I am continually surprised by the impact music has in film and, in turn, on me. When used well, it can be so poignant and so present (even when it’s not present at all). And there are infinite inventive ways that filmmakers have incorporated music to convey disparate responses within moments, scenes, even lapses – to move us, to drive the story, to set it back, to connect the dots or reveal something – virtually limitless variety. Listen along while you read with our Spotify Playlist.


Here are a few of the countless ways music can have impact on screen:


In Back to the Future, Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode serves a variety of purposes in a pivotal scene – it drives the plot, it’s a fun gag, and it delivers on the premise of the movie.


Music can be used to tell a character something like Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes in Say Anything (I love you) or Patrick’s monologue about Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love of All in American Psycho (I’m crazy).


To tell the audience something – John Williams’ looming cues in Jaws or when the Smith’s Panic [on the streets of London] finishes a newscaster’s statement in Shaun of the Dead.


To define or reveal something about a character – Dixon listening to ABBA’s Chiquitita in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Alex’s Singing In the Rain rendition in A Clockwork Orange, or Teddy blasting Bob Seger’s Feel Like a Number in Body Heat


To set a mood – Morricone’s score for Once Upon a Time in America integrates McCartney’s Yesterday while Noodles reflects on his past.


Place 007 soundtracks incorporate regional instruments and styles to better establish new locations.


Period – Suddenly we know we’ve travelled to the 1920’s when “Cole Porter” plays Let’s Do It at the party in Midnight In Paris.


Or a specific time – Sonny & Cher’s I Got You Babe transports us back to 6:00 AM on February 2nd in Groundhog’s Day again and again and again.


There are callbacks to themes used earlier in a movie, reconfigured to evoke opposing emotions. A technique from musical theater that Pixar borrows to pull at our heartstrings in final acts. Giacchino does this in Up and in Coco with Benjamin Bratt’s Remember Me. Randy Newman calls back his own You’ve Got a Friend in Me theme 15 years later with Toy Story 3.


And callbacks to themes from other movies. Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries (Apocalypse Now), and Vangelis’s theme from Chariots of Fire have been used to death as a shortcut for similar or parody sequences throughout media. 

More specifically, BJ Thomas’s Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head and The Rolling Stones’ Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, appearing in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Blow, reappear referentually in Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming, respectively. 


There are countless successful relationships between directors and composers that allow for unconventionality and breakthrough thanks to a sense of trust (Paul Thomas Anderson/Lynne Ramsay and Jonny Greenwood).


Sometimes filmmakers feature the work of a singular recording artist in addition to or in place of a traditional score, like Cat Stevens for Harold and Maude, Air with The Virgin Suicides or Elliott Smith in Good Will Hunting.


And although it’s not even close to being on the same scale or magnitude of any of these examples, it can still be fun, pensive and rewarding to drive musical direction for smaller projects. Selecting licensed or stock tracks or collaborating with my great friend, composer Griffin Urbano who finishes my sentences and never ceases to surprise me – whether it is a sting for a sitcom parody or a moving anthem to celebrate countries all over the world.


Over the coming weeks, we’ll explore this magical collision of mediums in an attempt to go beyond the tip of the iceberg (cue Celine Dione), and highlight a bunch of moments and sequences, some clever, some strange, most melodic.


Jeff Mack, Copywriter