The 10 Greatest Uses of Music in a Stanley Kubrick Film

7. “All work and no Play” discovery by Wendy in “The Shining” (1980)

“Polymorphia” composed by Krzysztof Penderecki


“The Shining”, like “Barry Lyndon,” “A Clockwork Orange,” and “2001” immediately before it, knew how to use music.

Not purely contrapuntal, it blended a combination of mysterious, sensual, largely contemporary music from an obscure Polish modernist to suggest horror and the ever-present presence of the ghosts of the Overlook. What makes “The Shining” unique was the almost experimental nature, combined with all the elemental electronica from Wendy Carlos, that double-crossed convention and expectation and put everyone on edge that saw this film. I suspect Kubrick looked at “The Exorcist” for music comparisons more than either “Alien” or “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

When “The Shining” shined on American cinema screens, it did for an obscure, Polish modernist what “2001” did for György Ligeti twelve years before. Krzysztof Penderecki became an overnight sensation and (re)launched! his career. Penderecki proliferates all through the film in free-form adaptation, depending on effect, in no particular order. When Wendy finds out her man is all work and no play and truly insane, Penderecki’s score for “Polymorphia” thunders the cinema’s walls. This is the big reveal and sets the stage for the deadly endgame.


8. Ominous flyby, opening titles in “The Shining” (1980)

“Dies Irae” Gregorian Chant, re-arranged by Wendy Carlos

shining opening

“All work and no play” notwithstanding, once again Kubrick’s brilliance in crafting opening sequences is on fine display in a deft combination of hypnotic camera work and an positively eerie, re-purposed Gregorian chant made famous by Hector Berlioz use in his “Symphony Fantastic,” of which “Songe D’une Nuit de Sabbat,” or “Dreams of a Witches Sabbath” is the 5th movement. Wendy Carlos, formerly Walter Carlos on the soundtrack for “A Clockwork Orange,” arranged the electronic version heard in the film.

There are a number of interesting meanings and associations to Dies Irae (Day of Wrath). Used in Roman Catholic requiem mass, it is a summoning of all souls to learn their fate for all eternity. In Symphony Fantastic (whose full title, translated into English, is “Fantastical Symphony: an episode in the life of an artist, in five parts”), concerns itself with the hallucinatory and dreamlike fantasies/nightmares of a struggling artist.

It is considered one of the first psychedelic symphonies, written largely under the influence of opium, or so the rumor goes. Dies Irae, linked as it is to Walpurgisnacht (night of the witch) and a number of other pagan and religious rituals, has literary connections to the Faust legend as well. Selling your soul for earthly gain is a central theme going back to the Greeks and something Jack Torrance does quite willingly – and the suggestion for this weakness, and the ultimate danger to the family unit because of it, starts from the very first musical pulse.

When it came down to it, no director was as classically literate. No director was as deeply inquisitive. No director spent the time to learn and understand the meaning and effects of music the way Kubrick did. They year his spent writing, and the year he spent shooting, as well as the year he spent editing guaranteed not only did his films look and feel different compared to everyone else’s, the sounded radically different as well.

From 1965 through 1987 – 22 years – Kubrick directed a string of masterpieces one right after the other – “Dr. Strangelove”, “2001,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “Barry Lyndon,” “The Shining,” and “Full Metal Jacket” – that blew the doors off cinema in general and cinematic music usage in particular. Not one was scored-through by a single composer.

Collectively, the music of “The Shining” is a complex as they come and set a standard few could match.


9. HAL 9000 disconnection in 2001: a space odyssey (1968)

“Daisy Bell” (A Bicycle Built for Two)

2001 a space odyssey

What makes this scene fraught with revelation and irony is the use of the song “Daisy Bell.” The disconnection of HAL, by itself, is unremarkable. The music alone turns a not-terribly dramatic scene into one of great drama, sadness, and regret. We even feel for the poor computer, which is extraordinary, considering HAL has just murdered of five crew members and tried to kill Bowman (indirectly) as well.

Culturally, and technologically, “Daisy Bell” was the first song programmed for a computer to ‘sing’ in a very early demonstration of speech synthesis. The year was 1961 and the computer was an IBM 704 at Bell Labs. The life and death cycle of human beings (we regress to a child-like innocence) is aped by this mechanistic being. His song is his last gasp meant to convey the ‘human’ side of HAL. It’s really a quite extraordinary scene.

The moral and technological intercourse of “A.I., Artificial Intelligence,” is an extraordinary field. 2001 was the first film to deal intelligently with this dilemma. As the separation between organic homo sapiens and artificial robots diminishes until the difference is all but impossible to detect, how are we to treat the ‘humanoids’ we create. Are we, in effect, God, with all of its considerable implications?

The bridge between the birth and death of sentient beings, be they fabricated automatons like HAL or fully biological units like us, and made painfully clear by this simple but extremely powerful sequence and the singing of a song, is far less than we think, and elevated 2001 to unexpected heights far beyond the construct of a ‘normal’ film and into the realms unknown – it asked questions no other mainstream film ever dared to consider.


10. Bathroom habits, opening titles in “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999)

“Waltz No. 2 from Jazz Suite No. 2” by Shastakovich

eyes opening

Who, but Kubrick, would play Shastakovich while Nicole Kidman pees?

Shastakovich is a highly regarded composer from the 20th century who is Russia’s answer to Richard Strauss. His works are styled in the Romantic tradition, dramatic in nature, and laced with similar elements of atonality and extreme chromaticism. His opera The Nose, based on a Gogol short story about a nose that literally escapes his owner and becomes the toast of the town and elevated to the lofty heights of bourgeoisie before suffering great disappointment at the hand of his kingmakers, only to be reunited with his working proletariat owner and consigned to domestic and financial oblivion.

It is an astonishing opera about class warfare and in no small way mirrors the journey of Dr. William Harford in “Eyes Wide Shut,” who escapes, if only for a deluded short time, his rich but stifling domesticity in search of his darkest dreams and most wicked fantasies and discovers along the way what the truly wealthy do with their time and money. After elevated to the status of the oligarchs, he is exposed and purged, only to return whence he came, his tail between his legs, slapped down by his betters.

The satire of Shastakovich’s Jazz suite fits very nicely with this theme of fractured myths and lost innocence on a number of levels. In a very real sense it is the perfect piece of contrapuntal music for a film that seems oddly disjointed. Eyes Wide Shut falls short of masterpiece status, but it is compelling in many other ways, not the least of which was witnessing first hand the train wreck of a very real marriage by the two principal actors who also portrayed the fictional husband and wife. Nicole and Tom separated and divorced shortly after principal photography was completed.



There are many more choices I could have made. I tried to keep the conversation interesting, lively, and topical without being repetitive. Some of my other favorites include the frantic sex scene in “A Clockwork Orange” (1971) to the tune of William Tell’s Overture by Giacomo Puccini; the a cappella version of “Der Treue Hussar” sung by Susanne Christian, later Christiane Kubrick, at the café in “Paths of Glory”; and, of course, the flying spaceships in “2001: A Space Odyssey” to Strauss’ The Blue Danube, perhaps the most iconic use of music in all of cinema, ever.

Clearly, Kubrick approached music differently. It is important to understand, at least in the opinion of this writer, his music choices had less to do with pretty music matched to pretty pictures than one’s intellectual, rather than emotional, response to his mostly unconventional choices. There are exceptions, of course – Barry Lyndon in parts and much of 2001, mainly – but they are more one-offs than a consistent, artistic expression. Kubrick preferred, for better or for worse, cold calculation rather than one being ‘swept’ away in a symphonic tidal wave of ‘too many notes’!

Author Bio: Mark Krasselt is a writer, designer, and all-around creative who reads too much and has seen too many movies. He has been fascinated with Stanley Kubrick since his first saw 2001: a space odyssey at age 8, and this fascination has never abated. He has even written a long thesis on the famous director, titled “Stanley Kubrick: lessons of a Sentient,” which he hopes to expand into an even longer book.