The Power of Soundtrack Dissonance
Chances are you might not recognize the term "soundtrack dissonance" right away (or, perchance, the film specific label "counterpoint"), but you yourself can list many examples of these choices. That's because visual media is full of these types of aesthetic decisions. Some of the most notable scenes in film history are steered by this very idea. So, what is it?
Soundtrack dissonance is the use of a song or composition that greatly contrasts the visual subject or activity. You can find angry or sad music set to happy images. However, the most notable examples come from the catchy feel good tunes, or the sweeping orchestral scores, playing on top of vicious, depressing, or disturbing images. Now that your suspicions have been confirmed, you can proceed to flip through the countless examples you can remember.
Why does this work so well? Perhaps these scenes change how you feel about a song from now on. Sad songs usually have slower tempos and the appropriate timbre. Happy songs can have grooves and an infectious quality (of course this is not always true, but you'll find that often times hit songs from the '60s are used for this effect; we will get into that soon). Like an earworm can work its way into your cerebellum, so does gut/heart wrenching imagery. Our brain puts both elements on repeat, begging us to remember a spectacular song or make sense of a troublesome scene. With both parts merged together, you usually end up with scenes you just cannot shake off. They creep into your soul, but they also have a rhythmic pulse to them. Often, you'll find it nearly impossible to separate the song from the scene.
Why do '60s songs work so well? Perhaps it's because one of the earliest works to test this marriage of sound and vision came from that era. An underground film by experimental mastermind Kenneth Anger might be the first work to try this; it is certainly the most groundbreaking work to do so, either way. Scorpio Rising lacks a real narrative, but it follows the day (or night) in the life of a motorcycle gang. The entire soundtrack is comprised of then-current pop tracks, including "My Boyfriend's Back" by The Angels, "Devil in Disguise" by Elvis, and "I Will Follow Him" by child star Little Peggy March. These songs accompany images of bikers getting dressed, partaking in assaults, and speeding across the city. It was innovative for being a film entirely scored by popular music, but the actual contrasts at play here leave as big of an impact.
From there on out, there are so many examples. Specific filmmakers alone love using the technique. Martin Scorsese is a fine example of a director obsessed with counterpointing. With many examples to choose from, I'll go with the scene in The Departed, where Billy Costigan gets into a fight with local gangsters in a convenience store set to "Nobody But Me" by The Human Beinz. The song lyrically works, because it's a description of dance moves set to Costigan beating the life out of two patrons. It also makes a nice editing challenge for Thelma Schoonmaker, who now has to synch up an onslaught to an upbeat pop track.The sequence develops a nice pace, and the scene stands out on purpose (it's highlighted as a major mistake Costigan made).
Sorry to beat you over the head with him lately, but another known filmmaker that utilizes this technique is Quentin Tarantino (he probably does this trick even more). Let's try a differently paced song, though, with a scene from Pulp Fiction. Mia Wallace starts jamming out to "Girl You'll be a Woman Soon" by Urge Overkill. Vincent Vega is in the bathroom trying to psyche himself out of wanting to have an affair with his boss's wife, so we already get a bit on edge. Then, Mia discovers the bag. The bag of heroin she mistakes for cocaine. She horrifically overdoses, but the diegetic song is playing within the scene and won't stop for anyone. The tune turns from a loaded song about romance into the horrifying realization that a life changing mistake has just been made.
Soundtrack dissonance is simply a fun exercise for filmmakers. How can a song deviate from the nature of a scene greatly enough to be jarring? How can this song also sneak its way into relevancy based on its lyrical content? It also forces us to find enjoyment in dark places. Mixed feelings end up being some of the best cinematic experiences. Being told how to feel is boring. Not knowing what you're going through is a soul search that turns a film into a part of you. Should we all be happy and singing along at the end of Life of Brian? Well, we are anyway. "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" is one of the most popular songs for weddings and funerals (that alone is fascinating). It's a song that has left an effect on people.
As for scores, you'll usually find recognizable numbers still being used. In Apocalypse Now, when Bill Kilgore blasts "The Flight of the Valkyries" while Vietnamese troops and civilians are being gunned down, it's a joy for him to instil fear in the unsuspecting. The song no longer feels like a triumph: it sounds like a slaughter. Using songs we know confuses us: how could a go-to song of joy or brilliance for us now bring us pain? Stanley Kubrick also enjoys using set orchestral numbers for scenes of discomfort, torment, or misery. Just revisit any part in A Clockwork Orange (an exception being the use of the memorable musical number “Singin’ in the Rain” during the obvious scene, but that’s still counterpointing).
You will still find original scores that attempt this kind of thing, but film has always tried to toy with the many experiences a single source can muster. Once you get familiar with this practice, you will notice it often. Many decades later, it's a notion that has yet to run stale.
Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.