How to Use Source Music: 5 Lessons from Classic Film

May 23, 2016

Posted in: Music, Film

In the world of TV and film, background music is used in a variety of ways. In a broad sense, we can divide music into what film theorists call diagetic and non-diagetic music. Diagetic music is part of the reality of the scene. It is what the character hears and occasionally reacts to in the moment. Non-diagetic music is heard only by the audience. This includes the film’s score, as well as songs that play over the picture as an expression of emotion, tone, or narrative.
In the music licensing world, diagetic music is more frequently called source music. Common uses of source music are characters listening to the radio, music played at a bar or club, and music performed by the characters themselves (or by an on-screen band).
It’s easy to overlook the importance of source music. If your characters are on a road trip together, it’s tempting to think that the choice of music on the radio doesn’t really matter (and they will be listening to music, nobody wants an awkward silent road trip!). While that may be true in some cases, it’s important to remember even the smallest music cue is an opportunity to add to the film in a meaningful, creative way.
There are countless examples of this in classic film. Let’s take a look at 5 ways directors have used source music to great effect.
Complement the Scene
The most straightforward way to use source music is to complement the scene, that is, use a song that is a logical extension of the story and which creates a powerful emotional effect. The Godfather’s famous baptism scene uses the full dynamic range of a cathedral pipe organ, becoming increasingly dissonant, as the scene builds to a series of violent murders. Johnny Depp’s character in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas plays the drug anthem “White Rabbit” to underscore an odd drug-fueled bathtub scene.
Contrast the Scene
Source music is often used to surprise and unsettle the audience, by purposely clashing with what’s happening on screen. In American Psycho, Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman commits a brutal axe murder to the cheerful pop stylings of Huey Lewis. In Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hank’s character plays Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose” over outdoor speakers in a war-torn city, highlighting the stark contrast between the beauty and ugliness of humanity.
Make ‘Em Laugh
Source music has always been fantastic fodder for comedy. Take the classic comedy trope of cutting between a pulse-pounding action scene and a character in an elevator listening to muzak, as in this scene from The Blues Brothers. Or Kevin McCallister listening to Bing Crosby’s “White Chrismas” trying aftershave for the first time, or Ace Ventura getting on stage with Cannibal Corpse to perform “Hammer Smashed Face”. The list is truly endless – it’s hard to find a comedy film that doesn’t use music for comedic effect.
Make ‘Em Squirm
A more unexpected use of source music is often found in horror films. From creepy dolls and music boxes to the little girl who chanted “One, Two, Freddy’s Coming For You” in Nightmare on Elm Street , music can be great for putting the audience on edge. In recent years many films have turned to perverted versions of well-known tunes to disturb us in subtle ways, such as “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” from Insidious or ”Turn Around and Look At Me” from Final Destination 3.
Let the Characters Shine
Perhaps the most effective way for music to influence a scene is to have the characters themselves participate in the performance. From the disturbing, such as this performance of “In Dreams” in David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” to the hilarious, like Will Ferrell singing “Con Te Partiro” in Step Brothers, to pure fun, like Michael J. Fox’s performance of “Johnny B. Goode” in Back to the Future. The list of memorable onscreen performances is nearly endless.
Every Track an Opportunity
If you’re in need of music for a scene, take some time to make a conscious, artistic choice. Every musical moment is an opportunity to add to your vision, to add depth to the story, and to entertain the audience on multiple levels. Details matter, so take some inspiration from the classics and make those details count.

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