20 Functions of Music in Film

Music has been a part of the human experience for eons. It has always played an important role that went beyond entertainment. When it comes to being used in film, music has specific functions that expand the cinematic experience. We are going to go over all the different functions of music in film, so that you can make sure you select the perfect soundtrack for your film.

Emotional Expression

Music and emotions are strongly linked. The precise use of music in film will allow you to convey feelings a character has or even encompass ideas. Unique characteristics within the music can intensify an emotion, such as happiness, sadness, or fright.

Create an Atmosphere

To set the tone of a film, nothing is more effective than music. We all know the intro film scores to some of the most legendary films, like Star Wars. These immediately create an atmosphere that will reveal to you how dramatic a movie will be and what genre it falls into.

Embody a Specific Type of Culture

Music can transport a film viewer to a specific culture. This could also include a far-flung region of the world, such as a desert village, or something closer to home, like a punk subculture. Using specific types of music associated with particular cultures increases the feeling of authenticity. We can hear music that sets the location, without knowing much about the place or culture within it.

Emphasizing Movement

Music can function as a way to feel whether the movement is speeding up or slowing down. When music gets matched up with the action on the screen, it adds a dimension of depth to the scene, whether it’s a comedic chase scene or a dramatic scene of someone floating away in space.

Manipulating Perspective

We all know how, when a protagonist makes their debut in a scene, there is sometimes heroic and inspiring music. Other times, the antagonist appears, and there is a frightful or more insidious tone to the music.

Creating Montages

When connecting scenes of things that occurred over time, music can elegantly needle a thread through all of them. Even though there is movement through time, from scenes which may be very different from one another, a single song can help the viewer understand the totality of all the scenes in a montage, and what is trying to be expressed.

Amplify Space

When a character walks into a grand hall, a 20-piece orchestral ensemble playing an epic score would be fitting. The use of music can reinforce the impression of a larger or smaller size. Low lows and high highs can accentuate the spatial dimensions of a space.


With music, we can be guided towards understanding whether a scene is supposed to be serious or amusing. Parodies of certain characters or situations are easier with the help of the type of music chosen to play during a scene. It can quickly shift the feeling that a scene is going to be serious to it being understood that it’s going to be light-hearted.

Creating Thematic Identities

Leitmotifs are short recurring musical pieces that carry a specific meaning. They are usually used in film to associate a person, location, or idea and connect plot points. This can be a musical theme that plays when an antagonist, like a villain, gets introduced to the audience. That same musical piece will get heard when another character in another scene talks about the villain, without naming them, which lets us know who is being talked about. This function works when it’s used more subtlety and is not to be overdone.

Embody a Specific Time Period

From at least the Renaissance onward, every time period has come to be associated with a particular style of easily recognizable music. This allows for music to become a powerful tether to the past and bring it to life more vividly. The audience of a film can quickly become transported to the time of Marie Antoinette or the groovy 60s. Films taking place in modern times can use music to enhance the realness of flashbacks and help them become more understandable.

Alter How Time Is Perceived

Time can be sped up or slowed down in films, for dramatic effect. When music accompanies one of these, it can add a layer of surrealism to the scene. Emotions get elevated, and the scene is emphasized as being pivotal to the plot.

Increase Surrealism

A scene can become more surreal when the right type of music is matched up with the scene. Dream sequences incorporate music well to give them a bit more of an unreal feel. Situations that are shocking to a character can also benefit from using music that gives it a tinge of high strangeness.

Create a Contradiction

Using music for a scene that would sound completely contradictory is a brilliant use of music in film when used correctly. For instance, if something terrible is occurring on-scene, a light-hearted upbeat musical score can amplify the artful contradiction on a new level.

Eliciting a Physiological Response

Music in a film can increase the core emotions we can experience as humans, such as fear, which then has a physiological effect on our bodies. This means certain kinds of music can amplify a scene in a way where we are affected physically. Our palms can start to sweat, and our heart will begin to race. Horror films use this function regularly, as do racing films.

Expand Visual Differences

Visual differences can be enlarged with music. When there is a juxtaposition between a character and the massive nature of the environment within which he or she is, a soft sound, or even barely-audible sounds of birds in a desolate wasteland, can make a scene seem expansive. However, there is a fine line between music and SFX, as seen in the clip below.

Uniting the Audience

Upbeat songs that are played to cheering crowds in a scene can make the viewers of a film feel united with the victory on the screen. Heroic scenes and sports-themed films love using this function of music because it stirs up a collective emotion felt by the audience.

Character Development

Music can help with understanding a particular character in a film. There is sometimes backstory to a character that explains how they became the way they are, which is where music can extenuate the development of that character.


When used sparingly, music during narrating segments of a film can associate certain conditions for a scene. It can push the audience in the direction the film wants them to go.


Music can be used to create tension in a film, suggesting that something dramatic is about to occur. The foreshadowing music will eventually lead to a climax that ends with either something very intense, such as a scream, or complete silence.

Film Credits

Music during the film credits, especially in the beginning of the film, can set the tone for the kind of film it is. When music is used at the ending credits, it will usually be a song not featured in the film to promote it in trailers.

The Power of Music in Film

As you can see from these examples, the functions of music in film are many. When music accompanies film scenes, it provides another way of communicating what is occurring on the screen, which amplifies the power the film has to suck us into its world. Music in a film should not be an afterthought. So, make sure you dedicate plenty of time to selecting a soundtrack for your film.

What functions of music do you feel are overdone?


Which ones do you like using in films?


Let me know in the comments below.