Music in Movies

Music and film seem inextricably linked. Even in the days of silent cinema, theatres hired pianists to play music accompanying the on-screen action. The advent of recorded visuals with sound […]

Music and film seem inextricably linked. Even in the days of silent cinema, theatres hired pianists to play music accompanying the on-screen action. The advent of recorded visuals with sound brought song to the big screen, meaning musicals galore, but it wasn’t until the New Hollywood cinema of the late 1960s that studios created the “modern day” film soundtrack, composed of popular music. The younger audience attracted by films like The Graduate loved that they could see a film and afterwards buy a record of the soundtrack to take home, and the studios loved that they could make extra profit.

The arrival of the modern soundtrack almost mirrors the arrival of the young consumer and the pop music explosion, fusing the two together in a new way. It marks a clear split from what went before, creating an environment in which music is central to cinema. It grew to play a key role in the likes of the Brat Pack films and Back to the Future; the next generation of films aimed at young people. Think Pretty in Pink: Andie works in a record store and she and Blaine’s relationship grows from their meetings there. The class tension between them becomes manifested in music, 80s hipster jokes ensue, and let’s not forget Duckie’s dance! You can see the same trends today: Adventureland, Juno, Submarine. All are coming-of-age films meant to appeal to a particular market. Music became a way to identify with and relate to the central characters. It let you know what sort of person they were, and contextualised the world they lived in.

It’s not just films for young people, though – music and film seem to have formed an even deeper relationship as time has gone on. Films centre around music lovers (High Fidelity, Almost Famous, School of Rock), they’re made by music lovers (Tarantino, Judd Apatow and co) and aimed at music lovers (you). There are countless examples of musicians curating soundtracks, from the aforementioned Graduate soundtrack by Simon & Garfunkel, to Kill Bill by RZA and The Social Network by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Artists even star in films. David Bowie in Zoolander is an epic, unexpected, cameo if ever I saw one.


Baz Luhrmann deserves an honourable mention for his incredibly juxtaposed soundtracks, reworking more contemporary tracks to fit the turn-of-the-century setting in Moulin Rouge! and slipping Radiohead into a Shakespeare adaptation.

Pop music soundtracks, just like any song from a musical, add to the cult of the film. Depending on how you look at it, it’s all a marketing trick to get you to remember the film, but regardless, a well-chosen soundtrack warms you to the characters and draws you into their world. Songs can easily become symbolic of the film they feature in. If I just say Titanic – you know what I mean…

The soundtrack allows a filmmaker to tap into an audience’s emotions in a way that only music can. Film itself can only go so far. You can provide as many sympathetic, real and relatable characters as you like but it’s the music that drives it home. Would you be pumped to watch Sly Stallone punch people without Eye of the Tiger? Hell, even Chariots of Fire; do you think a bunch of people running across West Sands would be half as compelling if there was no backing music? You can see that any day! Would you be so swept away by Will Ferrell and Jon Heder’s EPIC skating scene in Blades of Glory without “Flash (AHHH)” playing in the background?

Musical or not, films depend on a strong soundtrack to develop the world they show on screen for heart-warming or heart-breaking reasons. They need music to narrate and punctuate the action, build the tension and break the ice. It might play in the background- sometimes too quietly for you to make out what it is – but music is central to creating an authentic atmosphere in a film, one which draws you in and makes you feel, just for an hour or two, that it’s your world too.