Functions of film music

and miscellaneous terminology

(Zofia Lissa and others, summarised by P Tagg)
Handout from module Music and the Moving Image, 1.
Institute of Popular Music, University of Liverpool

Many writers have tried to systematise the functions of film music. One of the most useful and rigorous systematisations is that presented by Polish musicologist Zofia Lissa, in her Ästhetik der Filmmusik (1959: 115-256). There she lists and discusses twelve main functions which I have adapted and regrouped to make them more accessible. Of course, the functions of film music also apply to music on TV.

The main functions

Most of these functions are NOT mutually exclusive

  1. Emphasis of movement, i.e. musically underlining visible or audible movement that is not intrinsically music, e.g. running, galoping, waving, swaying, spinning, flying, hovering, caressing, hitting, stabbing, cutting, flickering, to-and-fro, quickly, slowly, calmly, jerkily, etc.

  2. Emphasis of real' sounds, i.e. underlining, in stylised musical fashion, sounds not included in the music itself', e.g. rain, wind, footsteps, hooves, machines, screams, sighs, laughter, slam, bash, pow', wham', thud'.

  3. Representation of location, i.e. using music to allow the audience to associate to a particular cultural, physical, social or historical environment.
    physical, ethnic, e.g. Japan, jungle, Amerindians, Paris, town, country, space, laboratory, underwater, posh hotel, seedy club.
    social, e.g. upper class, middle class, lower class.
    historical, e.g. ancient, medieval, Baroque, fin-de-siècle, future.

  4. Source music . Lissa calls source music 'real music situations' while Gorbman refers to it as 'diegetic music' (see below). Film music becomes source music when it is motivated by the narrative logic of the visual production's fictional reality', i.e. when the source of that music is part of that same fictional reality. Source music can be thought of as music audible to (hearing) characters (if any) and enacted in the scene where it occurs. The sounding source of the source music may be visible on screen, e.g. a marching band, a band in a nightclub, a parent singing a lullaby, a concert, a church organ and congregation, etc., but it can also be invisible, e.g. a car radio, Muzak in an airport or shopping mall, a TV or hi-fi that has been turned on.

  5. Comment , i.e. using music to comment upon the images by distancing. The most usual type of film-musical comment is counterpoint, i.e. contradicting the connotative sphere of the visual action, e.g. melifluous melody for atomic holocaust, horror music for love scene. Another type of comment is the presentation of music providing an emotional dimension to a series of events that has just finished, i.e. the opposite of function 9, below.

  6. Expression of actor's emotions , i.e. using music to communicate what characters played on screen are supposed to be feeling, e.g. a neutral shot of a hero or heroine reading a letter with horror music as underscore telling the audience he/she is shocked by such terrible news.

  7. Basis for audience's emotions , i.e. using music to communicate a certain set of emotions that may or may not be the same as that supposed to be experienced by the character(s) on screen, e.g. the same scene and same music as in function 6, except this time it is the villain who is seen reading a letter with horror music underscore telling us (the audience) that something awful is going to happen. In this case the letter carries terrible news (for us) while it might be wonderful news for the evil character reading it inside the fiction.

  8. Symbol , i.e. using music to represent something or someone known by the audience from the narrative but not currently part of the narrative, e.g. a wounded hero seen in the misery and mud of the trenches but underscored by her' theme.

  9. Anticipation of subsequent action , e.g. the music starts to sound nasty while the picture is still quite innocent', presenting a mood of threat just before the visuals go ugly with a sudden cut to a foul deed.

  10. Enhancement and demarcation of the film's formal structure.
    leitmotifs, serving to (re-)identify characters, moods, environments, etc., thereby helping to make the film emotionally more comprehensible and to glue the narrative together across heavy cuts.
    openings, i.e. 'something new starts now, folks'.
    links and bridges. Music bridges two scenes, often of quite disparate character, across a cut (or fade-out plus fade-in, etc.)
    tails. Snippets of music, often after a change of scene, that set the mood of the new scene and tail off, often on an unresolved chord demanding that the narrative (musical or otherwise) continue, thereby leaving the acoustic space open for dialogue or sound effects.
    endings, i.e. 'that's the end of that bit, folks'.


Comments on and example of Lissa's ten functions

Please note that most of the functions just listed are not mutually exclusive. For example, if we are shown a fictional fashion model gliding around her sumptuous New York penthouse apartment in a silk nightgown to the accompaniment of a smooth sounding bossa nova record she has just slipped into the CD player, we are hearing music as follows:

  • It acts as source music (function 4) because we saw her put on the record.
  • It underscores how we we, the audience, are supposed to feel about her (function 7): it tells us she is desirous of smoothness and luxury.
  • As we see her do her make-up in the mirror, the music tells us a bit about how the fictional character is supposed to be feeling herself (function 6) — smooth, sophisticated, cosseted, etc.
  • Since the music emphasises lazy slithering, sliding or caressing far more than energetic battering, clodhopping or headbanging, there is an element of function 2 a well.
  • The music also tells us that we are far more likely to be in a warm and cosseted North American urban penthouse, or possibly drinking cocktails under Martini parasols with the upper crust of Copacabana, than in a disused cotton mill in Rochdale or in the Gobi desert or halfway to Mars. Hence function 3 is also in operation.
  • Also, depending on what sort bossa nova is being played, the music might also be a comment (function 5) communicating that what we see is really a bit old-hat: she might be looking fine but there's something in her choice of music suggesting that she has quite a strange self-identity or attitude to fashion or that she might be quite a bit older than she tries to look.
  • Or perhaps the music is simultaneously acting as a symbol (function 8) for a suitor (not currently visible in the fiction) who might be Brazilian and quite a bit older than her.
  • Or perhaps the CD is a dramatic trick creating the illusion that we are listening to the same 'real' record in her flat that she is seen to hear, when in fact the music is the film composer's underscore which will decrease in diegetic value and turn totally psychological as more of her character and the plot around her unfolds ...

Other important general film music terms

Diegetic music

Diegesis, diegetic: all that belongs, 'by inference'1 to the narrated story, to the world supposed or proposed by the film's fiction. The terms can be exmplified as follows:

  • Two sequences projected consecutively can represent two scenes separated in the diegesis by  long interval (several hours or years of diegetic time).
  •  Two adjoining studio sets can represent locations supposedly hundreds of metres or thousands of kilometres apart in diegetic space.
  •  Two or more actors (e.g. a child and an adult, or a star and a stuntman or double) to successively depict the same diegetic character.

In this way, diegetic music means music whose source is justified by the reality' of the film's visual narrative. It is far simple to call this source music (q.v.) Non-diegetic music is film music whose source is not contained within the film's visual narrative. Most underscore and title music is non-diegetic. Hitchcock once remarked how stupid it was to hear a symphony orchestra on a desert island (non-diegetic function of music). Herrmann wondered how the camera crew had got there.


By underscore is generally meant background or incidental music written to any pre-existent visual sequence. Underscores are recorded to picture. Title music and set pieces (see below) are rarely underscore. Most underscore is non-diegetic music.

Title music

Title music is a generic term denoting music conceived for a film's or TV programme's title sequences (or credits'), usually at the start (main' or opening title') and/or end of the film or programme (end title'). Opening titles have three main functions:

  1. Reveille function : wake up! Something, as yet undefined, is about to start.

  2. Preparatory function : Something of a particular type, set in a particular environment, including particular types of character and particular types of action and mood is about to start.

  3. Mnemonic function : A particular, identifiable and recurrent (type of) production is about to start, e.g. another James Bond or a Beverly Hills Cop movie, another episode of Dallas, Kojak, Inspector Morse, Eastenders, Brookside, The X-Files or Neighbours.

The most common function of signature themes (radio and TV) is of course mnemonic, but no title music would work properly without consideration of the preparatory function. Feature films rely almost entirely on the preparatory function to get the musical message of their title sequences across.

In early sound film, opening titles (a.k.a. main titles') often showed the credits written on paper as though an invisible member of the audience was thumbing through a printed programme before the start of a theatre performance. The music for such sequences derives much from the classical-romantic overture to opera and other dramatic presentations. This overture' function of title music has to a large extent been maintained even though the filming of names written on paper has long since been abandoned (except when an old production' effect is considered desirable). Title sequences present the composer with the opportunity of writing music on music's own conditions since underscore demands strict adherence of music to visual narrative, while title music frequently determines the pace and type of visual cuts, at least within the obvious limits of duration assigned to the sequences and the general character of the complete visual production. Therefore visual titles are more likely to be cut in sync with the music whereas underscore is almost inevitably recorded to picture. Cutting titles to music is particularly common in TV productions.

Set pieces

Set pieces (not a generally accepted term but nevertheless quite useful) constitute that subset of source music (diegetic music) in which musical presentations are visible as performance on screen as part of the film's (or TV programme's) narrative, however convincing the piece's inclusion at that point in the narrative may or may not be. If the performance of the piece is the main focus of the narrative, as in most musicals, the visuals will usually be cut to music and in some instances even the action may be choreographed in time with the music. However, if the set piece is more of a backdrop to other activity, cutting points are less likely to be in sync with musical episodicity. Such source music may change from foreground to background interest in the film's narrative, even to the extent of the source music being faded out and replaced by non-diegetic underscore. For example, in an episode of the TV version of The Saint entitled The Brave Goose', source music (function 4) is provided as a set piece by a disc-jockey and dancers in a Saint Tropez disco. In the middle of an up-tempo number a murder is committed. The camera zooms in on the heroine (who alone realises what has happened) and immediately back to the dancers who are still bopping away in picture despite the fact that the source music has been replaced by non-diegetic music. This music underlines the emotions of horror the heroine is supposed to be feeling (function 7) and provides a basis for the audience's emotions (function 8). Since the dancers are still shown to be having a good time, the set piece interrupted by underscore also counterpoints horror (non-diegetic music only) against gaiety (silenced source music and continued dancing), this making the horror more poignant (function 5).

Pre-existent recordings

Pre-existent recordings of music, i.e. music not specifically composed or recorded for the visual production in question, have been frequently used in film and TV since the sixties. For example, Kubrick uses Vera Lynn's recording of We'll Meet Again (don't know where, don't know when) to counterpoint the holocaust of atom bomb explosions at the end of Dr Strangelove (function 4). He also uses Beethoven's ninth symphony in A Clockwork Orange (about juvenile delinqency), rearrangements of music by Händel in Barry Lydon and music by Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss and György Ligeti in 2001 -- A Space Odyssey. Pop and rock music has been often used since Easy Rider to underscore action and driving sequences in which dialogue is either sparse or absent. In most of these cases, although the music is never visually performed as source music (it is almost always non-diegetic), the music is foregrounded in the sense that kinetic, tactile, sonic and emotional states and processes take precedence over a narratively logical' sequence of visual events. Since pre-existent recordings are chosen to provide the main focus of the narrative in certain sequences, visuals tend to be cut to music.

Cue point

In film music parlance a cue point is any point in time during a production for moving images at which either (i) musical events start/end in sync with the visuals or (ii) visual events start or end in sync with the music. For example, a horror underscore for a murder scene might start with the cut to that particular scene as a cue point (visual cue) or when certain words are spoken (verbal cue). There might be another cue point as the murderer appears (more horrific music) and another when the knife is plunged into the vicitm's chest (even more horrific music). The end cue point might be just after a cut to the subsequent scene. Conversely, visual editing can be based on musical cues such as downbeats, starts of phrases, particular timbres and accents, etc. or (if applicable) in sync with particular words in the lyrics. The process of determining where cue points should occur is known as spotting the film (or videotape or audio recording).

1.'By inference': Claudia Gorbman's translation of 'dans l'intelligibilité'. Gorbman (1987: 21 see film music bibliography)  is quoting Étienne Souriau's L'Univers filmique, Paris, (1953, p. 7)