I've been oddly fascinated with scenes in movies when the theme of the music diverges from what is going on in the movie. What is this device called?
May 31, 2007 10:20 PM   Subscribe

I've been oddly fascinated with scenes in movies when the theme of the music diverges from what is going on in the movie. What is this device called?

I want to call it bricolage: It's using whatever is useful to the director/artist, regardless of context, to get their main point across. They often occur in scenes of high emotional charge and the music and the action feature an almost paradoxical juxtaposition of themes. Not to say there aren't parallels between the two, it's just often times the context is all 'wrong.'

The music can be mamba during a serious interrogation or opera during an assassination. One specific example that comes to mind a scene from Oldboy where Vivaldi's Four Seasons plays in the background as a man is tortured. The contemporary movie and the classical piece are centuries apart, yet the frenzied violin goes amazingly well with the scene and manages to exemplify what's happening on-screen.

Other examples include scenes from Man on Fire and The Boondock Saints.

Is there a more specific term for this? What is it in particular that makes scenes like these so appealing? What are your favorite examples?
posted by mwang1028 to Media & Arts (41 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Adagio for Strings - Platoon
posted by santojulieta at 10:29 PM on May 31, 2007

Goodfellas springs to mind.
posted by shadow vector at 10:33 PM on May 31, 2007

Boyfriend (who is one of those underpaid uncredited composers for a major studio) says:

There are a few terms that are applicable, but there are no industry terms for it. When directors and composers discuss this, they do so in descriptive language rather than using a catch-phrase. Call it a juxtoposition, call it a contrast. If it is a particularly pungent scene, one in which the music 'turns on a dime' changing from very sweet to incredibly sinister, it is occasionally called a Purple Passage, which is used to indicate extreme emotionality and emotional swing. Purple Passage is mostly only used in the academic study of musicology and music history or opera, especially baroque opera.

Bottom line, no industry term for it.
posted by arnicae at 10:47 PM on May 31, 2007 [2 favorites]

Oooh, there's the famous scene in A Clockwork Orange where "Singin' in the Rain" plays over a scene of violent rape.
posted by web-goddess at 10:50 PM on May 31, 2007

And there's the ear chopping scene from Reservoir Dogs that's scored to "Stuck in the Middle with You."

I don't know the name for the technique, but those scenes are obviously memorable to me too!
posted by web-goddess at 10:54 PM on May 31, 2007

Michael Moore used this in Farenhiet 9/11. Louis Armstrong sings "It's a Wonderful World" while the planes crash into the WTC. Perhaps a bit heavy handed but it's definitely an example of what you're talking about.
posted by quadog at 11:29 PM on May 31, 2007

Well, this is a type of irony (dramatic irony, exploiting the difference in perception between the characters and the audience). More specifically it is probably almost always a form of satire, and even more specifically, a burlesque. I'm not sure that most filmmakers would use that terminology, though.

Maybe non-diegetic sound? That covers a broader range of material, though.
posted by dhartung at 11:41 PM on May 31, 2007

Well, this is a type of irony

That's what I was going to say.

Maybe non-diegetic sound?

No, that's almost all soundtrack music.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:47 PM on May 31, 2007

It's not dramatic irony, though.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:48 PM on May 31, 2007

Non-diegetic sound incorporates any kind of score material and most narration -- anything the characters can't hear. In some cases, this technique wouldn't even be that: in the Clockwork Orange scene web-goddess mentioned, the characters clearly can hear the music, if I'm remembering it right.

I'm a film studies person, not an industry person, but I'd call it "contrapuntal sound," which is what Eisenstein called it.
posted by SoftRain at 11:51 PM on May 31, 2007

I think the OP is looking for a word that might be used on the lot in Hollywood. I'm not finding that. What I am finding is a lot of use of variations on "(non-)diegetic sound" in film criticism to look at the use of -- yes -- all soundtrack music and the tension -- irony -- it creates with the onscreen action.

Kubrick class material
Tarantino essay

The key is that even music that isn't so unusual is manipulating the irony meter, drawing the viewer in and out of the world of the story and providing -- unintentionally, in some ways, because even with intention a director cannot anticipate all audience members' reactions -- a conscious or unconscious alternate reading of the material that the actors are presenting.
posted by dhartung at 11:53 PM on May 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

I actually kinda liked Pippin's mournful a capella performance in Return of the King when the defenders of Gondor led the normally action-themed suicidal counterattack to reclaim Osgiliath.
posted by wubbie at 11:56 PM on May 31, 2007

One of the most striking uses of irony in soundtrack (besides those already mentioned), is the transition from the last scene of Judgement at Nuremberg into the credits.

The move ends on a very depressing note, and you'd expect the credit music to be suitably somber, but instead it's jovial Oktoberfest-esque beer-hall singing. It seems totally out of place for the first few seconds (or at least it did to me, the first time I heard it), almost jarring, but then you can't help but appreciate the dark irony.

I could be wrong about it being "Judgment at Nuremberg"...I'm about 60% confident of that, but it could be some other Nuremberg/Holocaust-aftermath movie.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:34 AM on June 1, 2007

Interesting post. Since you pointed it out, it seems like a lot of epic style action movies of late have this feature in them at some point, highlighting a main character's "moment of clarity", often incorporating some kind of flashback. I'm actually reminded of a war movie in which the main character goes temporarily deaf and we are forced to watch a brutal attack in silence. I believe it was Saving Private Ryan.

Classical musicologists use "diegetic" a lot in reference to opera, i.e. whether one character can hear another's aria and so forth. I would use a different term to refer to the effect you are describing. How about "synesthetic dissonance"? I just made that up.
posted by aliasless at 2:00 AM on June 1, 2007

I love the scene in Snatch when Golden Brown comes in...
posted by chuckdarwin at 2:17 AM on June 1, 2007

As far as ironic juxtapositions: My Baby Just Cares For Me in Shallow Grave, as the camera pans around the dead roommate's naked corpse, and Don't Worry, Be Happy in both Welcome to Sarajevo and Jarhead.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 2:49 AM on June 1, 2007

The ending of the film Brazil. Horrifying. I don't have sound on this computer, but I think this video should cover it. [Warning: spoiler]
posted by Drexen at 4:08 AM on June 1, 2007

It may just be particularly noticable to you because typically the big action scenes in movies have huge orchestral and percussive scores, and th stark contrast draws your attention.

Obviously this is intentional.

The one that comes to mind for me is the Mordor battle from Return of the King. The commentary/BTS featurette makes reference to Howard Shore making the deliberate choice to have the underscoring of the climactic battle be almost serene and not like the prior bits.
posted by softlord at 5:35 AM on June 1, 2007

Dr. Strangelove, at the end, seems ironic to me. "I'll Be Seeing You" plays over--I can't believe I'm giving a spoiler alert here but I guess some haven't seen it--so [SPOILER]

images of the world being destroyed--guess I won't be seeing you. [END SPOILER]
posted by underwater at 5:41 AM on June 1, 2007

What is it in particular that makes scenes like these so appealing?

It works because it defies our expectations, and forces us to re-examine what we're seeing. Unfortunately, most films and TV drama is constructed from clichés. We like it this way because, as a rule, viewers don't like to be challenged (or at least not blatantly). But our eyes glaze over really quickly and, like clever dogs, we quickly learn the newest tricks the film-makers use, even if we don't realize. The Sopranos seemed fresh at one time, but now it's a little old hat. Same with the likes of Hill Street Blues, or LA Law.

I know quite a few TV dramas here in the UK that use the trick of a cheerful end theme tune. The drama ends on a sour, depressing note, but then some hyper-cheerful rock track is heard. Somebody's just found out that their father has died, the screen fades to black, and then Tom Jones' What's New Pussycat fires up. Or something. It's a cliché in itself.

It's almost bathetic. That could be a good word for you to look into if you're trying to describe this: Bathos. It's a kind of anticlimax, although not an unintentional one. It's almost a musical joke. A witticism.

But I think juxtaposition describes it perfectly. How about describing it as a "meta-thematic juxtaposition"?
posted by humblepigeon at 5:43 AM on June 1, 2007

The Kill Bill movies do this too. I also find it fascinating - it adds a depth to a scene that an, shall we say, 'appropriately emotive' piece might not.
posted by nkknkk at 5:57 AM on June 1, 2007

I'd call it "doing a Clockwork Orange" or "doing a Singin' in the Rain", but then I'm just some Joe off the street.
posted by reklaw at 6:02 AM on June 1, 2007

There's scene in the movie Very Bad Things where four guys are seen strolling down supermarket aisles gathering supplies needed to clean up a bloody murder scene and dispose of the dead body of hooker who found herself at her wrong bachelor party. A jazz-fusion disco-era tune by The Blackbyrds called "Do It Fluid" was the backdrop to scenes where bodies were dismembered, stuffed into trash bags, and then buried in the dead of night in the desert outside of Las Vegas. It helps to know that part of the song is the phrase, "I likes to party, I likes to party." I've watched that movie I don't know how many times because it's so dark and jarring, the juxtaposition of the music with what you see happening.

I'd also mention The Wizard of Oz. The bit of music that plays when you first see the Wicked Witch riding her bicycle, and then later riding her broom with the Flying Monkeys flanking her is rather silly-happy given that she's the bad guy of the movie.
posted by fuse theorem at 6:07 AM on June 1, 2007

Dr. Strangelove, at the end, seems ironic to me. "I'll Be Seeing You" plays over--

Isn't it Vera Lynn's "We'll Meet Again"? Or am I thinking of The Singing Detective?
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 6:25 AM on June 1, 2007

It is indeed "We'll Meet Again."
posted by danb at 6:36 AM on June 1, 2007

Sometimes it happens inside the music itself. For instance, in Artifical Flowers, Bobby Darin sings of a young child's parents dying somewhat euphemistically, "...they left for their final reward", and in the background you have happy high-pitched flutes doing twiddly bits.
posted by blue_wardrobe at 6:38 AM on June 1, 2007

There was an episode of Courage the Cowardly Dog on Cartoon Network in which some kind of Gerbil man is pulled over the edge of a waterfall in a boat with some very haunting music. The technique gets used in a lot of films, but to see it in a cartoon really speaks to how strange Courage was.
posted by buriednexttoyou at 6:42 AM on June 1, 2007

"Ironic juxtaposition" does seem like a pretty everyman-accessible label for it. And if we're talking Kubrick, we've got to mention the Chapel Of Love bit from Full Metal Jacket as well.
posted by cortex at 6:48 AM on June 1, 2007

I've always felt like (in some situations at least) this was more of an adaptation that's occurred to account for audiences' increasing numbness to on-screen violence. People are jaded about seeing it happen now, and are so conscious of fright music at this point that it's more often used to help engineer cat scares than used sincerely.

So I think an attempt is being made to make viewers more aware of what they're seeing by changing the music. That's my two cents.

Anyway, one of my favorites not yet mentioned was the horrific, bloody fight in the car in Playing God. The Bee Gees were playing in the background.
posted by zebra3 at 6:49 AM on June 1, 2007

The "Oh Danny Boy" scene from Miller's Crossing is one of my favorites. (Here it is on Youtube.)
posted by booth at 6:53 AM on June 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've usually heard it referred to as "contrapuntal music" by film scholars, though evidently that has a different meaning (see definition b) in music circles.
posted by ga$money at 7:19 AM on June 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

There's possibly also an interesting distinction between the use of ironic pop songs (which is very common) - where the juxtaposition comes through the cultural context of those songs, and there can be an added kick of irony through the re-contextualising of the lyrics - and juxtapositions that are achieved purely through unexpected tone for the original score for the film.

One of the ones that always sticks in the mind is Jaws - while everybody remembers the menacing Daaaaaah-Dum bit, every time I watch it I'm surprised by how much of the score is actually light, breezy and jolly. Especially the theme that accompanies most scenes where Quint's boat is speeding along - it sounds more like it should be soundtracking some bunnies gamboling in a field on a spring day.
posted by flashboy at 7:56 AM on June 1, 2007

This might not be entirely what you're talking about, but I thought Hot Fuzz employed a similar technique to hilarious effect. It used cop-movie scoring and editing (think the big bombastic strings and swooping cuts during a car chase) for scenes of village policing (pursuing farm animals over the countryside).

I wouldn't know what the heck it's called, though.
posted by lillygog at 8:37 AM on June 1, 2007

My favorite is Michael Moore's musical irony/contrapuntal music/whatever in Roger and Me, with the Beach Boy's "Wouldn't It Be Nice" playing over shots of dilapidated neighborhoods in Flint, Michigan. The song has never sounded the same to me since.
posted by infinitewindow at 9:15 AM on June 1, 2007

This is a perfect opportunity to *create* a word for this! There are obviously lots of examples of the technique (the one that sticks for me is Gary Jules' version of "Mad World" used for the Gears of War trailer). What about "score contrast"? I'm sure the hive can think of better neologisms.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:42 AM on June 1, 2007

Face/Off uses this technique. IIRC the sound of gunfire actually stops entirely for a few moments and is replaced by Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
posted by Octaviuz at 11:19 AM on June 1, 2007

I think my favorite Kubrick example would have to be "We'll Meet Again" played over a nuclear-fuck-holocaust.

quadog, wasn't that in Bowling For Columbine? I've never seen Faranheit 9/11, but I distinctly remember what you're talking about.
posted by the other side at 11:25 AM on June 1, 2007

In lectures, I've always referred to the technique as "dissonant media" - the use of two juxtaposed media forms (often, but not always, contrasting sound and visuals) forced together to highlight a theme. As mentioned, Kubrick was a master of it.

I prefer "dissonant media" simply because this is not a technique that is limited to film: it can be stretched to include some of Benetton's ads, for example.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 11:30 AM on June 1, 2007

Danny Boy in Miller's Crossing is great. 'What a Wonderful World' is also used in 'Good Morning Vietnam', over a violent montage. The mass slaying / consolidation of power at the end of The Godfather, with the music from the confirmation still playing in the background.
posted by svenx at 11:46 AM on June 1, 2007

Glad Tidings by Van Morrison plays while Tony whacks Tony B. on the Sopranos.
posted by peep at 12:01 PM on June 1, 2007

quadog, wasn't that in Bowling For Columbine? I've never seen Faranheit 9/11, but I distinctly remember what you're talking about.

No, it's definitely Roger and Me. It comes after one of the interview subjects describes having a breakdown when hearing Wouldn't It Be Nice on his car stereo after having been laid off, I think.
posted by stammer at 10:40 PM on June 1, 2007

« Older only the moon has never abandoned me   |   Give the girl a gold star! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.