Music in Film Terminology

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Just took an interesting gen-eds course Music in Film last semester. Though I publish mostly technical or game dev articles on this blog, I really enjoyed the materials in the course and I’d love to share the basics (that is, the terminology) of the course here. (Note we refer “music in film” as the score music of films rather than the sound effects.)

Tonality vs. Atonality

Tonality is a principle which the music is composed to center around a tonic central. It forms a more “complete” and organized piece of music. On the other hand, Atonal music lacks the tonic center, giving an unsettling, chaotic feeling.

Though not a film music, here is an example for atonal music from The National Anthem by Radiohead. Play from 4:27 until the end:

Major vs. Minor

Major and Minor are pretty basic music terms. A major progression usually gives a more happy and warm feeling, while minor progression produces a sad and emotional atmosphere. I think most people know what major and minor are so I’ll skip the examples.

Consonance vs. Dissonance

Consonance music combines notes in an “ordinary” and harmonious fashion. On the other hand, dissonance music uses notes which “do not get along well”. It usually forms from within a tonal structure, but gives a rather unsettling feel.

For example, in this clip of Casablanca (1942), from 2:05 to 2:15, a dissonance piece of music is played for the impending conflict.

Style Topics

Style Topics is also known as Cultural Musical Codes. Traditionally, they are standardized cinematic songs played by musicians and compiled together in songbooks. Film Scorers can consult the songbook as a dictionary for music for certain scenes. Broadly speaking, Style Topics can refer to all music with a strong cultural or slightly stereotypical melody (such as cowboy music in Western films).

For instance, Heroism is often scored with rising notes in the songbooks. Jazz-styled music is usually associated with sex, crime, and drug scenes. The following clip shows the famous heroic style topic in Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) (From 5:31 to 5:40):


Leitmotif is a motto for a certain character or element in a movie. It is usually short and composed of highly recognizable notes. It is played in the film whenever the character (or element) it represents appear on the scene so as to give the audience a sense of familiarity or to remind them of some events occurred previously.

In the previous clip, the heroic style topic serves also as a leitmotif for heroic acts of Dr. Jones, you know that he will escape successfully when the music starts. Another example is from the film The Trouble with Harry (1955), whenever Harry is referred to, the four-note leitmotif in 0:36 will be played.


Timbre is the sound quality of music. By altering the timbre (usually by applying different musical instruments) while playing the same melody, it gives the scene swirling and mesmerizing tint. Another common usage of timbre is in sci-fi films, where the instrument theremin is used to generate music (or more like sound effect) with continuous change of sound quality. This provides sci-fi films with an otherworldly eery feeling, and is commonly associated with supernatural happenings or extraterrestrial beings.

The well-known theme song of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) scored by Ennio Morricone applies the technique of timbre and plays the similar music with many different kinds of instruments.

As for sci-fi movies, The day the Earth Stood Still (1951) uses the altering timbre of theremin to generate a combined feeling of fear and discomfort (at 0:43 of the clip).

Diegetic vs. Non-diegetic

Diegetic music is sounds which the characters in the film can hear. For example, when a character turns on a radio in a scene, the music coming from the radio is diegetic. On the contrary, “background music” which the characters can’t hear is Non-diegetic. Non-diegetic music underlines a scene while diegetic music associates more with the happenings in the scene.

This is an example of non-diegetic music from Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003). The characters in the film clearly cannot hear this piece of background music.

For diegetic music, here is an example from Pulp Fiction (1994). The music comes from the music player so the characters in scene could hear it.

Audio Dissolve

Audio Dissolve is a common technique in musical films where the music starts from diegetic and blends into the background music at a certain moment. This usually occurs when a character is singing or playing a musical instrument. After the character stops singing or leaves the musical instrument, instead of stopping the music abruptly, the music continues and functions as the background music underscoring the scene.

In the clip of For Me and My Gal (1942), audio dissolve happens in 1:55. The song is still playing even when the female character leaves the piano.


Synchronization is also known as Mickeymousing, where the music fits the movements of the scene perfectly. Synchronization is commonly applied in cartoons in the mid-20th century. For example, synchronization is everywhere in the famous The Skeleton Dance by Disney. Each small step and movement is followed by a note in the music.


Contrary to Synchronization, the technique of Counterpoint is to play music which contradicts the film scene, that is, the music goes against the viewer’s expectation. Conterpoint can drastically change the atmosphere of a scene in a film and express what can’t be expressed by the pure visual elements of a film. For example, when playing happy and lighthearted music in a fighting scene, the fighting becomes funny and comical. Similarly, when playing eery music in a “lovely” family dinner scene, the viewer knows that something is wrong with the family or something weird is going to happen to them. The latter technique is frequently used in horror films.

The starting scene of The Shining (1980) is a car driving through a beautiful landscape, but the creepy music makes the scene seem unsettling.


Acousmêtre is like a leitmotif for an absent character, that is, a piece of music associated with someone not seen in the film. This is often a technique to represent the presence of spiritual beings in a scene, since it isn’t easy to show them visually.

An acousmêtre associated with the deceased woman Rebecca is played upon the young girl enters her (Rebecca’s) room. (Starting from 1:04:31.)

Performance Scene

Performance scene, just as its name, means a performance occurred inside a film. Filmmakers often borrow the (musical or visual) structure of of performance to move the plot of the film forward in certain directions.

Below is a performance scene from The Phantom of the Opera (2004):

Sound Bridge

Sound bridge is music which connects two different scenes. It is commonly used to make scene switching seem more natural.

Notice the alarm clock beeps starting from 0:55 in this clip of The Matrix (1999), it bridges the scene-switch flawlessly. (Though in this case it is more of a sound effect than a piece of music, it still works as a legitimate sound bridge.)


Montage is a technique by switching many different scenes within a short period of time, accompanied by a piece of (mostly pop) music. Montage can be applied to shrink a long and tedious process occurring in a film to a compact and exciting short clip. Most Disney animations contain multiple instances of montage. For example, in Mulan (1998), the song I’ll Make a Man out of You shrinks the long military training into a short couple of minutes.


In the past, I found films less interesting then other entertainment media such as novels, songs, and video games. However, after taking this fantastic Music in Film course at my university, I suddenly became a huge film lover and started to appreciate the subtlety of the combination of film and music. Praise this course, and hope you enjoy reading this article. Amen.

(Hope all those youtube clips persist, since they weren’t uploaded by me.)