top of page

Chapter 1 Contents

Anchor 1

Part 1: Categories of Film Music 


The Title 

Title sequences capture the psychology of the film, introduce characters’ themes or capture an overall theme. The title sets the mood and style of the film. It can be at the beginning of the film directly after the production notices or imbedded after some dialogue or action takes place. The latter has become more popular with television dramas recently. 

The Godfather, directed by Francis Ford Coppola is an example of a theme that is introduced in the title and used, with variations in orchestrations, over the course of the entire film. The motive reflects the hardship that Italian immigrants experience in the new world. It is a motive that supports the psychology of struggles and death. 

The title sequences in Se7en, directed by David Fincher has an extraordinary title sequence scored by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails fame. This is an example of an imbedded title and music out sourced and not created by the composer used for the rest of the film. Notably, it is experimental in nature and does not adhere to any traditional methods of scoring the title scene. 



Cue 1.0:


The title sequence from Se7en with the title sound score by Nine Inch Nails. This is also an example of an experimental and hybrid score. Viewer discretion is advised.



Se7en | Directed by David Fincher | 1995 

Composer: Nine Inch Nails


Music that is used throughout a film is called underscore. It captures the feelings and emotions of a character, setting, or gives direction to a scene such as a chase sequence. Underscore may be understated and very subtle as in Monster’s Ball directed by Marc Forster or the underscore may be overstated as in the numerous comic book films and their sequels such a Batman Directed by Tim Burton. Over the top or Micky-mousing are also terms used to describe music that responds specifically to what is taking place on screen. The later term comes from Disney cartoons that had soundtracks overstating the events. Think Bugs Bunny. 



Cue 1.2:

Monster’s Ball | Directed by Marc Forster | 2001 

Composer: Asche and Spencer

Sting and Reveal 

Imbedded within the underscore are two possible cinematic events that highlight the action within the scene. They are: sting and reveal. A sting is a short music event any where from two to ten seconds long that punctuate a certain event in the film. The choice of instrument or timbre plays an important role in terms of the visual event is highlighting, i.e. and car going over a bridge in a chase scene or a door opening in a horror film. Stings bring additional attention to the drama taking place. They can be either clearly evident or very subtle. 


Cue 1.3:

Risky Business, directed by Paul Brickman with music by Tangerine Dream. Listen for the string stings and the use of ostinato.

Risky Business | Directed by Paul Brickman | 1983 

Composer: Tangerine Dream

Reveals are similar but longer events in which the music crescendos when the cinematography warrants a bigger sound. For example, you just reached the Grand Canyon after many weeks of travel and the camera pans out to capture the vastness of the canyon. Usually this would require some type of reveal. How big, or ‘over the top’, remains the question and is likely determined by the overall context and placement of the scene in the film. 



Cue 1.4:

Witness, directed by Peter Weir with soundtrack by Maurice Jarre. Listen for the passacaglia, a repeated bass line, used in this scene to build upon and towards the reveal.

Witness | Directed by Peter Weir | 1985 

Composer: Maurice Jarre

Period Music 

Period music is music that was created during a specific time period and can be used to describe music that utilizes the scales and instruments that belong to a geographic location, i.e. the use of a sitar if the film takes place in India. Period music ensures that there is no disconnect between the visuals and the music. One could ask why would you not use Beethoven’s music in a film about his life? 



Cue 1.5:

Immortal Beloved | Directed by Bernard Rose | 1994 

Composer: Ludwig Van Beethoven 


Diegetic or source music is music that emanates from within the scene and is part of creating realism and authenticity.  For example, a scene takes place in a country western bar and there is a band playing on the stage while the actors exchange dialogue at a table.  This is also referred to as production source.  Non-production source would be the actors are driving in a car with the radio playing.  The music from the radio would be added after the filming in post-production.  Note that source and underscore may be combined for added emotional effect and that there may be non-musical sources working with or against the music source. 


Cue 1.6:

A Few Good Men, directed by Rob Reiner with music by March Shaiman.  Note to the excellent source percussion and subtle brass motive. 

A Few Good Men | Directed by Rob Reiner | 1992 

Composer: Marc Shaiman 



An adapted score involves taking existing music and using it as title music, underscore (understated or overstated), period or diegetic music.  Adaptive cues can use the original recording or be modified through orchestration and arrangement.  The can also be deconstructed so that you only use the melody or chordal progression in a converted medium.  For example, the original may have been written for full orchestra and rearranged for string quartet with solo instrument or the adaptation may have been a pop song rearranged for jazz ensemble. 

It is not unusual to experience changes in medium, i.e. orchestral to electronic, tempo, ranges of parts, added harmonies or modified other wise.  The question is, do you want to use the adaptation in its original form or do you want to add a personal touch and interpretation that matches closer to the concept of the film. 



Cue 1.7:

2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick with Atmospheres an adapted score by Gyrögy Ligeti.

2001: A Space Odyssey | Directed by Stanley Kubrick | 1968 

Composer: Gyrögy Ligeti 



Credits are located at the end of the film and provide acknowledgement to those from all areas of the production to be recognized.  There are a number of ways that credit music may be treated.  First, they provide the opportunity to recapitulate to the title music.  Second, they may simply have new musical material.  Third, they may use popular songs as underscore for the text.  Pop songs have also been used as source or underscore within the film itself.  Use of pop songs was popular in the past and used to help market the film and sell CD/DVDs.  Overall, credit music can provide a summary of the mood of the film and provide closure. 

Cue 1.8:

Iron Man | Directed by Jon Favreau | 2008 

Composer: Black Sabbath 

Screen Shot 2021-09-24 at 10.10.09 AM.png

The following graphic is a summary of the types of film music described above.  The connecting lines indicate that there may be connections between the types. 

Illustration 1.1:  Types of Film Music 



bottom of page