The Best Music in Film



(see also: Musicians)

Sight & Sound

Q: In what way does music best enhance film?

Jonas Åkerlund
"In any way. That's what its for. Enhance anything you do."
Woody Allen
(Annie Hall, Manhattan, Anything Else)
"Too broad a question. Let's just say it covers a multitude of sins."
Roy Andersson
(Songs from the Second Floor)
"From a general point of view film music should be contrapuntal. That´s how I see it. The music should not play with it should play against in order to get dialectics, which enhances the energy and tension in the movie. As always there are exceptions to the rule. A fantastic film soundtrack is that of Kubrick´s Barry Lyndon (1975). It is actually a very conventional application of film music, almost playing with instead of against, but it is made with such good taste!"
Olivier Assayas
(Irma Vep, Demonlover)
"Usually I'm happy when the score doesn't spoil the film. Redundant music can absolutely put to pieces the work of actors. Ultimately what I think is if the emotion is in the acting, or in the images, or in a combination of both ( = directing) and that's what we supposedly aim for, then it shouldn't need music. Often, scoring a film means underlining what we're supposed to feel, or plainly explain us what we should feel, monitoring our reactions to what's going on up on the screen. I find that offensive and I consider it to be the parting line between good and bad filmmaking. What I am trying to say is that when using music in films you always deal with the danger of adding a layer of fakeness to something that might have had some truth, of complexity, or humanity on its own. Music should be organically linked to the very substance of a film, it should come from inside and not be a coating. Meaning that as every element of a film it should contribute its own dimension : express something that is not expressed by the other elements. Dare I use again the word dialectics ? I can't find a better one. Putting together the images and the music something should happen that is essentially different, and hopefully beyond, whatever they are on their own. The most obvious example of what I'm saying is also the most commonplace : Strauss in 2001: A Space Odyssey. They don't seem to connect, actually they seem to contradict and then their intertwining creates the very feeling we associate with this specific film. Its terribly simple and then its as powerful as the hugest and most ambitious aspects of Stanley Kubrick's film."
Patrice Chéreau
(La Reine Margot, Intimacy)
"Music is one of the essential elements of a film. It is also important for dialogue, lighting, set design, montage, etc. A film without music is one-legged. And I would prefer not to make cinema rather than return to an age without cinematic music."
Francis Ford Coppola
(The Godfather, The Conversation)
"Music is a big factor in helping the illusion of the film come to life. The same way music brings back different periods of our lives."
Roger Corman
(The Little Shop of Horrors, The Trip)
"Music best enhances a film when it evokes and modulates a specific emotional response in the audience to the unfolding story without the audience being aware of it. In Hollywood today, however, this can be difficult to achieve because very often music has to compete with louder and louder sound effects. As a consequence, there is a tendency for the music to oversimplify and overstate its themes. The manipulation of emotion in the audience has probably become cruder, generally speaking."
Alex Cox
"I don't think it does anymore, music is overused and someone should do a film without any music at all."
Cameron Crowe
(Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous)
"The best soundtrack music by-passes your mind and goes straight to your soul. It sort of trips something in your brain, you know you're being transported."
Joe Dante
(Gremlins, Matinee, Small Soldiers)
"Sometimes even dramatic movies are "musicals", when the score dominates and carries the mood, and sometimes events play better with no musical accompaniment at all. As I recall Targets (1967) has nothing but incidental AM radio music and Ronald Stein's tracks for The Terror (1963) as source music, and works all the better for the lack of score. And there are films like Judex (1963) in which Maurice Jarre's music is used so sparingly that when it does appear the effect is almost magical. The effect an absence of music can have is illustrated by Philip Glass' recent attempt to add a score to Tod Browning's Dracula (1931), which sounded like someone had left a radio on in the next room, pretty much nullifying the movie's aura of creepy, otherworldly early-talkie dread. This may have simply been a case of the wrong music, though, as a drenching of familiar studio horror themes from the forties might have worked just fine."
Lewis Gilbert
(Reach for the Sky, Alfie, Educating Rita)
"Film music is another weapon in the armoury of the director. The score should inevitably have a strong theme which reflects the mood of the film either in a leading character or the action of the film. Thus any form of music from symphonies through pop to synthesiser can be used. Music is more powerful when it is used sparingly and should never be used when it is thought to enhance a poorly written or badly played scene. This is something to be avoided. Sometimes natural sounds are more effective than music."
Jason Groves (Shynola)
(Music videos for Radiohead's Pyramid song and The Rapture's House of Jealous Lovers, among others)
"Music played over film provides a context for which the visuals can be interpreted. Crudely speaking, music will either emphasise the feelings created visually or juxtapose them. The music almost becomes a filter through which you see the film. A good choice of music/sound during a scene should add another element to the film. Becoming something greater than the sum of the parts. In Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man (1995), Neil Young's improvised guitar adds a dreamlike and stream-of-consciousness quality to the film. The perfect accompaniment to a character who is slowly dying and barely aware of what is happening around him. With this music playing over his scenes Jarmusch is free to tell a simple story in a simple way, knowing that you will know how the main character is feeling without the character ever having to state it."
Guy Hamilton
(Battle of Britain, Goldfinger, Force 10 from Navarone)
"I cannot improve on Maurice Jaubert's "We do not go to the cinema to hear music. We require it to deepen and prolong in us the screen's visual impact."
Chris Harding (Shynola)
(Music videos for Radiohead's Pyramid song and The Rapture's House of Jealous Lovers, among others)
"Music is a powerful tool in film making, it can add layers of emotion, or even change the impact of a sequence entirely, but it can be a short cut to emotion and can make directors lazy. An example of really inspired use of music is the climax of Rintarô's animated re-interpretation of the sci-fi classic Metropolis (2001). A huge doomsday device is exploding in mind boggling anime detail, whilst Ray Charles' version of 'I can't stop loving you' plays, transforming a catastrophic event into a thing of sombre beauty."
Mahamat-Saleh Haroun
"For me, music is very important. I think about it when I write the script. It's a part of the, we have to use it very carefully, as part of the story, and not only in a artificial way...Music must bring something more, something that you can't express only by images and words. It must let us feel the rhythm that the characters have inside themselves."
Arthur Hiller
(Silver Streak, Love Story)
"Music enhances a film by joining the other creative juices helping, indeed sometimes making the audience not only see the film but feel the film with their emotions. I'm always indebted to my composers and to the other creative juices that pour into the pot,"
Dennis Hopper
(Hot Spot, Colors)
"Colors (1988) was the first time rap music got major exposure, and was on the charts. This soundtrack sold over a million copies, first rap to go gold."
Norman Jewison
(The Thomas Crown Affair, Moonstruck)
"The marriage of the moving image and music is perhaps the most powerful visual communication we have. You can take almost any edited visual film sequence and change the emotion and feelings engendered by the use of music. When I made Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) from a double LP musical rock opera score by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, I did not realise that we were actually making the first rock video. It was 1972 and I was trying to visualise on film the operatic musical score. It remains one of my best films from a cinematic and original visual concept. Music is as important to most films as is the written text."
Isaac Julien
(Looking for Langston, Young Soul Rebels)
"Music enhances a film in two ways it either directs the audiences attention to what it wants it to feel and think in relationship to mood and character identification and this general theory is applied to most narrative films. Or it subtly alludes, sometimes in contradiction or creates a sonic space in the film itself, creating another larger meaning of interpretation, forcing the spectator or audience to think and feel between the images and its content creating that third meaning. To enhance a film it has to have music which either can direct the scene or create an unconsciousness to the world, if it is depicting. Some of the most powerful films are films that don't have musical scores in the traditional sense but nonetheless create a space for its own narrative of filmic music /space to enhance its sonic vision, to exist and to inhabit a haptic space, for the viewers identification, the best music in film is when it consciously moves the audience to think and creates a space of disidentification for its spectator while making he or she identify somehow with a poetic musicality examples Jean-Luc Godard's Éloge de l'amour (2001), Touki Bouki (1973) directed by Djibril Diop Mambety, Terence Davies' Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), Charles Burnett Killer of Sheep (1977)."
Nelly Kaplan
(Le Regard Picasso, Néa)

"Music should never be “pleonastic”..."
Bruce La Bruce
A Case for the Closet, Skin Gang)
"Music for movies can serve to reinforce the tone of a scene, or it can work contrapuntally and at apparent odds with the visuals. Kubrick was always the master at using odd or unexpected music which might not at first seem to support the scene, as when he used Singin' in the Rain to accompany a brutal beating in A Clockwork Orange (1971). His infamous use of classical music in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was famous for giving hippies who dropped acid to watch the movie in the sixties a bad trip because, according to them, the music didn't match the visuals. Obviously Kubrick was doing something right."
Neil LaBute
(Possession, The Shape of Things)
"I love music when it's used as a counterpoint to the image--the beautiful frenzy of Michel Legrand's music in Jacques Demy's Bay of Angels (1962) (gorgeous sounds as we watch compulsive gamblers) or Kubrick's use of "we'll meet again" at the end of Dr. Strangelove (a heart-warming classic used against images of nuclear devastation). Obviously, music can be used amazingly well in many contexts, but I love when it is used in an ironic way by a filmmaker."
Ken Loach
(Kes, Riff-Raff, Sweet Sixteen)
"Well usually by it's absence! It's usually used in a way that exaggerates the emotion to make it sentimental or suspenseful, and covers cracks in the filmmaking, I think it has to be used very sparingly. It's like salt in cooking, you use to much and it just overpowers the flavour. It shouldn't be used to manipulate the audience – you might make an additional comment with the music that you want the audience to consider, but you don't manipulate their feelings in a dishonest way. Whatever the sensation it has to be earned by the content of the film, by that I mean the characters, relationships, events and the narrative, and not induced by the music. It can't replace these things. You don't weep for Hamlet because there is some offstage music; you weep because of the inexorable tragedy of his situation."
Sidney Lumet
(12 Angry Men, Serpico)
"By revealing something that is not dealt with in the rest of the movie. It should be treated as another leading characters."
Jonathan Lynn
(My Cousin Vinny, The Whole Nine Yards)
"Music is used to create or enhance a feeling that would not otherwise be present in a scene or sequence, or would not be sufficient without it. Music can help create tension and suspense. However, if there is sufficient suspense already, using music is overkill. Music also can be used to create or increase a feeling of momentum and pace. A beautiful melody can intensify romance, pathos, nostalgia. Bad music, however, can have the obverse effect in all of these cases, drawing attention to the shortcomings that it is designed to help. As for comedy, I never use music to underline something funny. That's known as "Mickey-Mousing" the film. Music only helps comedy in a montage."
Kevin MacDonald
(Touching the Void)
"That's hard. In the cutting room I'm constantly amazed at the transformative power of music when combined with images. The effect of combining one with another is very rarely what you thought it would be. You see the images and hear the music differently when they are together. The purest moments of cinema are for me when music and image combine without dialogue or other interruptions."
Gillies MacKinnon
(The Grass Arena, Hideous Kinky)
"I personally love the way Tarkovsky integrates Bach into his sequences. This is a hard trick to pull off without seeming pretentious. He objected to commercial cinema's common use of music as a halo around the characters to enhance their performances. Still, this is what most of us do."
John McNaughton
"Music best enhances a film by focusing emotion. It can enhance in other more mechanical ways such as setting pace or creating tension but it is the emotional quality of music which best enhances a film. Music can reach an audience emotionally beyond the ability of picture and sound. As an example I think of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976). A yellow cab drives down a street in Times Square; we see the driver, people on the street. Now add the jazz melody composed by Bernard Herrmann and played by Tom Scott on the alto saxophone and the scene is transformed. The music gives the scene emotional focus, it tells us what to feel."
Fernando Meirelles
(City of God)
"In the obvious way: Music or its absence is the soul of the film."
Nicholas Meyer
(Star Trek The Wrath of Khan)
"It has been noted that sound always dominates picture. The happiest child, bounding through a field of daisies, accompanied by Chopin's 'Funeral March', is doomed. Drive anywhere and study the landscape as you listen to the CD or radio station of your choice and you will see how the music colours the scenery. This fact was known well before films when plays employed incidental music to influence the audience's perception of the scene. In this sense Mendelssohn, Bizet and Grieg, writing music of A Midsummer Night's Dream, L'Arlesienne and Peer Gynt respectively, were composing the first soundtracks. Since music has the ability to drench any scene or sequence in ambience, the primary function of movie music is to aid the director and his team in evoking the desired atmosphere at any given moment - fear, love, rage, curiosity, suspense, doom... what you will. But there is a second perhaps equally important function music can play and that is to provide each film with its own, unique voice, to become the musical embodiment of the movie, so closely associated with it that mere themes (or instrumentation), are sufficient to bring the whole movie flooding back through the mind's ear. Who, for example, can ever forget The Third Man (1949) when listening to Anton Karas' haunting score, played entirely on a zither? Even though Scott Joplin's music for The Sting (1973) is an anachronism, George Roy Hill's use of it ensures that everyone who saw the film will always associate Joplin's rags with the movie and vice versa."
Paul Morrissey
"Music seems to me at it's best when used, not for mood or drama but to enhance the emotional content of a film."
Jonathan Mostow
(U-571, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines)
"In my opinion, the best film music helps a movie touch the heart of the viewer. Whether the goal of a scene is to inspire, amuse or terrify, great film music should enhance the moment-to-moment emotional experience of watching a film."
Ronald Neame
(The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Horse's Mouth, The Poseidon Adventure)
"Used correctly, music will enhance a film. It is a fourth dimension. It can add to the drama, the comedy, the story and the characters, but used badly it can be destructive. There is nothing worse than the wall to wall music, popular at one time in almost all Hollywood movies. If over used music becomes dull and ineffective. And let us not forget sometimes, just one instrument is more exciting than a large symphony orchestra. The perfect example, the zither in Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949). There are times when a film is remembered by a song, 'Raindrops keep falling on my head', from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), comes to mind, or 'Mrs Robinson' , from The Graduate (1967), and from a film I very much admire, Midnight Cowboy (1969), 'Every body's Talking At Me'."
Alan Parker
(Birdy, Evita)
"When music and images gel they can take the audience's brains to another plane emotionally and dramatically. Bad film music intrudes without complimenting the action. A great score gets under your skin, triggers your subconscious, enhances the drama and helps drive the emotional power train of the movie."
Pawel Pawlikowski
(Last Resort)
"In some films music manages to lift the world on the screen to a mythic or dream-like level. The instances that come to mind are Days of Heaven, 1978 (Ennio Morricone), The Time of the Gypsies,1989 (Goran Bregovic), Taxi Driver, 1976 (Bernard Herrmann) or The Mirror, 1974 (J.S. Bach). But then, maybe the reason the music works so well in these films is because their directors had real poetic vision in the first place, because they managed to create a world for the music to interact with. In industrially made films, or in those which strike pretentious poses, the same music would appear vacuous and irritating. Conversely, Kes (1969) proves that no amount of bad music can destroy a good, emotionally honest film."
D. A. Pennebaker
(Don't Look Back, Monterey Pop, The War Room)
"When the music is right, really right for a film, or anything that's performed it gets you about two feet off the floor and the whole time you watch is like a spell cast on you by an angel, or a witch. Maybe a witchangel."
Sally Potter
(The Gold Diggers, Orlando)

"Music can 'enhance' a film in many ways, but for me it is at its most interesting when it argues with the image rather than underlining it, and therefore demands to be heard in its own right. The argument can be between contradictory atmospheres; softness where the scene is hard, spaciousness where the scene is claustrophobic, or lyricism where the scene is emotionally or physically violent. Alternatively, the argument can lead to cross-referencing, where the music brings surprising meanings, jokes, or associations to the image. In this way a sort of meaning-mosaic can be built up and connections made that otherwise would not be evident or possible. The least interesting and most traditional use of music on film tends to be emotionally descriptive of the scene we are watching, an is specifically designed not to be heard at a conscious level. But emotionally descriptive music can be wonderfully interesting when pushed to an extreme, for example in The Cranes Are Flying (1957),directed by Mikhail Kalatozov."
Bernard Rose
(Ivans xtc.)
"When it drives a sequence - I'd rather hear the music or not have it there at all unless it's purely "source"."
Ken Russell
(The Music Lovers, Tommy)
"By bringing the image into super-sharp focus."
Martin Scorsese
(Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Gangs of New York)
"Music and cinema fit together naturally. Because there's a kind of intrinsic musicality to the way moving images work when they're put together. It's been said that cinema and music are very close as art forms, and I think that's true. Take a filmmaker like Kubrick. He really understood the rhythmic impact of two images coming together. He also had an extraordinary feel for the pace or tempo, a musical term, of a given scene. And he knew that when you add a piece of music to a scene, and if it's just the right piece of music, hitting at just the right instant – like the refrain of Handel's Sarabande, the main theme from Barry Lyndon (1975), over the little boy's funeral procession, or 'Surfin' Bird' by the Trashmen fading up over the panning shot of the soldiers in the second half of Full Metal Jacket (1987), or the use of the 'Blue Danube Waltz' in 2001 : A Space Odyssey (1968)– you've given that scene an extra dimension, a sense of mystery, of life beyond the frame, that it would not have had otherwise. Of course, that's very hard to do. It requires a lot of concentration. Because it's very easy for the music to become a kind of security blanket, for the filmmakers and then for the audience. It's bad enough when it's used for nostalgic purposes, or when it's used to place a scene in time, but there's nothing worse than when music is used to tell the audience what they should be feeling. Unfortunately, it happens all the time."
Santosh Sivan
(The Terrorist)
"The music or the themes give you a haunting recall of the films visuals and thoughts, even after a film screening is over."
George Sluizer
(Dark Blood, UTZ)
"I think film music should enhance the silent moments between the scenes accompanied by music. Each film should find its own musical style and needs. No rule for me."
Penelope Spheeris
(Wayne's World)
"When music can make a scene have great emotional impact, it is at it's best. When it accentuates human feelings, whether it be elation or fear or confusion, it can really be more powerful than a visual."
Ron Underwood
(City Slickers)
"As a tool for communication, music can help the director reach the audience. The music establishes mood, point of view and tone. The music can make a statement by mirroring the action or by playing counterpoint to the action. The music often brings out the majesty of the imagery, the comedy of the actors or the tension of the suspense. It can transport the audience into another land, either geographic or fantasy or into a character's mind. Music can help speed up the action or give the images a sense of poetry. Music has enormous power and often the audience is unaware of the effect it has on them. This makes music one of the best tools to help the director."
Wim Wenders
(Paris, Texas, Buena Vista Social Club)
"By not changing the meaning of the imagery, but just filling them with air, and longing, and time. Music can really "ground" a film, but only if it is not overwhelming the visuals."
Last Updated: 05 Sep 2006