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How to Use Music in a Great Poker Scene

The right music can make or break a scene in a film. For amateur filmmakers or indie projects with a shoestring budget, that often means sorting through stock music to find the right piece for your project. Over on the StockMusic.Net blog, we’ve talked about how the right music can give your action video the shot in the arm it needs to really thrill viewers, but it isn’t just action that benefits from the right music. Every type of scene needs the right background score to bring it to life. Of course, larger projects, with the budgets to match, can pay to secure the rights to known songs and tracks, but this opens up a whole different set of difficulties. The process isn’t as straightforward as simply asking the artist for permission, according to IndieWire.com. Out of the millions of songs available, it is important to choose the right track to complement the scene you have in mind. Few types of scenes rely so heavily on the right music as those showing poker.

Poker has been a common feature in films for decades and, as Polygon.com writes, can be as elaborate and intricate as any stunt shown in a movie. Everything is considered to create the necessary tension in the scene. What angles to shoot from? Which type of poker to portray? And, yes, the music that plays in the background. All of it serves to accentuate the scene.

Why is poker so popular in films? Part of that has to do with its popularity. As Poker.org discusses, millions of people play the game around the globe and many will have music on whilst they do so. However, what you listen to during a game and what makes a good track during a film are very different. Why? Because during your own game at home, you’re simply listening to music as a distraction, whereas in a movie, the music must add to the scene.

So, how does Hollywood use music to accentuate the poker scenes in their movies? We’ve got a few examples to show you.

Ocean’s XI

Heist movies live and die by the tension that they create, so it makes sense that Ocean’s XI, which is one of the best-known heist films of all time, would do the same. Early in the movie, there is a scene in which Brad Pitt’s character teaches poker to a group of new players. The music is low, almost to the point of being inaudible, but it does the job of tying the strings of dialogue together. The viewer becomes aware of the con happening in front of them before the people at the table; Pitt’s character and George Clooney’s character are conning them, tricking them into chasing a bad bet and losing all their money. The music, subtly, lets the viewer in on that secret before it becomes known.

Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels

This might be the most iconic of all Guy Ritchie films and it gives us a far more manic and stylized poker scene than we see in Ocean’s XI. The footage is sped up to show us the passage of time while the characters’ behavior switches from serious to jovial at the whim of the cards. With songs by The Castaways and The Stooges setting the scene at key moments, this is a dramatic take on the game. The music and sound design in this scene hit home exactly how out of his depth Nick Moran’s character, Eddy, truly is. With very little dialogue, we understand exactly what is happening throughout the scene because the music drives it forward.

Rounders

This movie is all about Matt Damon’s character, Mike, helping his friend get out of debt by getting into an underground game of poker. There are several poker scenes throughout the movie, but the climactic game between Mike and Teddy KGB, played by John Malkovich, makes excellent use of music to accentuate the tension between the two. Strings are played slightly off-key as one character finds something amiss. Piano notes flit through the air almost undetected. The music, more than even the acting by these two excellent actors, makes the scene tense and frightening to watch.

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