Monday, March 31, 2014

Music at the Movies

This month I’d like to explore a fun, modern topic in musicology: music and cinema. Everyone watches movies and thus, everyone has encountered the soundtrack to a film. While some film directors use pre-existing music to underlie their cinematic project, others will use a film composer to write a new score to fit the images and plot they aim to create.

Before diving into a variety of films and discussing the types of music (new or existing) used as the soundtrack, I wanted to introduce you to several impressive musical terms you can use when discussing movie music with your friends: diegetic and non-diegetic.

Diegetic music is the type of music that is not only heard by the viewer, but also by the on-screen characters in the film. Here's an example. As in this example, typically the viewer can see the source of the music on screen to help determine whether or not it is diegetic. In this case, you can see Alex put the tape into the cassette player with intent to listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. We will discuss A Clockwork Orange in more detail later this month.

The opposite of diegetic music would be non-diegetic. This type of music serves as a background to the film and can only be heard by the viewer, not the characters on screen. An example would be this clip found in Hook. Here, the music enhances the plot for the viewer as Peter Pan has just remembered how to fly. The characters, however, cannot hear it themselves. We will discuss this film’s composer, John Williams, later this month.

Can you think of any examples of diegetic or non-diegetic music from your favorite films?


  1. Your post brings to mind a truly bizarre movie from 1973 "O Lucky Man!" starring Malcolm McDowell. The movie begins with a rock group rehearsing songs presumably written for the movie itself, an example of diegetic music. These songs then accompany the action of the film in non-diegetic fashion, as the characters do not hear the music. Midway through, the main character meets the rock group and sits in on their rehearsals. This film perfectly blurs the lines between the concepts you introduce in your post. Thanks for another great topic!

  2. What a fantastic example of the use of diegetic and non-diegetic music in a film score. Thank you for your comment and for reading!