On Music: Masterful Uses in Cinema

In cinema, music can be used just as color, like a filter that tints the story (or stories) with different shades and tints. The great director Wong Kar-wai states that “film music must be visual” and adds “when I hear a song that inspires something visual on me, I record it and put it aside, knowing that I will use it later on. I dont have music composed for my films. Musicians have a musical language and I have a visual language, most of the time we cant understand each other.”

In his film, “In the Mood for Love” Kar-wai masterfully uses music from a different time than the storys time period, such as “Aquellos ojos verdes” composed by Nilo Menendez and Adolfo Utrera and “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas” composed by Joe Davis and Osvaldo Farrés (both interpreted by Nat King Cole) to make things ambiguous.

He also mimics Martin Scorsese by using music on set; less to create a mood than to find rhythm. “When Im trying to explain [to] my director of photography the speed I want for certain camera move, a piece of music often communicates it better than a thousand words,” according to Kar-wai.

In Oliver Stones “Wall Street” the director employs flat lenses, close-ups, and handheld cameras for a non-stop sense of movement. In terms of sound, the director chose electronic music featuring David Byrne and Brian Eno to generate “an enduring musical dynamism of electronic sounds and engrained beats.”

“Psycho,” which is considered one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films, was blessed with the masterful touch of the composer Bernard Herrmann, who also scored Vertigo, Citizen Kane, and Taxi Driver among other cinematic gems. Psychos famous shower scene and quintessential sound of terror used only the string section of the orchestra due to financial constraints. Hitchcock specifically asked Herrmann not to score the shower sequence, opting that the murder scene be illustrated only by the lonely sound of the running shower. Thankfully, the composer ignored the directors request who, after seeing the completed scenes, gave his nod of approval. “But Hitch,” Herrmann asked, “I thought you didnt want any music during the shower sequence?” To which Hitchcock replied, “Improper suggestion, my boy, improper suggestion.”

No article on film music would be complete without Hans Zimmer, the brain behind the scores for “Inception,” “Gladiator” (one of the bestselling film score albums of all time), “Black Rain,” “Rain Man,” “True Romance,” “The Lion King,” the “Batman” trilogy, and most recently “Sherlock Holmes,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” and “Spider-Man 2.” The most amazing thing about Zimmer (besides having scored more than 166 films and having been nominated nine times for an Oscar with one win) is that he is completely self-taught, learning exclusively from experimentation and through collaboration.

Director Chris Nolan sent only one page containing a short story with two lines of dialogue about a father who leaves his child to do an important job and challenged Zimmer to spend ONE DAY composing something. And thats how the music for “Interstellar” was born.

One of my favorite movie music stories comes from “Kill Bill.” Tarantino was browsing vintage clothes at Tokyos airport when he heard the Japanese surf rock group “The 5678s” playing through the PA. He wanted to buy the CD from the clerk but she refused, as it was a clothing store, not a music store. After getting the manager involved Tarantino was able to purchase the CD for six Yen. The band and the (in)famous “House of Blue Leaves” scene are now part of cinema history. Just like that.



What are some of your favorite cinematic film scores?  Feel free to share them with us in the comments section below, or join the conversation on Facebook.


Eduardo Angel is an independent technology consultant, educator, and Emmy Award-winning visual storyteller based in Brooklyn, NY. He currently teaches at The School of Visual Arts and the International Center of Photography, and mentors the photography program at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

He is a co-founder of the idea production company The Digital Distillery, author of popular filmmaking courses on Lynda.com, and regularly shares his thoughts on technology, photography, and cinema on his website eduardoangel.com.

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