Symphonies of the Silver Screen: Exploring Classical Music in Films

January 1, 2024
7 mins read

There’s nothing more timeless than classical music. Since the 17th century, when Johann Sebastian Bach, the godfather of classical music, was born, it has laid the foundations of the musical language we are accustomed to today.

Besides being primarily standalone works, directors often incorporate classical music into their films. Why? Sometimes, the works chosen perfectly highlight the emotions underlying the scenes. At other times, they can act as a social indicator of characters. Classical music is commonly associated with high class or a sense of beauty but can also depict moments of devastation and sadness. Let’s explore some of the most notable pieces of classical music used throughout film history.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 7, Movement II: Allegretto

When I think of classical music and films, I immediately think of Beethoven‘s 7th Symphony. The second movement, Allegretto (Italian for “fairly brisk”), is truly a mesmerizing and sonorous movement that is widely used in critical moments. 

A little history behind the piece: the premiere of this symphony became one of the most successful works of his lifetime. It premiered at a charity concert for wounded soldiers from the Battle of Hanau in the Napoleonic Wars and was well received. The second movement, in particular, mimics the sound of a funeral march, with its continuous rhythmic personality that carries throughout

Its most famous use is found in The King’s Speech. This critical moment saw King George VI broadcast a speech notifying the dawn of war in 1939. The music sets the tone and pace of this intense scene and successfully emulates the grave importance of this moment. 

Another film that uses this moving work is X-Men Apocolypse, which takes place during the critical event of the nuclear incident. It is also heard in The Knowing during the final scene where John Koestler returns to his family before the tragic explosion that kills the Earth’s population. He turns on the radio, and Beethoven becomes part of his reality and the soundtrack to this entire sequence, a good use of dietetic and non-diegetic sound.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Requiem, Lacrimosa

Mozart is a composer that is no stranger to being used in film soundtracks. His most well-known piece is from his Requiem, in which he died before it was fully complete and dubbed as his own “Requiem” as such. Lacrimosa has been used in numerous TV series and films due to its haunting and mournful character. 

An example of its use is found in Season 1 of The Crown. We hear this music during a sequence in which we learn of Prince Philip’s sister’s catastrophic death. This was also an indication of the connection his family had to the Nazi regime. At only 16 years old, this devastation was nothing short of a tragedy. ‘Lacrimosa’ paints the torment and sadness Philip must have been experiencing.

Lacrimosa is also heard in Mozart’s biopic Amadeus. We hear this movement during Mozart’s funeral. A very fitting choice as Lacrimosa is Latin for “weeping,” and due to his unfortunate and early death, it was a tragedy for such a spectacular talent.

J.S Bach: Cello Suite No.1 in G Major

Moving away from symphonic works and to something more intimate, Bach’s Cello Suite No.1 in G Major is a highly-regarded work that has stood the test of time. It’s found in various mediums, from TV adverts to series and films. It’s a great piece that can show the upper-class status of characters. Classical music tends to have this effect, and many associate it with wealth. 

This is certain in this example from the Daredevil series, where we encounter Wilson Fisk, the antagonist who is a wealthy and powerful figure with great influence within Hell’s Kitchen. We see a glimpse of his routine, and we hear Bach’s Cello Suite. It perfectly suits this scene, enhancing his clean and lavish lifestyle, separated from the rest of Hell’s Kitchen. 

The Cello Suite has also been featured in films like The Pianist, The Hangover Part II, and Elysium.

Claude Debussy: Clair de Lune

Is there a piano piece that can embody such beauty and serenity? Yes, it’s Debussy’s Clair De Lune. Why? It’s none other than a concoction of intimacy and beauty through simple melodies and harmonies that expand and contract. As part of his Suite Bergamasque, ‘Clair de Lune’ is the third movement, meaning ‘moonlight,’ offering a stark contrast to its sister movements, which are more energetic and bold.

Its most recognized use is from Twilight, where Bella wonders what Edward is listening to, and Clair de Lune begins to play. As they share this intimate moment, the piece embodies Edward’s sensitivity to Bella, the spark that begins their romance. 

This is a different method of using a soundtrack as Clair de Lune here becomes part of the film’s world, otherwise known as diegetic sound. Everything Everywhere All At Once also employs this method. However, Clair de Lune also acts as non-diegetic sound (sounds that aren’t part of the film world, like the film score). The piece acts as a symbol of love and an integral part of the storytelling between the protagonist Evelyn Wang and antagonist Dierdre Baeubeirdre. 

This video by Howard Ho has a fantastic deep dive into the role of Clair de Lune in Everything All At One; check it out!

Richard Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra

Nothing gets more epic than Strauss’ ‘Also sprach Zarathustra.’ In this short 2-minute segment of a much larger work, the majestic brass and enormous timpani hits set the tone for remarkable events, particularly those that occur in space. Strauss’ grand work is known for its appearance in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ which became the catalyst for this particular segment of the half-hour tone poem to be used in numerous film and TV moments.

The work itself became the main theme for ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ a story that follows a space voyage to the moon, Jupiter, and beyond in search of the origins of a mysterious artifact. The epicness that the piece emulates comes from several elements: the opening three notes, the brass fanfare instrumentation, and the textural build-up.

The fanfare opens with the notes C, G, and C (an octave above), which outlines a C5 chord. As the third of the chord (the note E) is absent, it creates a much more open sound. Looking at the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the editing is done in such a way that the frames change when the notes change. The texture gradually builds, and we hear even more explosive chords. Harmonically, this small segment grows with the texture, all landing on a big fat C major chord. Pretty epic! Furthermore, the slow-moving visuals of the space crafts, characters, and more, along with the sustained brass chords, make for an impactful opening.

Also sprach Zarathustra is also heard in WALL-E, when the captain of Starship Axiom tries to take back control, and in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where Wonka demonstrates the TV technology to the remaining golden ticket receivers. 

Johann Strauss II: The Blue Danube Waltz

There is nothing like an orchestral dance to enter this list. The Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss II is probably the most famous waltz ever written. It was also used and widely recognized in 2001: A Space Odyssey (it seems like this film greatly influenced future films in the music department). 

The Blue Danube is an elegant piece that has captivated listeners since it was used in an operetta entitled Indigo and the Forty Thieves. It soon became Richard Strauss’s most recognized work. It has a delicate opening from the shimmering tremolo strings and the soaring horn solo that establishes the melody of this waltz. The waltz then rhythmically establishes the classic um-cha-cha rhythm with the main melody in full blossom. 

As mentioned, it was used in 2001: A Space Odyssey during a sequence of outer space that displays visuals of Earth and a spacecraft flying in space. The intro to the Blue Danube complements the beauty and tranquillity of these outer space shots. This piece also highlights the “cosmic dance” between the docking ships and the elements of space. 

 The Blue Danube is also heard in the iconic Netflix series Squid Game. This is used in a rather clever way as the music that accompanies the announcements of the games. It’s ironic as the music is so light-hearted, when the games are unfortunately the opposite, their lives are at stake. In this video by TwoSetViolin, we can see a snippet of a shot of the contestants walking in a specific pattern, almost like a dance formation. Furthermore, a waltz of death. 

Samuel Barber: Adagio for Strings 

Looking for a heart-wrenching string orchestral piece? Samuel Barber has the perfect choice for you; his Adagio for Strings will for sure provide an emotional and heavy soundworld with this work. Best known for being featured in Platoon, Adagio for Strings is one of the most mournful and heartfelt soundscapes that greatly impacted audiences and critics. Its cathartic passion has been widely appreciated by directors and has made significant appearances in visual media. 

Platoon employs Adagio for Strings as its main theme. The film follows the experience of a US Army volunteer during the Vietnam War, witnessing the brutality of war, as well as the platoon facing internal conflicts from the harsh realities of war. It’s safe to say that just upon listening to the first minute of the piece, it’s gut-wrenching and sorrowful.

Within its final scene, we hear the protagonist, Charlie, speak his final words. His internal thoughts on war and the visuals of the baron land become immediately more impactful from the presence of the yearning strings. 

In conclusion, classical music’s enthralling journey from concert halls to the cinema screen illustrates its unwavering influence and versatility. Each piece, whether it’s a somber adagio or a vibrant symphony, brings a unique narrative power to film, enhancing emotions and deepening the storytelling experience

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Zoe Sones

Zoe Sones is a UK-based composer who focuses on acoustic contemporary classical and ambient electronic composition. In her works, she explores an array of textures and timbres of both instruments and nature’s very own sounds. She enjoys creating haunting electronic drones, writing harmonically rich and serene chords, while also being a bedroom DJ.