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From Space Odyssey to Squid Game: Classical Music in Film


squid game

While you are watching movies, you might be wondering how the music plays a role in shaping the scene. Music is a powerful device for directors to convey a film's genre and mood, enhancing the meaning of scenes. For music directors, the use of classical music is one of the most effective ways for them to depict the scene. This is because classical music has been listened to by people for centuries, and this proves that classical music has a certain power to convey emotional feelings. For this reason, many films use classical music in their narrative. However, the choice of classical music should be considered. This blog will share some of the films that have used classical music in appropriate ways. If you are a fan of both classical music and film, this is a perfect chance to dive into the world of classical music in film!

Dies Irae

If you listen to this music, there might be an ingrained feeling of fear, horror, or even death. This phenomenon is not unique to you. This music, "Dies Irae," has been associated with death since the 1200s. Not only film composers but also classical music composers have used this theme in their music to express darkness, terror, and death. But what is this music, and why does it evoke thoughts of death?

The Latin phrase "Dies Irae" literally means "Day of Wrath" in English. It consists of four notes originally found in Gregorian chant, dating back to around 1256. Initially used in funerals, "Dies Irae" is frequently employed in requiem masses. Renowned classical composers such as Mozart, Berlioz, and Verdi have incorporated these four notes into their compositions, making them notable examples of its use. From the 1200s to the late 19th century, the use of this musical motif transcended into the work of film composers as well. Consequently, we can easily find films that utilize this motif when they depict death or horrifying tragedies.

The Shining

Dies Irae was used in the opening scene of "The Shining," which is a famous horror film directed by Stanley Kubrick, released in 1980. If we watch the first scene without any explanation, we might imagine a family’s trip, expecting something happy will happen. However, this is the horror movie. In order to give a nuanced feeling of horror, the music director chose Dies Irae in the scene. No wonder why!

Squid Game Although it is subtly rearranged, the first appearance of the pink soldiers in the series perfectly elaborated their horrifying characteristics with "Dies Irae." "Squid Game" on Netflix is well-known for its brutal and life-consuming battles that feature deaths and conflicts. In this sense, "Dies Irae" was a perfect choice for the music director to depict the series' horrible mood.

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Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss

If you're a fan of science fiction movies, you can't overlook "2001: A Space Odyssey." This iconic sci-fi film is known for its groundbreaking visual effects, philosophical themes, and enigmatic storytelling. If you've watched the movie, you're probably familiar with this music. "Also sprach Zarathustra" ("Thus Spake Zarathustra") by Richard Strauss was an excellent musical choice to open this legendary science fiction film. This is because the music perfectly resonates with the movie's main story.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Strauss composed it in 1896 as a musical response to Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophical treatise of the same title. Interestingly, Nietzsche's treatise discussed a new discourse around the rise of science. As a fictionalized prophet, Zarathustra embarks on a journey in search of enlightenment, spending ten years on a mountain to become a superman. In this work, Nietzsche famously declared, "God is dead." "2001: A Space Odyssey" explores space exploration, human evolution, and encounters with extraterrestrial intelligence, aligning well with the themes of Strauss's musical composition.

Moreover, the opening scene of the movie, depicting the sun rising from behind the Earth, is reflected in "Also Sprach Zarathustra" with its symbolic trumpet C-G-C ascending melodies. The music's use in the film, particularly during the iconic monolith and space sequences, enhances its impact and contributes to its lasting cultural significance.

Adagio for Strings

If you are in a mood of depression, sorrowness, and grief, here Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings could reflect your mind. The "Adagio for Strings" is a famous piece of classical music composed by Samuel Barber in 1936. As one of the most famous classical music in music history, it is not surprising to hear Adagio for Strings in film. More specifically, the use of strings in the long melody, delicately composed dynamics evokes the sadness. Interestingly, when The Adagio for Springs was premiered in 1938, when the Great Depression in American and the World War in the globe were significantly impacting humanity. At that point, the piece started to being associated with collective sorrowness, leading it to be used for various film.

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“Platoon” might be the most famous film that used Adagio for String. Released in 1986, the movie is about the Vietnam War, portraying your soldiers’ infantry platoon experience. This movies features realistic yet brutal and complex war conflicts, showing moral dilemmas and horrors that soldiers could face. Adagio for String, of course, was featured during a particularly intense and emotional scene and has become closely associated with the Vietnam War in popular culture.

Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2

Now we are leaving from sorrowness to joyful cartoonish classical music. Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 is it. "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2" is one of the most famous and well-loved compositions by Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. Composed in 1847 and part of a set of 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies, it is known for its energetic and virtuosic piano performance. Drawn heavily by Hungarian folk tunes, gypsy music and dance, the piece features speedy and passionate melodies. Moreso, it requires pianists to have virtuosic piano skills, demanding catchy and dramatic techniques in order to capture audiences. As such, it became the most beloved Liszt’s piano piece, and being used in various films and cartoons.

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Tom and Jerry

Tom and Jerry might be the most famous rivalry characters on cartoon history. Tom became a pianist who play Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in the episode The Cat Concerto. Jerry, who were laying down inside the piano was hindered from getting a rest, where two characters’ hilarious battle naturally started. The piano became weaponized to Jerry with hammering the keys which are comedically represented with Liszt’s iconic piece.

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