What is Contrapuntal Music & How Did Kubrick & Tarantino Use It in Their Most Famous Scenes?

Film is often thought of as being a visual medium, but sound (especially sound and visuals together) play a huge role in storytelling. This enlightening video essay from two students from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands breaks down the concept of contrapuntal music in film, a technique used famously by Stanley Kubrick and Quentin Tarantino that arranges independent, yet harmonious musical and filmic parts, expressing a deeper narrative meaning to the tune of Sergei Eisenstein's theory of the montage.

Polyphony and homophony, as they pertain to music theory, are complete opposite musical textures in terms of structure and components. Homophonic music is characterized by parts that move in harmony, where one part is more dominant than the others. Even if you've never heard of the term "homophony", you've seen and heard it countless times in films. When Darth Vader appears on-screen you hear the ominous "Imperial March" (because he's ominous and in charge), or when roadtripping teenagers in a rusted jalopy return home after being punched in the face by the real world, chances are we're hearing Elliott Smith or some kind of grey day acoustic folk song (because they're existential and sad).

Polyphonic music, however, consists of independent parts of equal value, that is, no one part is more dominant than the other. This is what is known as contrapuntal, or counterpoint music. To put it simply (and in the context of film), the music contradicts the images. You've heard it before, I promise -- Stanley Kubrick and Quentin Tarantino are famous for using it. For example, the song "Comanche" by The Revels plays during the infamous Gimp scene in Pulp Fiction, or possibly a more notable scene would be from Reservoir Dogs when Mr. Blonde cuts off a cop's ear to the hand-clappin' tune of "Stuck in the Middle With You" by Stealers Wheel.

Video is no longer available: vimeo.com/31479592

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ye7x3jbi_TE

The reason contrapuntal music is significant to film -- and also being talked about on a film website -- is because these students from the University of Groningen, Noémie Lachance and Jana Zander, not only show us how music, like images, can become a building block in the creation of a story, but how using contrapuntal music specifically can drastically change the message of a scene in exactly the same way images do, as described by Polish musicologist Zofia Lissa in her book Ästhetik der Filmmusik (1965).

Just think Sergei Eistenstein's Soviet montage theory (the "intellectual" montage specifically), only with "music and images" instead of "images and images". In fact, the raw materials are the same between Eisenstein's and Lissa's theories -- the "thesis" and "antithesis" form the "synthesis".

Check out the video essay below:

Possibly one of the greatest points brought up during this video was the fact that film is a synthesis made up of many different parts, which means that there is virtually infinite potential for growth, change, and originality. This is why studying film theory is so important (at least I think so), because it breaks the art form down to its smallest parts so that filmmakers can rebuild them into something new. Plus -- it's awesome and interesting, so there's that, too.

[via Film and Media Studies Groningen & Filmmaker IQ]

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Definitely one of my favorite techniques ever.

July 25, 2014 at 9:13AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Thanks V. I enjoyed that very much.

July 25, 2014 at 9:25AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


This is awesome. I hope they got an A for this project.

July 25, 2014 at 10:22AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Rob Hardy
Founder of Filmmaker Freedom

This is fantastic. While most tutorial, if and when they do cover the elusive yet crucial element of audio in film, focus on the technical aspects only of mixing, eq, etc.... This covers the art of music as a part of audio design, more the creative aspect. I would love to see more of this. I'd like to see not just how foley is done, but more importantly, where is the audio put... What types of audio clips suit the scene, where do footsteps vs. a Carr passing or birds singing, what level for the audio clip ehances the layers etc... I know a lot is artistic expression, but I know we can learn from styles and choices of those who have come before us. I think this tutorial is a home run!!! Thank you!

July 25, 2014 at 10:34AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Gabriel Lane

Sister Christian in Boogie Nights, Huey Lewis, Phil Collins, etc. in American Psycho

July 25, 2014 at 11:07AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Show me an essay from Tarantino that supports this and I'll be prepared to lend it more credit. Otherwise, it.jist sounds like another theory.

July 25, 2014 at 11:12AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Ben Howling

You mean Robert Rodriguez?

July 31, 2014 at 1:59PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


What a Wonderful World, Good Morning Vietnam... great, these are going to be popping up in my head all day now. Thanks;)

July 25, 2014 at 11:41AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Can anyone remember the film with the gun battle with "somewhere under the rainbow" playing? I've been dying to show it to my friends but I can't find it for the life of me.

July 25, 2014 at 6:14PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


You're probably thinking of Face/Off

July 28, 2014 at 4:01AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Great article. I feel NFS becomes more and more "literate" over the time, which is great! :)

July 27, 2014 at 7:13AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

George Tsirogiannis

@Ruairi. I believe it was FaceOff with John and Nick.

July 28, 2014 at 4:19AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Just whatever you do... don't tell your composer you're looking for "contrapuntal music" and expect anything other than a baroque-era knockoff.

July 31, 2014 at 5:44PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Not quite sure they mean Contrapuntal here - contrapuntal music refers to a very specific compositional structure.
I think TVTropes just calls this technique 'Soundtrack Dissonance' - as good a name as any. One of my favourites :-)

August 1, 2014 at 4:56AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Great post!

December 17, 2015 at 3:27AM, Edited December 17, 3:27AM