The Apocalypse Now helicopter attack. The Apprentice’s theme tune. The Hovis ad directed by Sir Ridley Scott. When you think of your favourite films, TV shows and ads, we’re willing to bet that a high proportion of them feature classical music on their soundtracks. Moving pictures and classical music go together like, well, bread and butter. But why?
Dive in as we explore some of the inspiring ways in which creatives use classical music in media projects, from the small screen to IMAX, to captivate audiences and produce iconic moments, bring the drama and heighten our emotions.
Setting the Mood
Did you know that not only can Beethoven, Vivaldi or Mozart’s musical stylings transport you to a different time and place, but they can also boost memory and aid relaxation?
Classical music’s calming effect releases dopamine to spike pleasure – which also prevents the release of stress hormones, improving your mood. A 2018 study on the effects of different types of music on patients’ pre-operative anxiety shows that classical music can cause the heart rate and breathing to slow and also decreases emotional distress.
So, there are proven technical reasons for using classical music in film, TV and ads, if you’re looking to score something designed to have a calming effect on your audience.
However, classical music has also been used throughout cinematic history to suggest the darker side; you only have to think of Hannibal Lecter (played by Anthony Hopkins) pursuing his grisly pleasures accompanied by Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’, or the ultra-violence in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange against the backdrop of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’.
In Philadelphia, ‘La Mamma Morta’, a rapturous aria, signified heroism, whilst The Pianist used Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20 and Ballade No. 1 to show the personal effect of classical music in the story of a Polish Jewish musician struggling to survive the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto in World War II.
A full orchestra can be a fantastic shortcut to bringing on a rush of emotions – especially if it’s an epic piece that really builds, such as the ‘Lacrimosa’ from Mozart’s Requiem, which is used underneath the tragic sequence where the composer is buried in a pauper’s grave in the rain in Amadeus.
Camera angles, lighting, costume, sets and dialogue can create whole universes of emotion and atmosphere, but classical music can either get your audience there faster, or intensify suspense, romance, action or horror.
This explainer demonstrates how a classical music staple, the Dies Irae, or ‘Day of Wrath’ has been used for decades in movie soundtracks to generate a sense of dread:
When it’s been used everywhere from Star Wars to The Lion King, The Fellowship of the Ring to Game of Thrones and The Good Place, classical music’s effectiveness when it comes to creating a mood is clear.
Classical music can have a profound emotional impact and resonate deeply with viewers. Whether major (happy) or minor (sad), full of harmonies and dynamic shifts or intricate melodies, there’s a classical piece to fit whatever mood a director wants to make you feel.
A complex piece is often associated with feelings such as awe, astonishment or terror. Its musical elements may involve intense conflict or turbulence, or alternatively conjure up transcendence or otherworldliness.
Schubert’s String Quartet No. 13 was used in Avengers Assemble, for example, to bring in ominous undertones as the otherworldly Loki creeps into a Stuttgart museum – and as his attack begins, the quartet explodes into action.
Many directors also use classical music to create jarring juxtapositions and unnerving emotional responses – Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange being perhaps the most obvious. Any kind of dissonance between music and action has the power to make the scene more poignant, emotional or terrifying.
Plus, of course, classical music can be used to create both emotion and a plot point – as in Pretty Woman, when Richard Gere’s character, Edward, takes Vivian (Julia Roberts) to the opera – La Traviata - whose plot mimics her own.
Classical Music in Films
By the 19th century, it was common to have incidental music for stage plays, such as Schubert’s Rosamunde, Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and Grieg’s music for Ibsen’s Peer Gynt.
So it was inevitable that when silent films began to appear, they’d be accompanied by specially-composed music. Not only did it help to set the mood of a scene and punctuate important moments, but it served the practical purpose of masking the noise of the projector…
The first score specifically written for a film was by Camille Saint-Saens in 1908 (L’assassinat du Duc de Guise), a historical drama. Erik Satie was the first to devise a method of synchronising his music to create a frame-by-frame film score in 1924.
Obviously, both cinema and soundtracks have evolved hugely during the following century, and classical music has always played an influential role in filmmaking.
Classical compositions have been skillfully incorporated into films to enhance the narrative, evoke emotions and create some truly unforgettable cinematic moments, leaving a lasting impression on audiences.
The Shawshank Redemption
In one of the most memorable scenes from The Shawshank Redemption, Mozart is used as a demonstration of rebellion and freedom. Prisoner Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) locks himself in the warden’s office and plays ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ throughout the whole prison, bringing everyone to a standstill.
Morgan Freeman’s Red, in a voiceover, encapsulates the emotion they feel because of this unexpected beauty: ‘I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words and it makes your heart ache because of it… For the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.’
The Mozart piece gives the scene a timeless quality – and it’s one of the composer’s most-used in movies and TV. Willy Wonka played the opening to it to unlock his famous chocolate factory doors; King George VI (Colin Firth) is challenged to recite Hamlet whilst listening to the famous overture so loudly that he can’t hear his own stammer in The King’s Speech:
Demonstrating classical music’s endless versatility, the overture’s been used in comedy – Wedding Crashers, Runaway Bride and Trading Places – and in Zombieland, the music swells as survivors of a zombie apocalypse smash up the contents of a grocery shop.
When it comes to epic orchestral scores in action-packed blockbusters, they don’t come much better than the combination in Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation.
As an assassination scene unfolds in the opera house during a performance of Turandot, the dark spaces, lofty walkways and hidden viewpoints backstage create the perfect set-up; Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) is one of three assassins. Cleverly leaning into the classical music element, she brings a score with her to choreograph her killer shot to the crescendo molto at the end of ‘Nessun Dorma’.
The fight sequences are also exquisitely timed with the music’s tension and dramatic high points, showcasing just how impactful an artful use of classical music in a movie can be.
Enhancing films with classical music is a device that’s been deployed particularly successfully by a number of classic Vietnam war films. The Deer Hunter features ‘Cavatina’ by Stanley Myers, whilst Platoon used Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ to score a lead character’s tragic death and reinforce its emotion:
However, in terms of fusing a classical piece with visuals in fans’ minds, they don’t come much more iconic than Apocalypse Now. Francis Ford Coppola’s use of Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ during a mass helicopter attack creates not only a terrifying soundtrack, but is interwoven into the action, as Colonel Kilgore pumps it through the helicopter’s speakers at the start of the scene to hype up his men.
This music choice almost becomes a character, as well as being an illustration of Kilgore’s character in the ‘theatre of war’; it’s a very visceral combination for the viewer, and an unforgettable sequence.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Is there a more iconic combination of classical music and film? As the sun, moon and earth emerge in 2001’s opening credits, it’s unimaginable without the epic, pounding fanfare of Richard Strauss’s 1896 ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’. But it almost didn’t happen; director Stanley Kubrick had commissioned composer Alex North to write the soundtrack, but used the Strauss as a temp track and explained that, ‘although [North] and I went over the picture very carefully, and he listened to these temporary tracks (Strauss, Ligeti, Khatchaturian) and agreed that they worked fine and would serve as a guide to the musical objectives of each sequence he, nevertheless, wrote and recorded a score which could not have been more alien to the music we had listened to, and much more serious than that, a score which, in my opinion, was completely inadequate for the film.’
Kubrick was definitely wedded to the power of classical music: ‘However good our best film composers may be, they are not a Beethoven, a Mozart or a Brahms. Why use music which is less good when there is such a multitude of great orchestral music available from the past and from our own time?’
For a useful way of demonstrating the transformative power of classical music, first watch the opening sequence with Alex North’s composition:
And then with the Strauss piece:
Cinematic history was born, and its influence can be seen everywhere from Toy Story 2:
To this Zoolander parody:
While the BMW i3’s ad campaign fused the ‘sunrise’ idea from 2001’s opening sequence with a jazz version of ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ for a 21st century take:
Classical Music in TV Shows
A TV theme is often an ideal way of setting the mood with classical music – from the power and drama of ‘O Fortuna’ and Prokofiev to the gentler tones of Downton Abbey.
Classical compositions can also create authenticity and transport viewers to a specific time period in historical dramas.
The X-Factor – ‘O Fortuna’ (Carmina Burana)
‘O Fortuna’ was the sound of Saturday nights for years, as the X-Factor judges strode across the stage. The dramatic choral piece is one of the most widely-heard classical music pieces; Old Spice used it as the brand theme for their ads, and in TV, it’s been used everywhere from Brooklyn 99 to How I Met Your Mother and even Glee.
Although it was inspired by medieval poems, it was actually composed in the 1930s. And even though you may not understand the Latin lyrics, they’re talking about Fortuna, the Roman Goddess of Fortune, and the fickleness of fate, which is perhaps why (along with the sheer drama of its opening bars), it’s often also used for sports coverage.
Similarly powerful is Sergei Prokofiev’s ‘The Dance of the Knights’ theme from his ballet Romeo and Juliet, which has been heralding the arrival of a slew of new business hopefuls since The Apprentice first hit our screens in 2005.
It’s bombastic, it’s got some slightly shrieking, unnerving strings in the middle part, a fairly full-on feel of threat courtesy of its strident, ominous brass, and its syncopation makes you subconsciously as off-balance as the contestants. Plus, you can’t beat that big, definitive ending for punctuating Alan Sugar’s ‘You’re fired’ catchphrase. It’s a perfect example of using classical music to set the tone of a high-stakes, serious battle to the top.
It's a piece that lends itself to a huge variety of projects, though: Chanel also used it for their defiantly unhinged ‘Egoiste’ ad in the 90s and it’s the music that Sunderland football club run onto the pitch to at home games.
At the other end of the spectrum, Downton Abbey’s theme features a compelling piano melody and response from the strings to evocatively set the scene for a historical drama. Composer John Lunn revealed to Classic FM that he listened to a lot of Elgar and Vaughan Williams for inspiration – although he eventually opted for a simpler structure to enhance the storytelling: ‘if you analyse the harmony of the Downton Abbey theme, it’s much more like a Coldplay song, except it’s performed in a classical sort of manner.’
The music sets up an atmosphere that’s refined and serene – ideal nostalgic Sunday night viewing.
Audio Network’s own Debbie Wiseman brought plenty of tense undercurrents to her score for Wolf Hall, reflecting the Tudor court’s plotting and intrigues. She also included some Tudor instruments for added authenticity, but revealed that they were used in a specific way: ‘although there are Tudor instruments in the score, actually a lot of the music sounds quite modern. That was a very conscious decision to reflect the way Hilary Mantel has written the book, which is very fresh, very relevant and you feel like you’re right there with the characters.’ This shows classical music’s flexibility, in being able to conjure both a feel that’s authentic to the period, but also a more modern undercurrent.
The soundtrack clearly chimed with viewers, shooting straight to No. 1 in the Classic FM Chart.
And of course, there are series where you’d expect to hear classical music, but where it’s been used to subvert our expectations. Netflix’s global smashes Bridgerton and Queen Charlotte are set in the Regency period. Yes, there’s a cinematic, period-appropriate orchestral score by Kris Bowers, but for many of the romantic ball scenes, as Netflix cheekily tweeted, ‘you’re gonna hear a few ye olde bops’. Ie, string versions of classic pop tracks such as Ariana Grande’s ‘Thank U, Next’, Nirvana’s ‘Stay Away’, ‘Wildest Dreams’ by Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish’s ‘Bad Guy’ and Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’.
The Bridgerton universe’s playful use of music performed by the Vitamin String Quartet and Duomo shows the potential impact of classical music in TV shows: music supervisors can use it to introduce new, young fans to the genre in innovative ways.
Classical Music in Advertisements
Classical music in advertising has a long history – from evoking a time or emotion to creating a brand identity, its use has led to many people only knowing some classical pieces through commercials. You may not be able to hum Dvorak’s ‘New World Symphony’, but say, ‘the Hovis ad’ to anyone of a certain age, and bingo. Ditto Hamlet cigars’ ‘Air on the G string’ by Bach, which the brand used from 1966-1997, while British Airways created an enduring identity based on Delibes’ suitably soaring ‘Flower Duet’ from the opera Lakmé.
Classical music can be used to give a sophisticated gloss to a brand – it’s great if you have an aspirational message - whilst many creatives favour classical music because it’s timeless and universal. Financial services and banks often use classical music because it creates a sense of trust or reassurance.
Lloyds TSB’s series of ‘For the Journey’ animated ads, for example, used ‘Eliza Aria’, a classical piece from the ballet Wild Swans, written by Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin, performed by soprano Jane Sheldon with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.
Emotionally, classical music is a genre that, because it covers hundreds of years of history, and thousands of composers, can evoke nostalgia or romance, drama and heartbreak – making it a supremely useful shortcut when you’ve only got between 30 seconds and a minute to tell your story.
In Ed Sheeran’s ad for Heinz, classical music immediately sets up the restaurant he’s eating in as ‘fancy – super-fancy’ and is used to create a comedic dissonance between the upscale food and environment and Ed, as a down-to-earth superstar, who wants to add ketchup to his dinner.
Theme park Alton Towers have adopted Grieg’s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ from Peer Gynt as their theme tune and have used it in a variety of ways in their ads; it’s also used around the park itself. The piece starts off relatively slow and low, with a sinister edge, mirroring the feel of a rollercoaster’s upward trajectory. The building speed, with its hectic pizzicato, bringing parts of the orchestra with it like a tornado, is particularly suited to rollercoasters’ highs, lows and loops. Plus, it ends with a satisfying bang which is great for punctuating an ad.
Alton Towers’ ‘Smiler’, showcasing the world’s first 14-loop rollercoaster, used the track to great effect:
Alton Towers also uses it as a subtle backdrop for its more general branded ads, demonstrating the versatility of a great piece of classical music.
The heritage jeans brand became famous for its use of retro 50s and 60s tracks in the 80s, with the infamous ‘Launderette’ and ‘Bath’ ads for its 501s. However, Levi’s made a literal impact with their ‘Odyssey’ commercial; instead of using rock or pop to target their youthful and rebellious audience, they chose a boldly different direction, soundtracking ‘Odyssey’ with ‘Sarabande’ by Handel, re-scored by John Altman.
The serious, melancholic strings immediately invest you in this man’s odd quest: why is he piling through the walls of these empty rooms at full tilt? Who is the woman who joins him? Are they in a weird race, or escaping? Huge timpani drums come in as they break free of the building and continue through a forest, whilst the sustained strings at the end and their dramatic leap into a void leave you with far more questions than answers. The intrigue means you keep thinking about the ad – it’s a story whose resolution you’re desperate to know.
No wonder the ad took home gold at the Cannes Lions and won a slew of D&AD awards, including for its use of music. Not to mention leading to an extraordinary 200% sales surge for Levi’s.
Want to bring classical music bang up to date? United Airlines’ ad for the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games cleverly fused a samba rhythm with the all-American ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ by George Gershwin.
The one-minute spot, featuring American athletes sprinting, jumping, hurdling, flipping, tumbling, vaulting, rowing and even swimming through an airport to catch their flights, shows how classical music can be used imaginatively for sports-themed ads.
Classical Music in Cartoons
Classical music and cartoons are a match made in heaven; the captivating sounds of orchestral instruments pair perfectly with the often whimsical nature of animations, and over the decades, everyone from Mickey Mouse to Spongebob and the Simpsons have used pieces from the canon to create drama, magic and comedy.
For anyone who thinks that classical music is elitist or difficult, this seminal Disney animation fuses ‘high’ art with Hollywood commerciality. Disney expressed the greater importance of music in Fantasia compared to his past work: ‘In our ordinary stuff, our music is always under action, but on this ... we’re supposed to be picturing this music — not the music fitting our story.’
Eight segments are set to an eclectic selection of pieces, including Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral Symphony’, Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker Suite’, and Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’, which at the time was still viewed as highly avant-garde. From dinosaurs to dancing hippos, the most memorable section is Mickey Mouse’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Mickey enchants a broomstick to fetch his buckets of water for him – then is unable to stop them. Paul Dukas’s music gradually moves from a playful, skipping march to something much more sinister, determined and insistent as the brooms multiply, creating a nightmarish army and tidal waves of water.
Spongebob Squarepants combines contemporary themes, with surrealist characters and settings and old-fashioned cartoon humour. In the ‘Jellyfishing Plankton’ episode, Patrick takes a damaged Squidward out “jellyfishing” for the day. Spongebob sings along to Johann Strauss II’s ‘Blue Danube Waltz’; the romantic classical piece is whimsical and amusing, inviting you to join the eccentric characters.
The Simpsons used Beethoven’s ‘5th Symphony’ in the episode ‘The Seven–Beer Snitch’. Once the orchestra has performed the renowned introduction of Beethoven’s most famous track, the audience rise from their chairs and make a mad dash for the exit. Why? Because, according to Chief Wiggum, ‘The rest is just filler.’ Poor Springfield. Not only do they have no etiquette, but they’re amusingly shown to have no taste for high culture either. Classical music is also a great way to show a different side of Marge’s character in an unexpected way (her enthusiasm for Philip Glass’s atonal medleys being a particular joy.)
Find Classical Music for Your Project
So, you can see how much classical music can enhance your project, adding depth, emotion, and resonance to films, TV and commercials, making them more impactful and memorable.
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From delicate chamber orchestras to the romantic and tragic, dramatic and passionate to humorous, you’ll find the perfect classical piece for any project, saving you tons of time when it comes to music selection.
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