5 Best Uses of Soundtrack Dissonance In Movies

"Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right..."

Reservoir Dogs

A dysfunctional family of superheroes, brought together by the death of their stepfather, are the only ones who can save Earth’s future- if only they can pull themselves together. The Umbrella Academy is the recent addition to the Netflix Original family. Based on the original comics by Gerard Way, The Umbrella Academy is a poppy, daring show that eloquently balances pathos with humour. Playfully put together, dystopian ideas of time-travel and multi-universes allow viewers to ‘expect the unexpected’. The Umbrella Academy received a highly positive reception from viewers, most notably for its wacky style.

Despite The Umbrella Academy’s apocalyptic storyline and dark themes of trauma and drug addiction, it’s a positively vibrant comedy that puts a spin on the superhero genre. Much like Channel 4’s Misfits, our heroes come in the most unlikely form – even starring Misfit’s own Robert Sheehan as an alcoholic junkie, plagued by the ability to see the dead. Other powers include super-strength, mind-control, knife-throwing and time-jumping.

One of the ways The Umbrella Academy unfurls its imagination on-screen is through the use of soundtrack dissonance. This allows a scene to play out- usually an action sequence- to music completely opposite in tone. For example, when Number Five kills a gang of armed men in a donut shop, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” by They Might Be Giants rings out happily against the violence. This method is used multiple times within the series, perfectly encapsulating the spirit of The Umbrella Academy’s bittersweet humour.

But The Umbrella Academy isn’t the first to use soundtrack dissonance. Some of the most iconic moments of cinema are remembered because of their juxtaposition of action and music. Here are five of the best examples to take a look at.


5. Good Morning, Vietnam – “What a Wonderful World”

As the title suggests, Barry Levinson’s comedy-drama takes place in the war-ridden country of Vietnam, 1965. The nature of this setting makes Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” the last song you’d expect to hear.

Radio presenter Adrian Cronauer (Robin Williams) makes ripples over the Vietnamese airwaves with his witty jokes and impersonations. In one such instance, we see Cronauer play “What a Wonderful World” while footage of bombs, rioting and civilian death flood the screen. A bitter irony is created by Levinson, contrasting the horrors of war against the idealistic American Dream of that “Wonderful World” they are destroying.


4. Monty Python’s Life of Brian – “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”

Soundtrack dissonance is a useful tool to convey social allegories on violence, but it can also be used for purely comedic purposes. Although technically the music in this scene is diegetic – and arguably not part of the ‘soundtrack’- the overall idea is pretty much the same. After a group of criminals are subject to crucifixion during the Roman era, they hang awaiting their death, singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”.

The song was actually written by Monty Python member Eric Idle, for the purposes of this scene. It has since become a popular sing-a-long tune in Britain, not just for its happy-go-lucky beat but comedic connotations attached to this famous sketch.

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3. American Psycho – “Hip to be Square”

In perhaps Christian Bale’s most famous performance, everything about American Psycho is contradictory. Patrick Bateman lives a double life: a vain New York yuppie by day, and psychopathic serial killer by night. If dialogue was considered part of a soundtrack, all of Bateman’s lines could be seen as dissonant. Casually uttering things like “I like to dissect girls. Did you know I’m utterly insane?” in the middle of a business dinner is the verbal equivalent of soundtrack dissonance. It’s no wonder Mary Hannon uses the technique in her adaptation of Brett Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel.

While his co-worker Paul Allen sits obliviously enjoying his drink, Bateman struts around his apartment with an axe and a raincoat. Reeling off a monologue about Huey Lewis and The News’s commercial success, Bateman proceeds to blast out “Hip to be Square” while hacking Allen to death. This isn’t just one little stabbing; Bateman repeatedly swings his axe, blood splattering the white floors, while dancing to the poppy music. The pure glee Bateman derives from brutally murdering people is emphasized through the music, hopping around the room covered in blood before enjoying a post-death cigarette.


2. A Clockwork Orange – “I’m Singin’ in the Rain”

Again, although the music is being sung by the characters rather than played over them, Kubrick’s use of soundtrack dissonance is arguably one of the most well-known in cinematic history, as is the film itself, which received a controversial reception and even banning in some countries.

The flippant way in which Kubrick handles the film’s dark themes was condemned for encouraging criminal behaviour. But it’s precisely this aversion to morals that granted A Clockwork Orange its fame, and no better can this be exemplified than in Kubrick’s use of soundtrack dissonance.

The explicit rape scene of A Clockwork Orange was not just shunned for its crudeness, but the way Kubrick trivialises violence with the breezy tune of “Singin’ in the Rain”. A song that would usually be heard in a family-friendly musical, Kubrick gives it a sinister twist by having gang members sing it as they break into a couple’s home, trash the furniture and beat them up. Not typically something to sing about.

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1. Reservoir Dogs – “Stuck in the Middle with You”

Quentin Tarantino is the cinematic king of bloodshed. But what separates this scene from his other films is not the dramatic music or grizzly torture you’d expect, but the soundtrack dissonance which established Tarantino as an offbeat, daring filmmaker. After a policeman is kidnapped by gang member Mr. Blonde post-heist, he is strapped to a chair and brutally beaten. An average day in the world of Tarantino. But rather than dramatizing the gravity of his torture, Tarantino humours it by playing “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel.

Mr. Blonde proceeds to dance around the bloodied officer, teasing him with a small knife. The 70s pop song blasting from the stereo only frightens the officer more, as Mr. Blonde finds enjoyment in his tormenting. Eventually Mr. Blonde cuts off the officer’s ear, Tarantino panning away so all we can hear is the agonized squeals being drowned out by the cheerful beat.

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