Film is often thought of as being a visual medium, but sound (especially sound and visuals together) play a huge role in storytelling.

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), 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 Dogswhen Mr. Blonde cuts off a cop's ear to the hand-clappin' tune of "Stuck in the Middle With You" by Stealers Wheel.

Let's dive into the meaning of this term and how it appears in film and TV.

Contrapuntal Sound

Contrapuntal SoundA Clockwork OrangeWarner Bros.

Contrapuntal sound in film and TV is a technique where the music or sound effects intentionally contrast with the visuals on screen. This creates a jarring or unexpected effect, often used to heighten emotions, create irony,

The Two Main Types of Contrapuntal Sound in Film and TV

  • Contrapuntal Music: This is where the music playing contradicts the mood or tone of the scene. For example, a happy, upbeat song might play over a violent or tragic scene, or a slow, melancholic piece might accompany a comedic moment. This can create a sense of unease, tension, or dark humor.
  • Contrapuntal Sound Effects: This involves using sound effects that don't match the visuals. For instance, the sound of birds chirping might play over a tense chase scene, or the sound of children laughing might accompany a horrifying image. This can create a surreal or disturbing atmosphere.
  • Examples of Contrapuntal Sound in Film and TV

    Notable Examples:

    • Stanley Kubrick: Known for his masterful use of contrapuntal music. In A Clockwork Orange, classical music accompanies scenes of violence, creating a disturbing juxtaposition.
    • Quentin Tarantino: Often uses pop songs from different eras to create a unique and sometimes ironic atmosphere in his films. In Reservoir Dogs, the song "Stuck in the Middle with You" plays during a brutal torture scene.
    • Wes Anderson: Uses whimsical music and sound effects to contrast with the often melancholic or quirky nature of his films. This creates a signature style that is both playful and poignant.

    Why Use Contrapuntal Sounds?

    The reason contrapuntal music is significant to film -- and also being talked about on a film website -- is because music, like images, can become a building block in the creation of a story, and 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".

    Contrapuntal sound can be a powerful tool for filmmakers and TV creators. It can:

    • Heighten emotions: By contrasting the audio and visual elements, filmmakers can intensify the emotional impact of a scene.
    • Create irony or humor: The juxtaposition of contrasting elements can be used to create comedic or ironic effects.
    • Subvert expectations: By defying traditional conventions, contrapuntal sound can surprise and engage the audience.
    • Add depth and complexity: Contrapuntal sound can add layers of meaning to a scene, encouraging the audience to think more deeply about what they are seeing and hearing.

    Possibly one of the greatest points is 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.