First off, if you don't know what contrapuntal music in film is (correct me if I'm not explaining correctly): Music opposite to the emotion expected from the narrative. So for example, to put it plainly, fun music over a sad scene.

I just watched "9" and I loved the sound. Specifically, I loved one scene where they used contrapuntal music. The song was (somewhere) Over The Rainbow, which was [stop reading here if you haven't watched it] used diagetically when they where celebrating their victory and everything is hunky-dory but then they get attacked again but the beautiful music keeps playing over part of the attack. I thought it was a very well crafted scene.

"Over The Rainbow":

Trailer for "9":

At film school, I went through a contrapuntal phase, but I haven't had the opportunity to use it since. So my question is:

Have you used this technique for your films (any thoughts on it)? And what are your favorite films that use it?

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    This can also be termed Anempathetic, where the mood of the music does not appear to match the mood of the action. – user80 May 28 '10 at 8:50
  • True. I forgot about that. But I think most people know and use the term "contrapuntal" – Andrew Spitz May 28 '10 at 10:09
  • I realize this is an old thread, but this definition of contrapuntal music seems very film centric. The original definition is two (or more) separate melodic forms that blend well together. So, I think your anempathetic style is better called contrapuntal emotions one expressed visually and one expressed musically. But then, I'm a musician, not a film maker. Our dictionaries differ. :) – Jesse Chisholm Sep 20 '16 at 22:31

15 Answers 15


My favorite use of contrapuntal music ever isn't in film, but in a fairly recent game, Fallout 3. If you've played the game, you know what I mean ;-) Here's the opening cinematic:


That generation of optimistic, romantic music is a constant backdrop on the default radio station through the game. Very. Very. Eerie.

  • Yes the music in fallout 3 is great & really important to the feel of the game. Another good example from a recent game is in Aliens Vs Predator. When you play as a marine you get locked in a deserted nightclub, aliens chew through the power cables which sets off dance music and strobe lighting while they attack you! – Haydn Payne May 25 '10 at 6:29
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    I can't find any good clips on youtube but Bioshock has the same optimistic 50's style music, set in an extremely scary and disturbing underwater city. Great game, amazing atmosphere, largely due to the sound. – Mech May 25 '10 at 11:29
  • I love the official Bioshock 2 trailer for that! – ragamesound Jun 7 '10 at 16:19

When I first saw the question I thought you meant "music that follows the rules of counterpoint" since that's what contrapuntal means in music theory. But to answer the question, the first time I noticed this effect was at the end of Dr. Strangelove. As nuclear bombs destroy the world, the sappy sentimental song "We'll Meet Again" plays in the background. It's quite ironic and effective. It's used similarly in the video game Fallout 3 (as mentioned already), where the radio plays cheery oldies that lie in stark contrast to the nuclear wasteland before the player.

I've also seen some mediocre films where it happened unintentionally, to comical effect.

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    Wow, yeah...and none of us have mentioned the "Hello Dolly" track played over the wrecked-Earth opening scene of "Wall•E" yet..? – NoiseJockey May 28 '10 at 5:09

Can't say I've ever used contrapuntal music myself, but I think the Ear scene from Reservoir Dogs is my all time favourite instance:

It just makes this scene so much more brutal.

  • Yeah, that's another good use. Should watch it again, it's been a while. Thanks. – Andrew Spitz May 24 '10 at 21:32
  • I can't hear that song without thinking about that scene....ever! – Shaun Farley Jul 15 '10 at 12:53

Half of the scenes in Terry Gilliam's Brazil.

  • a wonderful film and example of this use. – Brad Dale Jun 11 '12 at 14:13

I used a version of "What a Wonderful World" sung by Sarah Brightman for a WWII movie trailer. The scenes were mostly gun shots, explosions, and general mayhem. So, the song was in stark contrast to the visuals.

I also just watched "9" and was very impressed with the sound design!


Great topic :)

My favourite film music is from Alfred Hitchcock's 'The Birds', when the school children are singing and you see crows slowly gathering on a climbing frame in the background.

The images you see make you feel pretty tense but the music is completely childlike & carefree. The children's voices are source music (i.e. within the diegesis) which I think increases the tension because they are unaware of the danger.

Its a children's roundelay song, and every time they reach the end of a verse and start the next one it sends shivers down my spine!


I can't say it's my best loved examples but at least the ones that come to mind.

The first one is the opening fight scene in Watchmen with Bob Dylan's song playing. Great scene I find :)

The second one may be slightly less impressive, probably because the video is made with a video game engine. I am thinking about the Gears of War trailer, made by Digital Domain, using the song Mad World.


I love this scene from American Psycho. Oh and I agree, great topic…


The ear-scene in Reservoir Dogs was the first thing that came to my mind too.

The second ting that came to my mind was a movie (and a book) that's full of music that (kind of) juxtaposes the scene (at least if we're not to look at the scene from Alex' psychopathic view)...

...A Clockwork Orange, a movie full of contrapuntal/anempathic/juxtapositional/contrasting/what-ever-you-want-to-call-it music -- and here's just one selected scene:


First example to come to mind is the "Danny Boy" scene from Millers Crossing ... terribly effective, IMO...


The example that comes to my mind is the scene from the bollywood movie Mera Naam Joker {my name is joker} where the prtagonist receives the news of his mother's death while the audience claps and cheers in the background.:)


My favorite is from Batman (1989) while the Joker is killing his boss, there is a kind of circus vibe to the music. While fitting to the scene from the Joker's point of view, it is not what the audience would expect.


I know it as Anemphatic sound too. I've tried to do this once in a film but the director didn't go along with it. It's their shout at the end of the day.

Layer Cake Ordinary world.


I really like this bit in Road To Perdition, the music is contrapuntal I guess but builds tension and at the end of shootout makes it kind of comical.


In Full Metal Jacket .. the Surfin' Bird Song

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