Contrast is an important part of filmmaking, and a great way to add contrast to a scene is to ensure the music adds a whole new layer. This is called soundtrack dissonance, which is a technique many filmmakers keep in their filmmaking toolbox. Soundtrack dissonance allows filmmakers to flirt with multiple genres and tones within a single scene, making for a more entertaining and engaging film experience. Here are nine great examples of soundtrack dissonance that give a sense of how impactful music can be to a scene.
Good Morning, Vietnam
The Vietnam War was a dark moment in United States history. While the two World Wars before strengthened the spirit of the US, the Vietnam War seemed to divide the country in two. In Barry Levinson’s 1987 war comedy Good Morning, Vietnam, he utilized soundtrack dissonance by playing Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World” over images of war-torn Saigon and the tension between American soldiers and Vietnamese citizens. This choice gave the scene an ironic, yet tragic meaning.
The Silence Of The Lambs
The soothing melody of the “Goldberg Variations” composed by Johann Sebastian Bach and performed by Jerry Zimmerman was the perfect choice for Hannibal’s (Anthony Hopkins) escape scene in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence Of The Lambs. Earlier in the film, it is referenced that Hannibal attacked a nurse and his heart rate didn’t exceed 85 bpm. Using such a subtle song to accompany such a grisly and intense act gives the audience a glimpse inside the mind of Hannibal Lecter and how he may be able to keep his heart rate so low during his attacks. And seeing a bloody Hannibal meditate to the sounds of the “Goldberg Variations” is one of the most haunting images ever committed to celluloid.
“Hip To Be Square” by Huey Lewis and the News is an iconic song from the 1980’s but it’s nearly impossible to hear the song without thinking about Mary Harron’s 2000 film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellison’s novel American Psycho. In the film, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) discusses the intricacies of this 80’s mixtape staple before aggressively murdering his coworker Paul Allen (Jared Leto) with an ax. The scene changes tones so fast, yet the upbeat rhythm of “Hip To Be Square” continues to linger in the scene as a blood-soaked Bateman lustfully digests the heinous act he just committed. The scene is horrifying, but one can’t help but smirk at the satirical contrast between image and sound.
Monty Python’s The Life Of Brian
Monty Python’s The Life Of Brian, directed by Terry Jones, is a 1979 religious farce that follows a man named Brian (Graham Chapman) who is mistaken for the Messiah. The film ends with Brian being crucified; however, the ending is far from sad. As Brian and other prisoners dangle from the cross, they begin singing the jolly, upbeat song “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life,” written by Monty Python’s own Eric Idle. This scene stirred up a lot of controversy claiming that it poked fun at the crucifixion of Jesus, but the scene is humorously uplifting regardless. Without the use of “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life,” the final scene in The Life Of Brian would not be as memorable and hilarious as it is.
Shaun of the Dead
No one can make a zombie attack scene as funny as Edgar Wright. In Shaun of the Dead, Shaun (Simon Pegg) and his group take refuge in their favorite pub and must fight the zombified pub owner after the jukebox begins playing Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” The fact that the characters even comment on how ridiculous it is that Queen is playing only adds to the humor of the scene. Wright has always had bold musical choices in his films and does an amazing job choreographing and editing to the rhythm of the songs he chooses. This scene in Shaun of the Dead is one of the funniest scenes of the 21st century thanks to Wright’s use of soundtrack dissonance.
Quentin Tarantino is another filmmaker who takes pride in his musical taste and does not shy away from sharing them with his audience. This is an aspect of the auteur’s style and has been on display since his first film, Reservoir Dogs. There is a scene in the film where Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) tortures a police officer (Kirk Baltz) to the song “Stuck In The Middle With You” by Steelers Wheel while it plays over the radio. The easy-going tone of the song conflicts with the brutality of the scene, while also showing how deranged Mr. Blonde truly is.
Don’t Torture A Duckling
Similar to the scene in Reservoir Dogs, Lucio Fulci’s 1972 giallo classic Don’t Torture A Duckling features an early example of soundtrack dissonance. The film contains a scene where an occultist woman who is thought to be a child murderer is beaten to death by angry townspeople. The scene is scored by the upbeat sounds of “Rhythm” by Luis Bacalov and “Crazy” by Wes and the Airedales as they play over a car radio. The loud music is utilized by the attackers to conceal the woman’s screams, but it also works to make the men in the scene seem more sadistic. Fulci was able to deliver a shocking scene that has pioneered soundtrack dissonance in film.
The Evil Dead
Throughout the insanity that is Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, Ash (Bruce Campbell) experiences unrelenting torment from the deadites. There is a scene in the film where he is exploring the basement, when a record player suddenly begins playing the traditional jazz song “Charleston.” The song adds to the chaotic nature and unpredictability of the scene. This moment gives the audience an early glimpse of Raimi’s old-timey sensibilities while also adding some cheekiness to an otherwise horrifying scene.
Easily one of the most recognizable scenes on this list is the printer scene from Mike Judge’s Office Space. Set to the gangster rap song “Still” by Geto Boys, Peter (Ron Livingston), Michael (David Herman), and Samir (Ajai Naidu) go out to an isolated field where they destroy a faulty printer. The scene plays out like something you’d see in a gangster film, but the reality of the situation is it’s just three dorky white-collar guys taking out their pent up aggressions on a printer. Had the scene been accompanied by any genre of music other than gangster rap, the scene would not be as memorable as it is today.