Two Cultures of Film Music: Leitmotif and sound design

Composing music and sound design for films poses specific challenges. The raison d’être for any music and sound design, in fact for the soundtrack as a whole is the narrative and the image track of the film. This poses constraints for the timebased art of music. Film music can never follow its own logic freely developing themes or sound textures as long as it takes. It is limited by the duration of a scene which it supports or comments.

In my analyses of films I observed that film composers adopt two fundamental musical approaches: on the one hand the thematic concept of music using Leitmotifs and harmonic tonality. On the other hand composers practice a timbral or spectral aesthetic which expresses itself through complex textures and drones that blend in seamlessly with environmental sounds and the dialogue. It is closely linked to sound design, which emerged from the electroacoustic music tradition and the 20th Century aesthetic of musicalising environmental, indeed any recorded sound or noise. I argue that leitmotivic sound design is a new, original creative tool specific to film. Film music by contrast is mostly extraneous, i.e. nondiegetic to the sound track and derived from the model of classical-romantic music, i.e. pastiche.


Films with leitmotivic sound design

Terminator 2 (James Cameron, 1991)

The Testament of Dr Mabuse (Fritz Lang, 1933)

The Hurtlocker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008)

Katalin Varga (Peter Strickland, 2009)

The Woman in the Dunes (Sunna no Onna, Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964)


Films with a leitmotivic music score

Jaws (Stephen Spielberg, 1975)

Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)

Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939)

King Kong (Cooper & Schoedsack, 1933)

The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)


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