20 Great Movie Scenes Made Perfect by Its Music

7. The Red Shoes (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, 1948)

The Ballet Performance Scene – The Red Shoes

A classic example of a film within a film, Michael Powell’s The Red Shoes presents the story two up-and-coming artists who fall in love, against the wishes of their employer, Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). The plot of the film, like the story of the ballet written by Hans Christian Andersen, has a fairy tale quality, full of idealism, the joy of love, the validation and ultimate success of the artistic talent of the composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring) and the dancer Victoria Page (Moira Shearer).

Lermontov places unreasonable demands on his ballet troupe in his monomaniacal drive to absolute perfection: Page gets her chance as the lead dancer when the established lead informs Lermontov of her decision to get married; this infuriated Lermontov who discards the lead dancer like an empty paper coffee cup.

The music written for the ballet by Julian Craster (composed by Brian Easdale) for Victoria Page begins with a light theme, capricious, but as it progresses becomes more harsh and dissonant.

The music for the ballet scene is wonderfully evocative, almost expressionistic. We see Victoria Page becoming frenzied, towards the end of her dance, needing to remove the shoes in order to stay alive. The music becomes more frenetic, insistent. After she dies, the ballet slipper maker dances with the shoes taken off Page’s feet, dances playfully with them, inviting another dancer to put them on.

The music which marks the last scene of the ballet is the same as in the beginning of the ballet, when the dancer obtains the shoes from the “evil” shoe maker. In the penultimate scene of the film, when Victoria jumps to her death in front of an oncoming train, her last words are “Please remove my shoes.”


8. The Silence of The Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)

Hannibal Preparing to Chew Off a Face – Goldberg Variations

“I tried to write in a way that goes right into the fabric of the movie,” explained Shore on his approach. “I tried to make the music just fit in. When you watch the movie you are not aware of the music. You get your feelings from all elements simultaneously, lighting, cinematography, costumes, acting, music. Jonathan Demme was very specific about the music.”

In his open air prison cell, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), methodical, logical, diabolical, is preparing for his next meal, consisting of raw flesh coming off the facial skin of his prison guard. Juxtaposed with his efficient and systematic preparations is the Aria from J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” music which is meditative, elegant, plaintive, even tender. The soft strokes of tone color of the Aria are at complete odds with a cannibalistic psychopath, resulting in this scene having become iconic.

The opposing sentiments captured in this scene are not new: recall the rape scene in A Clockwork Orange to the strains of Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra, music which is itself elegant and refined, or, perhaps most memorable, Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries coinciding with air strikes, Agent Orange and massacre. The ironic use of Classical music in film has occurred almost since the advent of film.

Yet in Jonathan Demme’s film, the sensitive performance by Glenn Gould of the Goldberg Variations almost leads the viewer to grant Hannibal a paradoxical sense of admiration, even respect, for his mind. It serves to deepen our understanding of him: cultured, educated, calculating, intelligent, brilliant beyond those who wish to punish him.

Of course if such a person were encountered in a real world setting, one could only react with disgust, a revulsion and aversion that would be implacable. But in film, which speaks to the force underneath the conscious level of the audience, such feelings of admiration are possible, even understandable.


9. THX 1138 (George Lucas, 1971)

Main Title Sequence – What’s Wrong?

The visual of the film presents to the viewer a white, cold, sterile world filled with characters wearing identical uniforms. Shots of multiple characters, it is hard to tell the difference between them – nothing that makes them stand out as individuals – Those who do not feel right (when they should) speak to a photo of an archetypical visag that projects wisdom and understanding – his voice is soft and nurturing, yet it is a lie, since what is spoken is reported to the authorities- no privacy, instead of human interaction which is shunned, there are drugs.

THX 1138’s (Robert Duvall) dissatisfaction with his life as it is is conveyed to us through the main title music.

Into this absolutely sterile atmosphere Lalo Schifrin’s wonderfully emotive music is heard. In the opening credits the choral music conveys a sense of humanity. The music is in counterpoint to the blips, buzzes and monotone voices that comprise most of the audio scape of the film.

The music of the main title is deeply felt, emotional, ringing with a sense of deep loneliness and isolation. It suggests to the viewer that what is about to be projected is an allegorical story: this is not the way things are now, but perhaps the way it may become. The music is a commentary on the ultimate failure of engineered societies, dystopian, and alien to all that makes us human.


10. Delievrance (John Boorman, 1972)

Travel Arrangements Scene – Dueling Banjos

What mood is evoked when one hears a banjo being played? It is agreed that it is certainly not sadness, despair, loneliness, isolation or even danger or the threat of imminent death.

Yet as canoe trip progresses, perhaps a metaphor for The Odyssey of Homer, Lew, Ed, Bobby and Drew become increasingly isolated and what began as urbanized men reconnecting with nature and perhaps their own ancestral roots for the weekend, end up in an intense life and death struggle, whose outcome leaves them all permanently altered and having their own sense of control over the world around them.

The canoe trip is also analysis of hierarchical structures. As danger approaches, Lew (Burt Reynolds) becomes in effect the alpha male of the group; although Ed (Jon Voight) has similar experience in river expeditions, he lacks the ability to be authoritative. In several scenes before the expedition, the men, especially Drew and Ed, idealize the region and its idyllic splendor, but Lewis, lacking naivete, sees beneath the surface of river, country and the (probably) inbred local inhabitants of the region.

A harbinger of what is to come – serious injury, rape, near death encounters – is the scene where Drew and the local young man of the town (unique in appearance), have a musical face off between acoustic guitar and banjo. As the banjo player returns the lead melody, the guitar accompanies, and vice versa. The two players support each other musically, creating both the rhythm and lead of “Dueling Banjos.”

At the end of the collaboration one would believe a connection had been made between two radically diverse cultures. But, in what is perhaps the scene that provides the most shock, when Drew extends his hand to the local, he is refused, and worse, the expression of open hostility on the face of the banjo player.

This obvious foreshadowing also suggests to the audience, that things are not really what they seem, and that perhaps there are certain places in the world, which are not meant to be explored, unless one has been initiated. Not once in Deliverance does the audience feel a sense of connection, or peace, in the Georgia wilderness.


11. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)

Jack Rabbit Slim’s – You Never Can Tell

Ordered by his boss, Marsellus Wallace to escort his wife for an evening and to “Let her do whatever she wants,” Vincent Vega (John Travolta) takes Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) to Jackrabbit Slims, and 1950s themed restaurant that is hosting that evening, the “Famous Jack Rabbit Slim’s Twist Contest.” At Mia’s insistence, they enter the contest, presented by an Ed Sullivan look-alike, and dance on a stage whose stage floor is circular, the design of a 45-rpm record drawn on its floor.

The song danced to is “You Never Can Tell,” by Chuck Berry, written during his incarceration in federal prison on 1964, and, considering his circumstances at the time it was composed, “You Never Can Tell” a song about teenagers getting married in a chapel and driving to New Orleans every year to celebrate their anniversary, is surprisingly upbeat and positive. The capricious nature of the song is brought out by Mia’s and Vincent’s dance routine.

As the sexual tension builds over the course of the evening, the dance scene seems like a seduction scene, nonverbal communication from Mia to Vincent, though it is not erotic, but rather playful.

Travolta, known in motion picture film prior to Pulp Fiction primarily for his dancing in Saturday Night Fever, is, in this film, “resurrected” by director Quentin Tarantino, rescued from what had become a mediocre film career after his iconic role as Anthony Monero. He is “drawn out” by Mia during the dance scene, displaying more and more of his ability and natural dance talents as the song progresses.

This scene in Pulp Fiction is much lighter, more humorous, with nothing more at stake than to allow oneself to enjoy the moment without consequences.


12. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

Looking Down at the Hedge Maze – Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta

The Torrance family has lived at the Overlook Hotel since the end of the skiing season, and Wendy and Danny for the most part, have adjusted to their isolation from the world outside, having established a routine. One of those is walking through the large, labyrinthine hedge maze on the hotel’s property.

In this scene (which provides yet another opportunity for the Arriflex camera and its even and fluid motion photography), Mom and son are walking through the maze while Jack is “writing” , taking a break and throwing a ball against the thick walls of the lounge. He stops and looks down at a model of the maze, his eyes widening.

Heard on the soundtrack while Jack is throwing the ball and looking down at the maze is the third movement from Bela Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, composed in 1936. The four movements, from an analysis of its structure, is completely symmetrical; for example, its first and third movements (Andante and Adagio), contrast with the second and fourth (Allegro and Allegro Molto).

Regarding the third movement heard in the film (which is repeated later when Jack and Danny are talking in the family apartment), it is believed, like the first movement, to have a symmetrical cycle within the movement: about halfway through, the themes from the first half are inverted in the second half.

Also, it is generally agreed that the structure of the movement adheres to the Fibonacci number sequence: the xylophone motif, so strikingly loud in The Shining, duplicates that sequence’s numerical ratio. What is striking about this is that the structure of the maze itself seems to be based on a similarly increasing ratio of the Fibonacci sequence. This subtle symmetry of the maze and the music, equal in their ratios, would only be apparent to the viewer on a subconscious level.

What would be clear, however, is the sentiment of the music itself: harsh, primal, dark, evoking deep elemental feelings, leaving the listener (and the audience) with a sense of grim foreboding. What follows this scene in the film, where the family unit completely falls apart, slowly and agonizingly, speak’s to Stanley Kubrick’s marvelous musical choice for this scene, which not only creates a sense of rising dread in the hedge maze scene, but foreshadows what will come next.


13. The House of The Devil (Ti West, 2009)

Pizza Delivery – The Telephone Ring


What is ostensibly an homage to horror films from the 1980s, The House of the Devil from Ti West, while using 16mm film stock, zoom lenses as well as cultural types from the period (cars, hairstyles and clothing), the audio, crisp, loud and impactful, is clearly from this century. The audio during the scene in which Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), scared and walking up the stairs carrying a butcher knife, checks on the woman she has been hired to babysit.

Jeff Grace’s music for the film, like the pacing of the film itself, is slow to build, rarely reaching any real crescendo or intensity save for the ending and this scene. Samantha knocks on the invalid’s door and asks if the woman is alright. Receiving no answer she begins to walk away from the door.

The camera (and the audience) now finally have the opportunity to see who, or what is in the room for which Samantha was hired to guard. Within the room, the camera, achingly slow, pans from the corner of the room to the right, revealing a dead shirtless body with a bloodied torso; beyond its feet appear two other bodies in early stages of decomposition (the viewer can assume this is the family depicted in the photo Samantha found in the closet).

As the camera pans right, the volume of the music, dissonant and sharp, in part comprised of glissando strings and deeper percussive elements, increases to a high decibel level; it is so intense for these few seconds that the end of the shot cannot come quickly enough. Back outside the room, the camera follows Samantha down the stairs, knife in hand.

The music is once again low, in background, yet the viewer has just seen what Samantha hasn’t. The audience being aware of things in the plot and the mise-en-scene that the film’s hero does not, is a trademark of most of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, and here Ti West pays tribute to that approach, albeit briefly. Now, again lulled into the camera’s slow, deliberate movement, the viewer, though altered in their understanding, fall once again into the pace of the film.

Just enough time passes watching Samantha walking down the steps, when perhaps one of the most jarring moments of the film, the “aftershock” of the scene of the corpses in the room: the telephone rings, an 80s ringer, and recorded so loudly that it seems to damage the ears. One can only respect a modern director who can still cause an audience to have a visceral response by using a very old and established technique: sound, rather than gore, violence or action.

Indeed, the power of the scene and its effect are based more on the inertia before and afterwards. One can also recall the scene in Scorsese’s Cape Fear, where the family, at the kitchen table, resolved fight Max Cady together. Their newfound sense of togetherness is severely undermined when the telephone rings, its loud peal visibly shaking up the family, making them silently question their resolve.