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Since the dawn of cinema, classical music has been a part of the motion picture experience.
This close relationship owes a lot to pre-film theater.
Historians know that in 16th century England, plays used music to transition between acts. Since there wasn’t any indie-rock or electronica yet, theater-goers in England were listening to what we think of as classical music.
When silent films hit the scene, people simply expected some type of musical accompaniment. They weren’t actually going to sit in silence.
Plus, the projector was quite loud, so playing music not only added to the aesthetics of the film, but also covered unwelcome noise.
In those days, the background music was delivered by a solo pianist or organ player who had viewed the film in advance and improvised music during the showing.
Although a full orchestra wasn't technically present, we would still associate the style of music the cinema pianist played as classical.
And from those humble beginnings, classical music and film remain intertwined today.
Film scores of all genres use classical music to signify everything from soldiers riding to battle, the appearance of a particularly sophisticated antagonist, or a moment of soul wrenching sorrow.
But why does classical music persist in film, and by extension digital media? And how can you use classical music to maximum effect in your work?
We’ll answer all that and more in the following paragraphs. Here’s what to expect:
The lion’s share of famous classical music was recorded over a century ago — it’s pantheon long gone. Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach all lived during the mid to late 1700s.
Today, the genre exists as a self-sustaining enterprise. New music continues to be produced, and a niche community of listeners support the artists. However, very rarely will classical music break into the mainstream consciousness.
So why then does classical music continue to fascinate filmmakers and moviegoers? There are a couple of prevailing theories.
Some films tell stories about very specific moments in time. Movies like Dazed and Confused, Saturday Night Fever, and Detroit Rock City intentionally transport the audience to previous decades. Each song in these films is chosen to help with that purpose.
However, filmmakers may want to escape the timestamped nature of popular music. Rather than focus on the glossy new wave of the 1980s, they may want to examine broader themes outside of a particular epoch.
Popular music is a poor choice for such an endeavor, because each song brings its own cultural backstory and place in history.
Conversely, classical music is timeless. It’s much less likely to be anchored to any cultural milestones because the music is centuries old.
Even music produced in this genre during the last 20 years won’t conjure associates of the early 2000s, because although classical music has surely moved on from Mozart, the average moviegoer won’t pick up on the nuances.
The perennial nature of classical music makes it a perfect addition to movies that want to escape the bookends of modern decades and tell stories less steeped in nostalgia.
From Baroque to Medieval to Renaissance to Opera, the term “classical music” encompasses a range of music types.
Most involve an orchestra, which bestows the entire affair with an inherent gravitas. The genre often enlists sweeping string movements, bellowing brass instruments, and beautifully complex piano solos to tell complex narratives.
These aesthetics make classical music a natural choice for film, because the sound is simply so powerful — or so the theory goes.
Regardless of the particular reason, filmmakers continue to trust classical music to communicate important themes at pivotal moments in the narrative.
We’ve covered why classical music remains a popular choice for film scores. Now let’s look at recurring use cases of the genre in film. That should give you some ideas for how to use this type of music in your next project.
Sure, you could use almost any type of music to develop the mood for a scene, but as we covered before, few categories bring the drama like classical music.
And if we’re looking for examples of mood, there’s no better place to turn than the invasion scene from Apocalypse Now.
It goes without saying this subject matter is pretty bleak, but what could have been another Vietnam war scene is elevated to grander scale by Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.”
The foreboding dawn of horns and the piercing undercurrent strings gives the helicopter assault a horrible grandeur. You wouldn’t get that level of aesthetic with a heavy metal tune.
The director is telling us this is more than just a battle from Vietnam. It could be war from any part of history where one side applies dramatically superior weaponry on another.
What’s more, the scene parallels the opera scene which Wagner originally wrote the piece for. In Norse mythology, valkyries are mythological creatures who choose who dies and who lives during battle.
In Wagner’s opera, “Ride” occurs during a scene when four valkyries appear to spirit fallen heroes to Valhalla, or the afterlife. So this choice of classical music functions both on an immediate sound level, but also on a thematic level.
Classical music is particularly adept at characterizing places, as the armory of leitmotifs in The Lord of the Rings trilogy shows. Popular music can convey something about a place in a particular time. But if you’re trying to get at the distinct qualities of a location, classical music often works best.
Case in point: Woody Allen’s opening monologue for Manhattan.
Allen isn’t simply describing Manhattan during the period in which he lived; he’s describing it through the unique lens of his perception.
George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” starts and stops in time with Allen’s repeated attempts to capture the place he loves so dearly. Gershwin’s fusion of jazz and classical sounds imbues the black and white shots of a New York with a busy majesty that befits Allen's vision of the place.
The city is timeless in this context because we’re seeing Manhattan through one man’s vision, which he refuses to let change.
Classical music can signal any number of moods, but moments of awe and inspiration seem to be particularly useful scenarios for uplifting classical music.
The King’s Speech is a sterling example from contemporary cinema.
King George IV must make his first wartime radio broadcast to reassure his nation as England declares war on Germany and enters World War II. But he suffers from a terrible stutter.
George seeks out a speech coach who helps the royal overcome his stutter by playing Beethoven in the background so he can’t hear his own voice. After much preparation, the moment has arrived.
As King George recites his lines, Beethoven’s 7th plays in the background. The piece begins slowly as George struggles through the opening, but it gradually builds, adding more strings and becoming more distinct, as he exerts control over his own voice and powers through the end of the speech.
This is a moment not only of personal victory or George, but also for the whole of England. They may be going to war, but their sovereign has found his voice. The 2nd movement in Beethoven’s second never bursts to life in this film, but its subtlety captures the nervous tension, the approaching hardship, and the immediate inspiration of the moment.
Filmmakers love to use classical music to tell the audience about villains.
Right before Hannibal Lecter escapes in Silence of the Lambs he’s listening to Bach on cassette. This example isn’t unique, which makes classical music a kind of shorthand for sophisticated antagonists. These characters are evil, but they have good taste.
A more nuanced use of orchestral music is the opening of Raging Bull.
The first shots portray Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta in the middle of a boxing ring. The melancholy strings of “Intermezzo” by Pietro Mascagni swell as De Niro paces and jabs in an empty ring.
The music suggests that we’re watching something tragic, and we are: LaMotta feels most comfortable inside a ring, plumbing opponents into submissions. But this same intensity rips apart his personal relationships.
That paradox is a powerful theme, one recurring across cinema. Choosing an orchestral song imbues the scene with appropriate gravitas, and foreshadows the ongoing distress that made LaMotta a champion boxer and an uncontrollable person.
In its traditional form, music licensing is very complex. To understand where to license classical music, we need to cover how the system works.
Each and every song you hear on the radio is copyrighted. That means someone owns that song, and they have the right to control how it’s used. It’s illegal to use copyrighted songs without permission, because the people who made and own them are due royalties off their use.
For each song there are two types of copyrights: the master copyright and the composition copyright.
The former references the master recording, which is the original version of a track the artist made. The latter refers to the song itself, i.e., the words and notes the songwriter created. Different parties typically own these rights: labels and artists own the master and songwriters (who may be different from artists) control the composition.
If you want to license a song for use in your film or video, you need permission from all copyright holders. If even one of them says no, then the deal is off. You can’t license the song at all.
The price of licensing songs through labels is also expensive. Popular songs could cost thousands of dollars to license. And you may only be able to use them for a limited time, or in a narrow context.
Since the most famous classical music is hundreds of years old, a lot of it has entered the public domain.
That means the copyright for the music has expired (or never existed) so you can use the song without having to persuade a gang of copyrights holders.
Except it’s not that simple.
Remember how every piece of music has different rights for the composition and the recording? Well, the composition is what’s in the public domain, not any master recording.
So you couldn’t grab the Nashville Symphony Orchestra’s recording of Beethoven’s 9th, because they own the copyright to that master recording. You would have to hire someone to perform Beethoven’s 9th and then record it. So it’s not as straightforward as it seems.
We exist to keep creators creating. That’s our entire purpose for being.
In practical terms, that means we make music licensing accessible by providing a library of radio-quality songs at an affordable monthly subscription.
We can do this because the music licensing game has changed. Rather than negotiate with a complex network of label executives, we work directly with artists to establish copyright agreements.
That means we own all of the songs in our library, which allows us to set the licensing terms. And we made those terms very, very simple.
All you have to do is sign up for a membership, find the songs you like, and then license them. During the licensing step, we ask you to tell us a bit about your project and that’s it. Each license you download is a single-use, perpetual license. So you have legal permission to use that song in that project forever.
That’s it. No complex negotiations. No bankruptcy-inducing prices. No ongoing royalties. It’s called royalty free music, because you aren’t responsible for the royalties when you have a membership.
You’re probably wondering, “Alright, but do you have classical music?” Yes we do. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at an orchestral album one of our artists recently recorded.
You can find those songs and more in our audio library. Do some exploring and see what you discover. The perfect classical song for your project could be a few clicks away.