Top Classical Music Scores Used As Movie Soundtrack

The great 1970s-era film and TV composer, Jerry Fielding, said something that I have always tried to remember when approaching the music for a film or for any type of soundtrack.

Most of us are aware of and do not like the kind of bad film music that intrudes and italicizes moments that have no need of such emphasis.” ***

Fielding is saying that using background music too obviously, or too literally, can throw off the balance of a scene by over-emphasizing the moment. Because it contributes to and reinforces the emotional atmosphere of the scene at hand, background music has great power to affect an audience’s perception of the film. When done with taste, it elevates the emotional experience of the film. When done poorly, it can add an inflated sentimentality or become overblown and bombastic. In a bad film, I often get the sense that the soundtrack is being used as a crutch. The director doesn’t believe the scene is working and feels it can be saved by adding a lot of extraneous music.

The great majority of film soundtracks comment directly on the scene at hand, For example, in a chase scene, the music usually tries to elevate the audience’s pulse with strong, invigorating music. It echoes the action on screen. However, some of the greatest soundtracks use a much less direct approach. The title sequence to Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull provides a great example of another, subtle, scoring technique.

The movie begins with slow-motion footage of boxer Jake LaMotta (played by Robert De Niro), shadow boxing inside the ring while the movie’s opening credits appear.  The classical background music accompanying this scene is Interlude from the opera Cavalleria Rusticana by the Italian composer Pietro Mascagni. Scorsese chose a piece of pre-existing classical music to form the opening soundtrack to Raging Bull.

Unlike standard underscore, this music doesn’t enlarge or highlight what is happening on screen. Instead, it plays against the scene, creating its own dimension, its own personalized color or texture. The use of Cavalleria Rusticana elevates the scene into a dreamlike, almost religious environment, evoking a sense of the tragedy that we, as audience members, are about to experience while watching the story of Jake LaMotta unfold. This is a much more interesting use of background music. It’s less obvious, more poetic and very powerful.

What is it about classical music that makes it so well-suited to such powerful artistic statements in a film?

The main reason is the music itself. There are no stronger themes than those found throughout the classical repertoire. Add to that the fact that this music is already established in our culture and we, in some cases, have built-in associations with it. Also, the music is hundreds of years old. It has survived the tests of time and we subconsciously experience it as existing on another plane, like a voice from above.

Here is a list of some other movies that use classical music to play against the events transpiring on screen. These scores operate as an overview, revealing the elemental, spiritual core of the movie’s meaning.

Platoon (1986) – The music is Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings – here again, this background music provides the spiritual heart of the film – a saga about the struggle between good and evil faced by soldiers newly-recruited to serve in Vietnam. This same theme is used to produce virtually the same effect in The Elephant Man (1980).

Godfather 1 (1972) – It’s one of the greatest sequences in film history – while attending the baptism of his niece, Michael, the new Godfather, has all his enemies massacred. The scene is scored using J. S. Bach’s music Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor.

Breaking Away (1979) – A coming of age film about a teenage boy so in love with cycling that he adopts all things Italian, including opera, in order to fully emulate his racing heroes.   The film’s most memorable and endearing scene contains no dialogue at all. In it, the main character reaches an incredible speed on his bike by cycling in the backdraft of a large truck. It’s a moment akin to the scene in Rocky 1 when Rocky victoriously leaps up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum. (Gonna Fly Now) except in this scene, the underscore is Mendelssohn’s Allegro, 1st Movement from the Italian Symphony.

2001 Space Odyssey (1968) – Stanley Kubrick’s visually stunning masterpiece uses the composition Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss as its main theme. There is also an incredible sequence using the Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss.

The Killing Fields (1984) – Features a recording of Pavarotti singing Puccini’s Nessun Dorma near the end of the film when the main character (Sam Waterston) has returned to the US after witnessing and surviving the ethnic cleansing in Pol Pot’s Cambodia.

Philadelphia (1993) – Tom Hanks as Andrew Becket comes to grips with his own impending death from AIDS while describing Giordano’s aria La Mama Morta (sung by the great Maria Callas) to his lawyer. The lawyer (Denzel Washington) finally gets beyond Becket’s homosexuality and sees him as a human – sees his humanity. Heavy stuff, also extremely powerful.

Manhattan (1979) – In the famous opening sequence, Woody Allen portrays the New York cityscape in a stunning black-and-white montage. The underscore is Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

The UniqueTracks Production Music Library contains over 200 hours of classical production music. Try searching our music library for classical background music to support your next production.

*** Jerry Fielding is best known for the following film soundtracks spanning the late 1960s through the 1970s: The Wild Bunch, The Outlaw Josie Wales, Straw Dogs, Semi-Tough, The Gauntlet. He also composed the main themes for two pretty famous TV shows – Hogan’s Heroes and Barnaby Jones.


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