My 11 Favorite Uses of Classical Music in Film

We all have specific film soundtrack moments that we love. Maybe it’s The Pixies bellowing out “Where’s My Mind” at the end of Fight Club. Maybe it’s Eric Clapton’s “Layla” as the corpses are revealed in Goodfellas. Maybe it’s… well, pick any moment from a Wes Anderson movie. Everyone has at least one. What often gets neglected in these discussions is the use of classical music in film. Too often, classical music is swept under the rug by popular music. Today, classical music gets to shine. Here are my 11 favorite uses of classical music in film.

Raging Bull (1980), Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana 
This classical piece was the perfect way to introduce Scorsese’s epic about beautiful brutality, with Deniro as Jake LaMotta bouncing around the ring, all by himself, in slow motion.

Amadeus (1984), Requiem Mass in D Minor
There is no sadder song than the Requiem Mass in D Minor. Other than possibly Chopin’s Funeral March, no other piece of classical music is as tightly tied to death. How fitting was it that Amadeus’ own depressing piece would be used to notate his death in a biopic about him?

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Also Sprach Zarathustra
Accenting the rising of the sun, the dawn of a new day wrapped around what looks like a giant space breast, with the majestic beat of drums and french horns is as perfect as a film introduction can get.

There Will be Blood (2007), Violin Concerto in D Major (Movement III)
What I enjoy most here is that the piece is so feverish, mirroring the frenetic final sequence. But the playfulness of the piece lies in direct opposition to Daniel Plainview’s boorish, angry, and deadly behavior. Forgive the foreign language right before the song begins. It’s the best clip I can find.

Silence of the Lambs (1990), Goldberg Variations
Speaking of placing beautiful pieces of music alongside very ugly behavior, leave it to hyper-intellectual villain Hannibal Lecter to demolish two human beings while J.S. Bach’s haunting piece echoes in the background.

Apocalypse Now (1978), Ride of the Valkyries
I bet when you realized what this list was all about, this is one of the first songs that came to mind. And rightfully so. But I’ll give you bonus points if you also thought of the hillbilly, banjo-infused version of the same song in Rango (2011).

Day for Night (1973), Day for Night Chorale
Georges Delerue’s score, reminiscent of Vivaldi, brings the French New Wave and postmodernism to life in a perfect way, as Truffaut rips apart the curtain behind the magic of filmmaking.

The Fire Within (1963), Gnossienne No. 1
Erik Satie’s somber, minimalist, lonely piano is a brilliant pairing with Louis Malle’s minimalist scene about a suicidal alcoholic, alone and nervous, falling off the wagon.

Se7en (1995), Air on a G String
The song itself is light and stately. Of course, it’s used amid a sea of ritual death. Oh, 90s irony, you so crazy.

The Big Lebowski (1997), Pictures at an Exhibition
I can’t find a reasonable clip. It’s the classical piece that plays while the Dude’s landlord performs at a dance recital in a nude colored bodysuit. And it’s as amusing and over the top as it can possibly be. Here’s the song:

Fantasia (1940), Night on the Bare Mountain
Do you know what I love about this? It’s from a movie made for kids. In fact, it’s a classic movie for kids. It’s a movie that most kids should see. And this scene will probably make a kid defecate in their pants. Walt Disney, that huckster, put a scene about demons in his kids movie, along with some really intense classical music.

The only reason I left out the Henley Sequence from The Social Network is that it seemed to defeat the purpose of the article, which was to call attention to traditional classical music. But rest assured that I think very highly of it.


Filed under Movies

45 responses to “My 11 Favorite Uses of Classical Music in Film

  1. ilovethatfilm

    Great picks! Funny that you mention Pixies though as for me, that is the best use of music in a film ever. Blew my mind!

  2. Fantastic picks. One I would add is the use of Rossini’s “Thieving Magpie” in the scene where Alex beats up his friends in A Clockwork Orange. Epic and powerful.

  3. Yes for Amadeus’ burial scene (in reality the whole film-Amadeus used Mozart music wonderfully) and Ride of the Valkyires Helicopter scene is a great scene. I have that deja vu while I watched Rango the other day. You forget Hall of The Mountain King in M.

  4. Slight cliche, but I’m also fond of the 1812 Overture in ‘V for Vendetta.’

  5. That opening to Raging Bull might be my favorite credit sequence ever. It’s almost like a ballet.

  6. Great post, love it when a film uses classical music to great effect.

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  8. The Raging Bull opening reads like amusic sheet with the ropes and the fists placed at the notes a superb use of a score. This might be the greatest film opening.
    The only thing with Also Spracht Zarathoustra today is the overuse of that song. But I love it.
    I read somewhere that a military man really used Ride of the Walkyries to scare the hell out of his enemies. I know some military men that went in Afghanistan and they sais to scare the Arab prisoners they play some old Metallica in their cells…
    The Big Lebowski reference is connected to Fellini’s Satyricon. There’s a scene with the same dance. I don’t remember if it’s the same song but the mise en scène is pretty much the same.
    As you might have guessed I love soundtracks and music in general so this topic is dear to me. Great job John!

    • I had no idea about that Satyricon thing. If that’s where the Coens pulled that scene, I’m going to laugh even harder the next time I see it.

  9. Btw the exact translation for The Droid You’re looking For should be Le Droïde que vous cherchez. In fact Droïde is Androïd in French. Excuse me for this comment, as a French writer it was a duty for me to let you know… I guess if people were correcting me on my blog for every English mistake I make I would get ten times more comments…

  10. Great list there John. I would include Duet de florette from Carlito’s Way – Pacino standing in the rain with a dustbin lid for cover as he watches Penelope Ann Miller do ballet.

  11. cineroulade

    Gustav Holst’s “Mars: The Bringer of War” from the Planets Suite, featured during the Battle of Germania at the beginning of Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator.” Great scene; rest of the movie is awful.

    • For some reason, all I can remember from the beginning of Gladiator is making a bunch of bad “Germanian shephard” puns with my brother and uncle about the dogs.

  12. Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in Melancholia.

  13. Have to agree with the comment above, that score stuck in my head for ages.

  14. Victor De Leon

    great list! damn good job. Apocalypse Now and 2001…just stunning. RB’s opening sequence is jaw dropping.

    • It sure is. It’s almost as perfect as an opening sequence can get.

      I can’t tell if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that every time I hear Ride of the Valkyries now, I think of both Rango and Apocalypse Now.

  15. Great list, John! I love that you include the one from Amadeus, brilliant film. Believe it or not, my intro to Mozart was from a Bond movie when I was a wee girl, I LOVE Mozart Piano Concerto 21 forever since then. [I wonder if you can guess which movie] 🙂

  16. mettemk

    Very cool list. My favourite use of music in 2001: A Space Odyssee is Blue Danube though, I actually cried one time during it in the film.
    I’m also crazy about the use of the Die Moldau in The Tree of Life.

    • Choosing only one from 2001 was almost impossible. Blue Danube would’ve been a great choice, no doubt. I have a soft spot for Zarathustra because I used to work in minor league baseball and it was the music we’d play when we announced the home team lineup over the PA.

  17. Great post. Totally forgot about the TWBB one. Its feels like such a contradiction to what just happened. Another instance I like is when Tom Cruise emerges to Also Sprach Zarathustra in Magnolia. I’m not even a fan of classical music but it can have such a powerful effect in films like so many of the above examples.

    • I’d probably never be a fan of classical music if it weren’t for the way it’s used in movies. But hearing it in movies was my introduction to it, and now there are several classical artists I listen to regularly (Satie, Vivaldi, and Delerue come to mind).

  18. Great work as ever matey!! I am a great fan of classical music in a films when it is least expected. I love Raging Bull great choice.

  19. My favorite of all time is Oliver Stone’s use of Samuel Barber’s “Adaggio for Strings” to illustrate the heavy sadness of combat in “Platoon”

  20. Alex Withrow

    Some of my absolute favorites here. Fantastic list. All of these tracks are used perfectly in the respective films, but I was ecstatic to see the inclusion of Violin Concerto from TWBB. Love it.

    • That track was such a great way to end the madness in TWBB… which is pretty much as good as any movie has been for a very long time.

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