How Songs are used in Film

The ending to John Hughes’ 1985 film The Breakfast Club serves as one of the most famous movie scenes of all time. A group of students, each representing a different high school stereotype (jock, nerd, princess, rebel or basket case), walk away from a day of detention spent with each other. They were brought together as seemingly separate people and yet, leave united by a sole factor: the struggle of being young.

Each member of the ensemble confesses their desires and vents their frustration in a 97 minute film of teenage angst. Through this, they learn the cardinal-rule to not judge a book by its cover and forge the most unlikely of friendships. 

Yet, the question of whether they’ll still be friends the next day hangs over them as they exit, one that is left unanswered even as the credits role. The audience is left unsatisfied. 

The only hint we are left with is the one found in the song that plays in the background, Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me.” It is a song that expresses a desperation to mean something to someone; to know that they had an impact on their lives. 

Hughes, 1985

Therefore, in the final scene as the song reaches a crescendo, Judd Nelson’s character pumps his fist in the air in a gesture of hope, hope for life to change. Pause mid-fist pump. Fade out, and this hope is now eternal. It is the song that gives meaning to the film, helping to give it character. 

Art’s ability to be a transformative tool is useful in many ways. In this instance, the use of music can not only transcend a movie and make it more than memorable, but it can give it a new meaning. The use of music can even reveal something about a character, encompassing their essence within its notes and melodies.  

How Songs are used in Film

Pirates of the Caribbean: “Jack Sparrow” — Hans Zimmer 

One of my favourite characters of all time, Captain Jack Sparrow, is given his own theme song that plays throughout the Pirates films during prime moments for the character. It’s interesting how a character’s theme song is used, invoked when he is first introduced in the film or doing something that reveals something about the him. In the case of Jack, his song is usually used when he is getting into trouble. The melody itself possesses the essence of the character in its slow pace and lazy beginning, reflecting his infamous stride. It builds with the sounds of string instruments and speeds up with a jaunty rhythm, increasing in force to reflect the character springing into action. The image that is created is usually that of Jack in the midst of trouble, before it finally returns to its slow pace of a job well done. Not only does the song introduce Jack, but when it begins playing on screen, you can anticipate his participation in the action on screen. Either that or you know he’s about to mess everything up. 

Titanic (1997): “My Heart Will Go On” – Céline Dion, “Rose” – James Horner

Typically the film is characterized by Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”. It is a song that seems to transcend the film, Dion’s ballad expressing all the heartbreak and loss of a pair of lovers. The song builds near the ending to represent the frustration and fear of having to let someone go and knowing it’s the right thing to do. The song still creates a pocket of grief in my heart when I hear it and possesses all the tragedy of the film. Although it plays an important role in the understanding of the film, the song is only played during the credits.

Instead, it is the melody of “Rose” that is prevalent in the film. It reveals the longing and sadness of the character it is named after. It is very similar to Dion’s song, but instead it is without words and has a slower pace. A single piano is heard playing the notes, representing her loneliness living in a world of judgement and pain of the upper class. Yet the song itself also signifies hope. 

How Songs are used in Film

Stand by Me (1986): “Stand by Me” – Ben E King 

In a film that reminisces about the friendships we gain in our youth, King’s “Stand by Me” plays during the final scene of the film. This scene takes place in the protagonist’s memory, as he watches his then 12 year old best friend walk home to his unhappy life and abusive father. He narrates the scene as an adult, revealing to the audience the fate of his friend. Instead of amounting to nothing like all the adults in his life predicted, his best friend graduates from school and becomes a successful lawyer. The pair of friends who are supportive of each other throughout the movie, always stand by the other.

Yet even with this success, a freak accident occurs and his best friend get murdered when trying to break up a fight. This event actually prompts the protagonist to write the story that leads the movie along. The song captures the line the protagonist ends the film with: “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve.” Though he is grown up, he still thinks of his friends often and remembers what they mean to him. The memories he shared with them influences his present self, specifically in the case of the protagonist and his best friend, who had always encouraged him to become a writer.

How Songs are used in Film

I believe both the music and the lyrics of a song play an important role in reflecting or expressing a message when it’s being used in a film setting. Many people don’t attempt to listen to the lyrics when they first hear a song, instead waiting until they’ve heard it enough times that the song is ingrained in their memory. The effort the song writers put into their craft is equal to a director’s, as is the music editor whose creative vision decides which song should be used for which scene. 

The ways in which films utilize a soundtrack can make or break them. Sometimes the most memorable scenes are the ones that are backed by a beautiful melody, such as the case of The Breakfast Club. Whether it’s an original score or a mainstream song that overlaps the scenes, there is a motive for including it in the film. 


  • Jamie Tenn

    I read as much as I talk and I talk too much. I love writers with great last names: Poe, Shakespeare, Dickens, Fitzgerald and Nick Miller.

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