Music Choices: Subverting Expectations

My last post focused on how design decisions about when to play music in a game can reinforce a game's (or film's) themes. Today I'd like to share some examples of neat music choices in films and games that subvert the expectations we've built by being exposed to musical conventions that go along with specific types of  scenes. I'm sure you'll recognize and be familiar with some, if not all of these use cases. Still, it can be useful to actively call them back into memory so next time you make a design decision, you might remember a broader spectrum of possible choices.

Omission of stereotypical non-diegetic music

Children of Men has a great action scene that completely skips the typical chase music we're so used to hearing in similar situations. In its stead there's only diegetic music from the car stereo that doesn't match the visual action. The result is a gritty realistic feel (after all, in real life, unless we specifically picked it out for that purpose, music does not match our emotions, e.g. an arguing couple in a supermarket with the typical happy shopping music compilation on the PA). This also means there is no acoustic foreshadowing (there's an orange in the scene, though) and it's all the more shocking for it once the violence erupts. The fact that the audience can't rely on the music to warn it about what's going to happen next  increases the sense of vulnerability.

Another thing that makes this scene so effective is of course its amazing camera work, here's a making of clip: incredibly long shot (starting at 1:13)



Contrasting music (contrapuntal music) with shifting perspective

Another way to subvert musical expectations is is to use music that actively runs against those expectations. This can create a variety of effects. Here's some examples where the music changes between being clearly inside the scene and enveloping the scene:


The first time I noticed such a juxtaposition was maybe the following fight scene in the movie Face/Off. At the beginning of the firefight, they've put headphones on the child and turned its music on. For a while, the battle is accompanied by the usual "fight scene" kind of music. Then there's an acoustic shift:

As the mix changes, "Somewhere over the Rainbow" shifts from clearly being an element inside the film's world to something that wraps around it and drowns out pretty much all other sounds except from bursts of gunfire and impact sounds. How the viewer reacts to this shift of acoustic perspective and the resulting contrast might differ from person to person, but it's definitely a memorable moment. The lyrics about unfulfilled dreams go nicely with the contrast of family life and kids in pajamas vs. antisocial parents that have shoot-outs with the FBI.



In Fallout 1, the audio perspective moves in the opposite direction of the Face/Off fight scene: Here at first we hear only music with no discernible source (though the vinyl cracks and pops already hint at it) then at the end of the song it becomes more of an element of the game world. The music is shifted into the virtual space by adding reverb and the record getting stuck and the soundscape is enriched by other sounds from that world. We're drawn into the game. The post-apocalyptic world we're presented with appears all the more stark for how it contrasts with the optimism of the jazzy post-WWII song and the car ads on the tv set. "Look what has become of our collective hopes and dreams", it says. The music conveys a sense of bitter irony. The sequels all stick closely to that formula for their intros.

The intro to Wall-E has some funny similarities to Fallout:

  • cheerful song from the 50ies/60ies juxtaposed with post-apocalyptic visions of earth.
  • Zoom in on the action, the mix and the sound of the music changes and it transitions to appear to be inside the world, clarifying it's a relic from the past and not representative of the current state of the world. (of course this kind of perspective shift is a common approach to transition from the intro to the actual movie)

Additionally, using music from the post-war economic expansion of course goes very well with the film's theme of consumerism, whereas in Fallout the music perhaps is mostly used to reference the technology level of that era along with how people at that time envisioned the future.


In the more recent Guardians of the Galaxy I'd argue that Star Lord's anachronistic "Awesome Mix" is mostly a characterisation tool. It communicates his rogueish attitude, his nostalgia and his yearning for lost family as well as the fact that he's an outsider from another world, although a well-adapted one. Calculating evil genius Hannibal Lecter listening to Goldberg Variations and the cheerfully singing home invader of A Clockwork Orange are similar examples of characterisation through contrapuntal music (although in these cases it stays purely diegetic).



Non-diegetic contrapuntal music


Comedic purposes:
Another frequent use of contrapuntal music is to create a comedic effect. For instance, this chase scene from Hot Fuzz draws quite a bit from its humor from the fact that we hear typical blockbuster action movie music (along with they stereotypical cuts) while what we see is a clumsy chase through a quaint little british village following a trivial shoplifting. The exaggerated music stands out and thus makes the whole scene and its protagonist seem ridiculous.

The trailer for Leviathan Warships achieves a similar effect with a different mismatched pairing by contrasting naval battles with a sexy Jazz track and voiceover.


Other applications of contrapuntal music:

  • Creating a sense of danger, unease or corruption by contrasting serene, peaceful visuals with equally dark, ominous or disturbing music.
  • ...

Final Thoughts

There is a large variety of ways we can subvert an audience's musical expectations and surprise and hopefully delight them by creating a variety of different effects. That said, just because we can of course doesn't mean we always should and ideally when we do, it should have a deeper meaning than just "how shocking to hear pretty music while seeing a brutally violent scene unfold".

I also think how we process music that contrasts the visual action in a movie or a game depends on whether it seems to a) originate in the portrayed world or is b) perceived as an external voice. While a) certainly elicits a strong response like in A Clockwork Orange, it doesn't necessarily increase the distance between the audience and the game/film. On the other hand, I would argue that in the case of b) the music is perceived less as an extension of what we see and more as a commentary. As our brains try to reconcile the conflicting messages, we're drawn a little bit out of the experience, sacrificing immersion for the sake of a more conscious analytical mode of experiencing content and maybe also appreciation for the skillful arrangement of the acoustic and visual parts.


In both cases a) and b), we perceive it much more conciously than music that's aligned with the visuals and such scenes may have more potential to become iconic.


Do you know other cool examples of surprising music choices in games or films? Other use cases I haven't thought of? Drop me a comment! :)


 As I was writing and researching this post, I found this blog post by Joe Baxter-Webb with some nice additional examples and good points on letting the player roleplay by choosing either aligned or contrasting music on a radio, using Fallout 3 as an example (GTA also comes to mind).

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