October 1, 2014
by Professor B
Your first writing assignment asks you to view a movie and consider the role that music plays in the film. Broadly speaking, music can be diagetic or non-diagetic.
Diagetic music is music that is coming from instruments or playback devices in the story. For example, in the film Blackboard Jungle, the teacher, Mr. Dadier, plays jazz records for the students. That music is diagetic. Diagetic music can be on-screen (as in the Blackboard Jungle example) or off-screen, such as an unseen band playing inside a club while the characters are standing outside the club. The key, to oversimplify a bit, is whether the characters can hear the music.
Conversely, non-diagetic music sets the mood for a scene or helps define a character but is not heard by the characters. Non-diagetic music is often referred to as underscoring. Think about the Star War series. When Darth Vader appears, a particular theme is played.
In Blackboard Jungle, the opening credits and scene are played over Bill Haley and His Comets “Rock Around the Clock.” For most of the credits and scene, the characters are unaware of the music. For a brief moment, though, the boys in the school’s front yard are interacting with the music. During that period, the music becomes diagetic.
I would argue there is a third type of music in film, and that is when music becomes a character in the film. For example, consider the song “As Time Goes By” in Casablanca. After Sam plays the song, Rick says to him, “Sam, I thought I told you never to play…” Then he sees Ilsa, his former lover. The song itself represents the tension between Rick and Ilsa, their past life together, and the complication of the current moment.
In the movie The Pianist, the story of Władysław Szpilman during World War II, the main character plays the music of Chopin and Rachmaninoff, and in each instance, the music works as a character in that the other characters interact with it and respond to it and the plot hinges on those moments.
So as you view your movie for your assignment, consider these three roles: diagetic, non-diagetic, and music-as-a-character.