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.
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.