The Best Use of Music in...
By Nam Woon Kim (he/him)
Spoilers for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, The Double Life of Véronique
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Vivaldi’s Summer Presto
I love classical music and I love a classical music needle drop. But unless it leaves me holding my breath for three minutes like at the end of Portrait of Lady on Fire, do I really wanna hear it?
Director Céline Sciamma and actress Adèle Haenel raised the bar on how to use music with this final scene which features our titular lady on fire listening to a performance of Vivaldi’s 'Summer.'
This piece is foreshadowed earlier in the story where the main character Marianne plays some of the opening notes for Héloïse on harpsichord as their relationship begins to take shape. This tease sat in my head for the rest of the movie and the gut feeling that it’d be paid off was rewarded by the ending epilogue. Marianne settles down in a concert theatre and notices Héloïse across the room. The audience quietens down and the same notes she tentatively bashed through decades earlier come to life in a full string ensemble with every memory flooding back too.
The recording they went with was an excellent choice; it’s not unusual for classical music to have hundreds of different recordings to choose from. Performed by an ensemble led by Adrian Chandler, the intensity, the tempo, the dynamic control, everything about it fits what was needed by Sciamma and co. to make this scene hit.
Relationships that ‘could have been’ are timeless in cinema and few have done it better than here thanks to a devastating use of music.
The Double Life of Véronique, Van den Budenmayer’s Concerto en mi mineur
Krzysztof Kieślowski’s melancholic portrait of two women identical to each other living on opposite sides of Europe features an unexpectedly raw and haunting musical performance early on.
Composed for this scene by Zbigniew Preisner, we witness the death of one of our two protagonists while she performs this fictional opera to a packed theatre. Weronika’s story revolves around her musical career and a successful chance audition leads to this scene that lesser filmmakers would save for later in the movie.
The film’s characteristic green and yellow tones become foreboding while paired with this song but the atmosphere is no less dreamy. What makes this scene even more uncanny is the stylistic decision to cut between the performance and Weronika’s first person perspective. As the song picks up, our unease is validated as Weronika clutches her heart while singing, which turns her soprano lines into a scream. The rest of the choir and orchestra join in with Weronika pressing on before the camera collapses to the ground. Fade to black.
Tetris Effect - You and I (Dolphin Surf stage)
Okay that’s enough European arthouse-core for one article, let’s talk about two pretty best friends you never expected to see together: Tetris and dance music.
“A voyage of emotion and discovery ... to the depths of your soul” is the last thing you’d expect to read when booting up a game of Tetris but by the time you’ve reached this level you’ll believe it.
Tetris Effect is what happens when you take a classic puzzle game and transform it into an audio-visual experience that becomes, well, a voyage of emotion. Starting in the darkness at the bottom of the ocean, players are transported across twenty-seven distinct levels each with its own song and visual aesthetic. The first level may be the game’s most iconic, but Dolphin Surf is where everything clicks.
By the time you’ve reached here you most likely have the fundamentals down as well as having a general idea of what to expect. New stage, new music, new effects, new aesthetics. You’ve cleared hundreds of lines across land, sea, and even a sky canvas home to floating, steampunk windmills. At this point we return to another aquatic level but this time just below the surface while swimming with dolphins!
I can’t stress enough how much joy this level brings me. Rotating a piece, clearing a line – or four – everything has an audio-visual response. When you clear a line on Dolphin Surf, they jump out of the water or do a little twirl asdljkwlkjlkf 😭. Tying this all together is 'You and I', a progressive house/trance track that achieves what the best in the genre do. Gradual build ups with new synths coming in every minute, a bit of tasteful piano, and subtle dolphin sounds in the mix create a genuinely enchanting vibe. Tetris is a fun way to unwind as it is but with these extra layers of serotonin it becomes a genuinely blissful experience I will continue to recommend to anyone with access to a PS4/PS5 or PC. On that note, if anyone has a PSVR set they’re willing to bring into the office you’re more than welcome to!
Hunter x Hunter - Every time the end credits music plays early before the episode actually ends
When we think of music on television, it tends to be the intro credits or other theme songs and for good reason! Doubly so for anime as countless debates on what the best opening/ ending songs can attest to (it’s Ping Pong’s opening and Samurai Champloo’s ending, case closed weebs).
The best of these never get old no matter how often they’re repeated during our time with the story. After being disappointed by the recent wave of shounen, I gave HxH a go and was rewarded with Japanese power metal and ballads I’m confident added years to my life.
Unlike the rest of the list, this doesn’t speak to any singular moment a song was used but instead a pattern of how music was used as a transition. If you’ve got an opening ten seconds as good as 'Hunting For Your Dream' or 'Hyori Ittai', you’re going to want to make the most of them and that’s exactly what they did. Just before an episode comes to a close and the actual credits roll, the music cuts to the credits song early and the anticipation generated as a result is unreasonably effective.
On the one hand it’s 50% done to maximise the cliffhangers so we watch the next episode. The other 50% is PURE HYPE. Paired with some slow motion or cutting to a still-frame, the melodrama is cranked up in the best way possible. It’s cliché but it’s a cliché for a reason. The fact that this happened so regularly in the show and never got old is a testament to how evergreen these songs are and the confidence they had in using them.