Five Movies Where the Characters Know the Soundtrack

One of the things that pops up in movies from time to time is a scene where one of the movie’s characters is fiddling around on an instrument, and winds up playing the main theme to the movie. Honestly, I don’t really know how to feel about it when it happens. On one hand, it makes the world of the movie a little more tightly-wound. On the other hand, it occasionally breaks my immersion in the storyline.

And on the other hand (how many are we up to?), it’s nice that some movies simply take the time to sit and play some music.

No matter. Here’s some great scenes that revolve around this particular trope.

Gabriel’s Oboe – The Mission


The Scene:

Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), a Jesuit missionary, takes a break while searching for natives in a South American rainforest. He pulls out an oboe and plays, drawing the natives to him through the universal, if unpredictable, language of music.

The Effect:

For one thing, this is one of the most beautiful themes ever penned for a movie, courtesy of the legendary Ennio Morricone. Though that one guy clearly disagrees. Other than him, though, the setting, staging, and sound of this scene completely sell the interaction between these two vastly different peoples. A small detail that really caps it off is the faltering, timid tone the music takes as the natives get closer and closer.

Although, it does bug me that Irons’s fingers don’t match up with the music, but movies seem to have a really hard time getting that kind of stuff right.

The Landing – Close Encounters of the Third Kind


The Scene:

Oh, come on, you know this one. The aliens, to this point existing only as ethereal lights in the sky, communicate with the humans through an intensely iconic five-note sequence (which, has also been seen over and over in various formats throughout the movie). What follows is essentially a live-action version of a Fantasia scene, where the two cultures make music with science, and form a connection that is perfectly clear despite being impossible to translate.

The Effect:

Spielberg and Williams have been teasing this theme for most of the two hours preceding this sequence, and to hear it in its proper context is breathtaking. It starts with that simple, clear rendition by the humans’s synthesizer, is picked up and sent back by the mothership, and evolves into a briliant duet of light and sound.

And then, as the credits roll, the movie’s score makes a bold statement of the theme, segueing into a gorgeous suite of music to close us out. Because that’s how Spielberg rolls, particularly back in the first half of his career.

The last thirty minutes of this movie are 90% of why it’s a classic today.

Piano Duet – Corpse Bride


The Scene:

Emily, taking some time to mope, plays alone on a piano. Victor, a fellow pianist, joins her and launches into the piece he’s been working on throughout the movie. She, in turn, joins in, turning the solo into a duet.

The Effect:

This movie is a musical, so in one sense this scene doesn’t really fit the theme of the post. This song in particular, though, doesn’t operate in the same way that the other musical numbers do, i.e. the music itself is actually part of the storyline.

Anyway, the video up there is the second appearance of this piano cue. The first time, Victor played alone, and was interrupted by Victoria. In this, obviously, Emily plays along with him. Without getting into too much spoilery territory, the difference in the two scenarios is a great character beat that shows the appeal Emily has for Victor over his betrothed aboveground.

Singing Princess – Shrek


The Scene:

Fiona, rising before her strange companions, waltzes through the woods in true Disney Princess style singing the theme. Along the way, she encounters a bird who joyously adds to her song. She then sings so high that the bird explodes in a shower of feathers.

The Effect:

This scene is basically the mission statement of the Shrek franchise, and particularly of the first movie. It starts of as a winking take on the iconic Disney moments and movies, and then segues into an irreverent, surprisingly mean-spirited punchline. Rinse and repeat.

This movie is still hilarious, by the way, even after being imitated ad nauseum for the better part of a decade.

Flying Dreams Lullaby – The Secret of NIMH


The Scene:

Mrs. Brisby tends to her bedridden son, Timothy. As she feeds him hot soup, she sings him a gentle lullaby that the score then picks up and runs with for the rest of the movie.

The Effect:

Jerry Goldsmith is one of cinema’s sonic treasures, and its score is among his personal favorites. The reason should become clear within twenty seconds of the video’s start. That lullaby is one of the most achingly KIND pieces of music I’ve ever heard. It’s a perfect introduction for the story’s heroine, Mrs. Brisby, and by the end of the movie Goldsmith has morphed the melody into a triumphantly heroic tune. Remarkable stuff.

Slight tangent: THIS is how you write a strong female character, Hollywood. Mrs. Brisby is 100% maternal, timid, and gentle, but at no point is that ever an excuse for either humor or failure. She simply wants to take care of her children, which makes her a great mother, and will stop at nothing to accomplish that goal, which makes her a great character.

Anyway, now that I’m off my soapbox and done with the post, are there any scenes like this you really dig that I left off?

Similar Posts


  1. Another example is from trailer to Hobbit where dwarfs sang (sing, sung?, im not sure, english is not my nature language 🙂 ) Misty Mountains Cold, followed with epic score.

  2. The sherlock holmes reboot, just noticed the other day, during his initial encounter with rachel mcadams character, he fiddles on his well fiddle out the initial notes to the main theme of the movie, i just thought it was a nicely done tie in

  3. I HAVE to say for #2… BRING IN THE F-IN SNARE! lol I had NO idea Robot Chicken was going after that movie cuz I’d never seen it. I’m a total un-cinophile…

  4. Superman 3. There’s a scene where Richard Pryor hums the John Williams theme while trying to imitate Supes.

    Batman (1989). Joker dances to both “Partyman” and “Trust”.

    Spider-Man 3. Emo Pete dancing to James Brown.

    Rocky 3 (a lot of 3’s eh?) The marching band plays “Gonna Fly Now” at the start of the ceremony.

    Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. The scene when they’re in the future, the song “In time” plays. At the end of the film when Rufus mentions them being there, they say “they played totally excellent music”.

    That’s just off the top of my head, lol.

  5. This might not count, but what about Marty McFly rocking out the Power of Love (right in front of Huey Lewis I might add) and being told it’s too loud?

  6. Slightly obscure, but in “Me, Myself & Irene”, during the early montage of him torturing everyone in town, you can hear him whistling along to Cake’s “Hem of Your Garment” while it played on the soundtrack.

  7. Here’s the hidden truth about the “Close Encounters” musical first contact scene: It’s actually an homage to the “Dueling Banjos” routine in “Deliverance.” Only in Spielberg’s film, the aliens thought they were doing a duet with an entire PLANET of mentally challenged people. (Seriously, isn’t that gob-smacked goon-guy at the keyboard the banjo kid, all grow’d up?)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.