What is the function of film music?

Types of film music with examples from popular films. Learnings for me as a composer.

Ben Spooner
5 min readJul 10, 2022
Photo by Maksym Kaharlytskyi on Unsplash

‘Sound is 50% of the movie experience’.
George Lucas.

Source Music
Source music is the name given to music that has a source within the action of the film, for example the music played by an orchestra which we see on screen. Source music can also start as non diegetic music (i.e. the characters are unaware of it) and become diegetic, that is to say the source of the music is eventually revealed as being on screen. An example of this is in Sense & Sensibility when the actor Alan Rickman walks into the manor with piano and singing accompanying him, but he only becomes aware of this music as he enters a certain room where the source of the music is revealed.

Katewinsletcinema, 2008

Another is in the film Birdman when Michael Keaton and Edward Norton are walking and having a heated discussion, accompanied by drumming which they are seemingly unaware of, until they walk past a drummer in the street.

SearchlightPictures, 2014

Score that is integral to the film plot
This is the most rare and complicated use of music in film. The best example is Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, which many consider to have a rare music and film synergy. The most iconic part of the score is a five note sequence, featured multiple times throughout the entire film, and playing an important role in the story: the musical sequence is used to try and communicate with the alien invaders.

Stonehouse, 2021

This is when a melody or motif (a set of musical notes that is frequently repeated) is composed as a signature for a character. Variations of the melody can be created in order to depict different aspects of the character’s personality or growth throughout the story. Leitmotifs are often used to signal villains and heroes, but they do not always have to relate to a person. They can be tied to a concept such as ‘the force’ in Star Wars or ‘the ring’ in Lord of the Rings.

Main title music
The music played during the opening credits (and usually in the film trailer) represents the essence of a film and its characters. It sets the tone for the film, hints at the emotions the audience will experience, and sums up the overall mood and style. In some cases the main title music also represents the main character, such as James Bond. The best title music becomes an earworm, instantly recognisable and synonymous with the film itself. Composers who are experts at this are John Williams (Star Wars, Jaws, Indiana Jones), Howard Shore (The Lord of The Rings, The Silence of the Lambs, Gangs of New York) and Bernard Hermann (Vertigo, Taxi Driver, Citizen Kane).

Bernard Hermann’s masterpiece Vertigo perfectly captures the ‘feel’ and ‘themes’ of the film.

MovieTitleScreens, 2013

Music as Identity
Music can be used to identify key aspects of a film such as a character’s ethnicity, geographical location and the time period the story is set in. James Horner’s instrumentation of the music accompanying the war scene in Braveheart, as two armies approach each other, not only identifies the English and the Scottish sides, it adds cultural depth and authenticity to the narrative. For the English Horner uses strings. For the Scots the bagpipes. He uses music to clearly distinguish between the two cultures and highlight the differences between them, the differences that have led to battle.

4K HDR Media, 2018

Underscore is always non-diegetic sound. It parallels the action of the film, and is a frame-by-frame musical match to the visuals. It gives the viewer only what is already known from the visuals, which means it is always empathetic sound. Some film scores are entirely underscore, for example the film The Rock.

When the music is cue-by-cue scored alongside the action on screen, when it is meticulously synchronised, it is called mickey-mousing. As the name suggests, it is found in many cartoons. These scores require rapidly fluctuating music gestures. The composer Danny Elfman expertly uses the mickey-mousing technique in the first spiderman film. Mickey-mousing is often associated with comedy, but this clip demonstrates how fantastically it can add drama and excitement.

Movieclips, 2016

Contrapuntal music
Music that jars with the mood on-screen can be described as contrapuntal. It can give a scene an additional feeling and meaning that would otherwise not be there. It is similar to anempathetic sound, in the sense that there is that same indifference or contrast to the content of the scene. In the famous ear cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs, Gerry Raffety’s song Stuck In The Middle With You allows you to enjoy and indulge in what is in fact a very gruesome scene. Without the music we would probably find it disgusting. This upbeat song choice also hints at the pleasure the attacker gets from violence, and how flippant he is about it, how ‘every day’ it is for him.

JackBauer137, 2017

What can I learn from successful film composers?
What has struck me the most as I researched different types of film music, is just how much music can impact and even change the meaning of a scene. When used simply it can reflect the characters’ emotions and underline important moments of action on-screen, but it also has the power to reveal ‘unspoken’ thoughts and feelings, and to significantly shape the audience’s understanding of the story. It is easy to think of film as primarily a visual medium, but the sound we hear is arguably equally as important as what we see, as expressed by director David Lynch: ‘Films are 50% visual and 50% sound. Sometimes sound overlaps the visual’. In addition to ‘covering the basics’ with any future film music I create (setting the time period, location, punctuating the action etc) my research has inspired me to think much more broadly and creatively about what music could add to a film, how it could push and enrich the story further. I have a renewed appreciation for the artistry and nuance that composers can bring to the table.


4K HDR MEDIA. (2018). Braveheart — Battle of Stirling Cavalry Charge (HDR — 4K — 5.1). [Online video]. May 15th. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QULj7MecgaQ. [Accessed: 07.12.2021].

JACKBAUER137. (2017). Reservoir Dogs — Ear Cutting Scene (1080p).[Online video]. June 19th. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ls9eX-VGHko. [Accessed: 12.12.2021].

KATEWINSLETCINEMA. (2008). Kate Winslet Singing — Sense & Sensibility. [Online video]. November 15th. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JYe-BI66l1w. [Accessed: 07.12.2021].

MOVIECLIPS. (2016). Spider-Man Movie (2002) — Peter’s New Powers Scene (2/10) | Movieclips. [Online video]. December 8th. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zlwaUJzGqns. [Accessed: 07.12.2021].

MOVIETITLESCREENS. (2013). Vertigo — OPENING TITLE SEQUENCE.[Online video]. March 23rd. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4CZfSc6nJ8U. [Accessed: 07.12.2021].

SEARCHLIGHTPICTURES. (2014). BIRDMAN: “Coffee”. [Online video]. October 8th. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-fQ-xd1whA. [Accessed: 07.12.2021].

STONEHOUSE, J. (2021). SOUND DESIGN IN VISUAL MEDIA, 7CTA1104–0909–2021, [Lecture notes] Sound Design 1. University of Hertfordshire, MSc in Music and Sound for Film and Games, Remote, October 2021.



Ben Spooner

Self taught musician who loves to learn and share with the world. www.benspooner.co.uk