Film fighting and music go together like a horse and carriage, peanut butter and chocolate, or melody and counterpoint. Whatever the apt analogy — if you can think of your favorite fighting scene in a movie, chances are you can also think of the music that accompanied it.
Whether the music is played over fighting scenes, used to create suspense and anticipation in the buildup, or used to let our emotions catch up and provide relief afterward, music is of massive importance when thinking about the visceral impact of onscreen fighting.
Even if you know everything about your favorite fighting scenes, though, it’s productive to go a bit deeper and understand what music can add to scenes like this — as we do below. You may find lessons that you can apply to your work.
1. Contrast and Juxtaposition
A lot of filmmaking is about extremes, particularly emotional ones. We go to the movies or watch content online looking for big emotional experiences.
One great way of achieving this big mixture of emotion is by juxtaposing beautiful music with violent visuals. Bernard Herrmann’s lush, jazzy score for “Taxi Driver” brings a sense of ominous richness and is also in intense contrast with the seediness of Times Square and New York in the 1970s. It adds a sense of classical operatic grandeur to Travis Bickle’s bloody outburst of violence at the film’s end. Consider using something unexpected for your work — something with jazz or vintage overtones. This mournful trumpet piece could add some solemnity and weight to a fighting scene.
It may take some trial and error to see what sparks, but you won’t regret listening to cool music until you get the magic you’re looking for!
Sometimes, the elegance of a piece of classical music on the soundtrack can provide some distance — a god’s-eye point of view on something that can feel fairly brutal. This has the effect of allowing the audience a look into the filmmaker’s perspective on a scene of violence or fighting. Rather than simply recording or showing the scene, it shows you have a point of view. Stanley Kubrick, in movies like “Barry Lyndon” and “Clockwork Orange,” uses elegant music to bring a sense of distance to his films. Something like “Pachelbel’s Dream” would be completely unexpected but might loan a sense of surprise in a scene of gunfire, for example.
It’s become a bit well-used, but the contrast of innocent music coming from the TV or radio during a scene of violence in a domestic setting can bring an additional, eerie sense of menace. It drives home the point that this could happen to you, and catches your brain in an interesting catch-22 — trying to make sense of the nastiness you see onscreen, while also bopping along to the fun of a familiar song on the soundtrack.
Quentin Tarantino hand-selects songs for his films from his vast record collection to find just the right track. “Stuck in the Middle With You” is peppy, bouncy, and accompanies a graphic scene of torture and ear-cutting in “Reservoir Dogs.” Another upbeat song, such as “The Prince of the 80s” is an upbeat song that might provide a similar sense of contrast.
2. Adding Psychological Insight
Tarantino’s use of “Stuck in the Middle With You” also provides an additional layer. The song’s lyrics now have a new meaning, since the poor tortured guy is quite unpleasantly stuck in the middle with the psychotic Mr. White — the lines shed light on his state of mind.
Brief side note: In films, there are two different kinds of music, diegetic and non-diegetic.
Diegetic music comes from within the scene, and non-diegetic music is music added in post-production. Classic scoring and the usual Hollywood orchestral score are non-diegetic.
Tarantino often has characters turn on music within the scene, which adds an extra level of interplay between the characters and the music they’re listening to.
You can still add commentary and insight even without lyrics. Bands like Stealers Wheel might be out of your budget, but jaunty pop is within reach to show that a character is enjoying inflicting violence — more than they need to — and so is vintage fun funk.
3. Keeping It Simple
Some filmmakers go right back to basics and use a percussive beat in place of rich music, to drive home the impact of the fighting. This can be especially effective if it contrasts with earlier use of soaring classical music in a movie.
For example, the Coen Brothers’ wonderful film, “Miller’s Crossing,” uses a lot of big-feeling symphonic music by Carter Burwell, which is inspired by traditional Irish folk tunes. That choice is an apt one since the Irish mob plays a big role in the movie. One machine-gunning scene is set to a beautiful operatic rendition of the standard, “Danny Boy.”
But for a particularly brutal scene of cops rushing an illegal casino, the filmmakers use a simple and pounding percussion track that adds rhythm and oomph. It makes the scene feel more like a violent dance and it’s the aural equivalent of getting punched in the stomach — which is something that happens repeatedly in this particular scene. Try something bold and percussive for your fighting scene and see if it lands!
4. Adding Humor
You could argue that Tarantino does this. The fact is, a good piece of music does a lot of things at once, adding layers and shades of emotion that can be hard to quantify — including the nostalgia and associations you may bring as an audience member.
Sometimes good fight scene songs can add comedy and lightness.
Fight scenes that benefit from this way of using music can have a sense of humor, to begin with — like the heavily choreographed fights of Jackie Chan, or the jaw-dropping scenes in Stephen Chow’s film, “Shaolin Hustle.” Music can also add a sense of humor to a fighting scene that could otherwise seem too heavy, letting the audience know that there is a sense of playfulness behind what they’re seeing. A track like “In It To Win It” or, more broadly, something funky might be what you’re looking for if you’re in the market for badass fight songs.
5. Orienting Us
Action movies like those of the Bourne franchise are shot in a frantic, shaky-cam way that can be visceral, frenetic, and put you in the middle of the action — but also potentially lose the audience’s sense of place and orientation. The cool, mostly techno-inspired music on the soundtrack helps keep you oriented and locked into the jeopardy that Jason Bourne is in. It even provides a throughline to the drama when we may be unsure about where we are, spatially.
Something with a higher number of beats per minute (BPM) is likely to keep your pulse rate up. A heavy metal track like “Metal Madness” also lets the audience know you mean for your fighting scene to be a no-holds-barred brawl.
6. Adding Scope
Watch some of your favorite battle or fight scenes without music or sound effects and you might be surprised how small everything in it feels. Classic films like Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” use unusual but authentic instrumentation to enhance their action and emphasize emotional response and big themes like honor, moral duty, and courage.
Epics like “Braveheart,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” and “Apocalypse Now” also use music to add a colossal sense of emotion and epic scope to their landscapes and battle sequences. James Horner’s “Braveheart” theme adds a romantic Scottish flute to add a different emotional color to the epic of warfare and nationalistic revolt.
Excellent scores make movies feel bigger than just the immediate stories they’re telling, underlining the themes of love, integrity, and devotion. Try cinematic music to give your fight scenes a similar feeling of expansiveness. “Prelude to Battle” is a wonderful track that evokes all those big feelings.
7. Providing A Sense of Time and Place
“Apocalypse Now” makes great use of authentic music from its era. Using tracks by bands like The Doors helped to fulfill Francis Ford Coppola’s mission of making the film as immersive and authentic as possible.
Most of the music in this film also informs us of what’s going on in the characters’ heads. An example of this is when Martin Sheen’s character looks up at the spinning fan in his hotel room while The Doors’ “The End” plays and he then fights himself — punching his reflection in the mirror. How’s that for a memorable fight scene? Another example is when Dennis Hopper’s crazed general character blasts Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” over a battle zone. If your fight scene takes place in the past, find music that’s period-appropriate to add that extra sense of correct time and place.
8. Adding Genre Allusions
The great Italian composer Ennio Morricone composed iconic scores for many of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, including “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” When you hear this music, it immediately evokes characters like Clint Eastwood’s “man with no name” staring menacingly across a vast expanse and being ready to draw his weapons.
Since then, Morricone’s compositions — or compositions that are similar to his work — have been used in Westerns for either a parody effect or as an homage. The much-mentioned Quentin Tarantino repurposed several scores from Leone films in “The Hateful Eight” and “Django Unchained.” A tune like “Morri Tone” conjures up the world of spaghetti westerns, with its whistling and spare guitar strums. More broadly, you could look at a genre like Western if you want a track that feels true to what your film is about.
9. Creating a Sense of Unity
Musical motifs used across a movie, like the classic Maurice Jarre theme for “Lawrence of Arabia” create a feeling of unity across those scenes, linking them to a character’s emotional journey.
Every time we hear those familiar notes of the “Star Wars” theme, we know we’re either in a galaxy far, far, away. The same happens when we hear the “Indiana Jones” melody — we know that we’re about to follow the adventures of the world’s foremost two-fisted archaeologist. So try finding a bold theme and reusing it in cool ways throughout your fighting scenes.
The same notes of a theme across several films — another great example is the iconic James Bond theme — immediately let us know what’s in store for us. Some entertaining variation in the existing pattern may also be enjoyable for long-time fans of a film franchise. Many James Bond fighting scenes also really bring out the horns and brass for their fight scenes, so consider exploring those kinds of instruments for your fighting scenes if you want to give them a sense of old-school grandeur.
10. Adding a Sense of Uplift
The “Rocky” movies are sweet-natured and get the audience rooting for the lovable lug, Rocky Balboa. The iconic scenes of Rocky running up the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art are that much more moving because of Bill Conti’s brass-powered score. Athletes around the world have used the “Rocky” theme to motivate themselves during workouts — not to mention “Eye of the Tiger,” one of the great songs about fighting.
If having the audience root for one of your characters is what matters in your fight scenes, find something rousing to play under it. “Beyond the Horizon” is one instrumental track with a great, inspiring sense of build.
11. Increasing a Sense of Tragedy
Many fighting scenes are actually quite sad and tragic. Some of the best fight scene songs and music selections reflect this.
Filmmakers like Oliver Stone, who actually fought in Vietnam, imbue their scenes of war and fighting with a sense of sorrow and tragedy by using the works of dignified classical composers. Examples include Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” as well as the lovely and elegiac original scores of “Platoon” and “Salvador” by George Delerue.
Add Punch With Great Royalty-Free Music for Fighting Scenes
Fighting scenes can be visceral, funny, pulse-pounding, tragic, uplifting — and the choice of music can play an all-important role in the emotional impact it ultimately makes on an audience.
All the tracks on Stock Music are royalty-free, which means you just pay once and can use it forever, and you can search by mood, genre, BPM, and instrumentation, to find exactly the music you’re looking for for your fighting scene.When choosing music for your masterpiece fight scene, send a solid left jab out to Stock Music, which has an array of brilliant compositions to give you the best fight scene soundtrack possible.