Film Music Clichés

Clapperboard and Film It's difficult to be totally original, whether you're writing novels, designing next year's fashions or in the movie business. We've seen it all before and we've heard it all before. Hollywood is an industry that does not like to take big possibly costly risks so we see sequel after sequel, remakes, prequels and plots which seem strangely familiar. Film Music and music in general also has its clichés. Some of these clichés are intrinsic to the medium since certain types of music suggest various locations, moods or emotions (see What is Music?), but also we must remember the time pressures that composers are working under. It's very difficult to write an hour's worth of original music when you've a deadline in a couple of weeks, and if it's backgound music which few will notice (being drowned out by dialogue, car chases and explosions anyway) then what's the point! Forget the excuses, here we've identified some of the more frequent music clichés (but this is all lighthearted, so please don't complain if your favourite film is mentioned):

  • Closing Titles similar or identical to Opening Titles
  • Strip of Film Having put a lot of effort into getting the opening titles just right, why bother writing something new for the Closing titles. Come to think of it, why not repeat the same music at various points throughtout the film!
    Examples: Star Wars, Superman, Halloween
    Exceptions: Saving Private Ryan
    Last word: well no-one's listening when there's a mad rush to escape the cinema.

  • An uplifting tune for the good guys and a dark theme for the baddies
  • Everyone knows that you just need a simple traditional melody in a major key for the goodies, and a strange, dark or repetitive sounds in a minor key to suggest the evil ones.
    Examples: The Magnificent Seven, Independence Day, Star Wars, Star Trek (any)
    Exceptions: none?
    Last Word: 2 Cowboy Hats - one White and one Black Of course the good guy is recognisable because he's wearing a white hat and riding a white horse, and wins the girl! This probably the most common component of movies around the world. Whether for film or commercial production purposes, the good guy with a white hat and riding a white horse has always been present.

  • Use a chorus to suggest mysterious forces
  • female singer Wordless voices can easily suggest strange, wonderful spooky things happening, whether religious, mystical or mythical. If you must use words then make it Latin or something so that no-one understands them.
    Examples: The Abyss, Excalibur, The Ten Commandments, The Phantom Menace
    Exceptions: none?
    Last Word: You can suggest evil forces in the same way with a strange and dark tune in a minor key, e.g. Bram Stoker's Dracula or The Omen

  • It's easy to sound foreign
  • Mixing Ethnic Music You might want to give an ethnic feel to the music, but why bother to do months of research. Authentic world music is difficult to perfect and it might not sound right in the movie. Using a recognisable ethnic instrument will give a suggestion of authenticity and you can then revert back to the typical hollywood music. So it's digeridoos for Australia, Cymbals for anything Oriental, a trumpet for Mexico and of course a whistle for Ireland.
    Examples: Far and Away, Titanic, Michael Collins
    Exceptions: who can tell?
    Last Word: Don't forget drums in the jungle!

  • Sword fencing accompanied by cymbals
  • Crossed Swords A lot of sword fencing scenes with an energetic orchestral score seem to have relatively random cymbal crashes. These are usually short, sharp cymbals sounding very much like two swords hitting each other. The cymbals aren't usually synchronised with the action (that would be too much like the cartoon world of Mickey Mouse and co.) but enough to carry the suggestion of the fencing action. It was probably Korngold, Steiner and the other early film composers who started it, but the convention seems to have stuck.
    Examples: The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Mark of Zorro, The Sea Hawk
    Exceptions: The cymbals aren't mandatory, so there's bound to be exceptions...
    Last Word: Lightsabers are sword-substitutes but they make a different noise!

  • Weird music to depict weirdness
  • Man Possessed by Weird Forces It goes without saying doesn't it? There are many different types of weirdness you might want to depict: drunkenness, some other kind of trip or hallucination, a lead character becoming mentally unstable (or in horror films they appear to be seeing things, but the ghosts are real!), or aliens arrive from another planet. This weirdness might be conveyed just by the music doing odd or unexpected things, or usuing unusual instrumentation. A common example of the latter is the Theremin (a weird sounding electronic instrument) which has been used to convey many of these strange moods.
    Examples: The Lost Weekend, Altered States, Spellbound, The Thing, Forbidden Planet
    Exceptions: There are exceptions but they aren't weird enough!
    Last Word: Sometimes you want to tone down the weirdness, so Benjamin Button is an example of mild engaging weirdness

  • Love themes must be played on strings
  • A Violin and A Rose This rule applies to love themes or any theme for the heroine or love interest of the main (male) character. Note also how many opening titles start with a fanfare or heroic masculine music before sliding into a slower, softer, gentler section with the love theme, before returning to the heroic music again for the conclusion.
    Examples: Superman, The Mark of Zorro, The Sea Hawk or anything by Korngold
    Exceptions: very few but this follows a typical pattern for the classical overture,
    Last Word: Well most film makers and virtually all film composers are men anyway.

  • Jazz tunes must be played on a saxophone
  • sax player Jazz tends to be played by small bands rather than symphony orchestras, and usually there's one lead instrument improvising while the others accompany. No-one knows why but a saxophone seem to fit the lead role better than any other solo instrument, so why deviate from this expectation.
    Examples: Blade Runner, Taxi Driver, Body Heat
    Exceptions: Basic Instinct (on flute)
    Last Word: Well, it's hard for a whole symphony orchestra to sound jazzy!

And still more film music clichés...

    horror face
  • In horror movies, add to the shock of the moment with a big noise on the soundtrack, even if it's one of those many shocks which turn out to be false alarms, e.g. too many to list!
  • All Sci-Fi B-movies must use spooky electronic noises in the soundtrack like someone has been turning the dial on a sine-wave tone generator, e.g. The War of the Worlds, Mars Attacks, The Blob (another weird noise on The Blob soundtrack is the title song!)
  • Using music or sound effects, portray large objects with loud, deep and long notes, and small objects with quiet high and short notes, e.g. the Mothership and the little ship in Close Encounters. Actually this is just good physics and why mice squeak and elephants trumpet.
  • soldiers marching
  • All war movies have got to have marches in them (obvious eh?) even when you don't see soldiers marching, e.g. The Great Escape, Bridge over the River Kwai, 1941, Midway
  • Write or borrow a pop song to be associated with the movie. Occasionally this works and both are a big success (though sometimes it flops) e.g. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Laura, My Girl, High Noon, Blue Velvet, Philadelphia. Actually you can fill the whole movie with pop music like Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs
  • stars
  • When inspiration fails you can always use or adapt some classical music, and you can disguise it a little so that the borrowing isn't too obvious, e.g. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Aliens, Gladiator, Excalibur.
  • If there's not enough music to fill a soundtrack, you can always issue a CD with the words "music from and inspired by the movie" (in small print of course).

And while we're in lighthearted lampooning mood, have you noticed this trick appearing in a number of films and TV shows:

  • Some music is playing unobtrusively in the background. If you even notice it you assume it is part of the soundtrack accompanying the film, until one of the characters switches off the hi-fi and then you realise it was not quite so background after all!
old-fashioned record player

music notes To be serious for one minute, many of these cliches are there for very good reasons. They are just extensions of the concepts mentioned in our article What is Music? It is usually just plain wrong to have energetic action conveyed with subdued music or vice-versa, unless you are trying to achieve a specific and unusual purpose. Likewise there is the appropriateness of high-pitched sounds versus low and deep sounds explored in the article. And finally there are the social conventions, which dictate when it is appropriate to play marches or waltzes.