Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Music in Cinema

This month I’d like to re-explore a fun topic in musicology that we touched on in the past: music in cinema. There’s an endless amount of movies to explore so this is a great topic to keep coming back to.

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. An example would be:

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 the ensemble in the background as they provide entertainment during Connie’s wedding in The Godfather (1972). Composer Nino Rota wrote the score for this film and we will look further at his career 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 from Titanic (1997): 

Here, the music enhances the moment for the viewer in the iconic “I’m Flying” scene. The characters, however, cannot hear the music themselves. James Horner, whom we will discuss more later this month, wrote the famous “My Heart Will Go On” for this film.

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


  1. Your post reminds me of another type of music in the cinema. My paternal grandmother played piano in the old theaters during the silent movies. I don't know which came first, her ability to improvise or all that practice in the dark, but even into her 80s she could sit down at a piano and play beautifully off the top of her head, without stopping.

    1. How wonderful! And yes, this is a very early example of music in cinema! I actually touched on silent films in several of my April 2015 posts. Here they are if you are interested: http://wgucmusicblog.blogspot.com/2015/04/silent-film-music.html