Another director who really knows about music. Everyone is familiar with the opening scene, with Also Sprach Zarathustra. Well, not really. The movie actually starts out with Ligeti’s Atmospheres, on a black screen, before it cuts to the famous shot of the planet with Strauss’ music. Later in the film we hear more Ligeti, like Requiem and Lux Aeterna. The story goes that Kubrick used Ligeti’s without him knowing, only for Ligeti to find out while seeing the film for the first time. Not the nicest way to go about it, but Kubrick wasn’t known for being a nice guy.
I picked the next scene, because I love how it takes the time to introduce the space-ship. In fact, all of the music needs, and takes, a lot of time in this movie. The whole pace is slow, which makes a lot of sense, considering the time span it covers and the endlessness of space. Story wise this is a very simple scene, but the way it is told gives it much more depth.
Under the Skin
The music is so weird, so alien. It’s repetitive. Most sounds seem to be real instruments, but in pretty unusual ways or digitally altered. It’s not weird in a ‘we’ve-more-or-less-heard-this-before-and-it-obviously-tries-to-unsettle-us’ kind of way, it’s just really out of the ordinary. The music challenges you, I love that.
Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans
Many thrillers have a constant tension, and this is often created by tense, dissonant music for a very large part. Not always, like in No Country For Old Men, where pretty the opposite is used to make you uncomfortable. In Enemy, much of the music is pretty typical Hollywood: dissonant sounds, low drones and high violin-like sounds, to unsettle us. But as things get stranger, the music ‘zooms in’. It becomes much smaller, meaning just a few instruments are used, and made to sound big. I think the simple repeating bass clarinet motif and the string quartet are very interesting by itself. The music creates a surreal atmosphere, much like the rest of that strange yellow world. So while the use of the music isn’t entirely unique, I just really like the music itself. Here’s a link to the soundtrack I’m talking about.
No Country For Old Men
Carter Burwell / Skip Lievsay
I mention Skip Lievsay here, because in this case the music and sound are almost the same. There is only some very subtle music in maybe 2 or 3 scenes. Once some soft sine-waves (singing bowles and the like, made by Carter Burwell) are fading in through an engine sound and another time from a fridge in the background. But most of the tension in the film actually comes from silence. Silence, especially in a movie, often makes people feel uncomfortable, and very aware of sound. *insert John Cage here*
This scene is all about sound. There is no music at all. Llewelyn knows someone is coming for him. All sounds are very carefully placed. The shifting of something next door, the disconnected phone, his own footsteps, the beeping of the transmitter, and then the unscrewing of a light bulb. It’s all very relevant information, but also makes the scene so much more tense.
Bonus scene of the hum in the fridge: