Diegetic music is music which the characters in the scene can hear, and is sometimes referred to as source music. It is used to great effect in many films, not least those of the Star Wars trilogy. In this blog post I’ll explore why much of the diegetic music played on the planet Tatooine is so effective in establishing scenes and characters.
In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Obi-Wan and Luke enter the Mos Eisley cantina in search of a pilot who can take them to the planet Alderaan. The cantina features many aliens including a group playing other-worldly musical instruments (so there are none of the realism problems mentioned in my previous post).
In J.W. Rinzler’s book, The Making of Star Wars – The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film, Williams recounts how Lucas said to him, ‘Can you imagine these creatures in some future century having found in a time capsule or under a rock an old 1930s Benny Goodman swing-band record? Can you imagine what their distorted idea of how to play it would be?’ To fulfil Lucas’ vision, Williams employed a trumpet, saxophone, clarinet, Fender Rhodes piano, steel drums, synthesizer and other assorted percussion instruments. Crucially, the two pieces which the aliens are heard playing were equalized during the recording to disguise the instruments and give them a slightly bizarre, other-worldly quality. Despite this, the two cues can be clearly identified as being derived from American swing music of the 1930s, through their use of swing rhythms, blue notes, their improvisatory quality, typical jazz harmonies and walking bass.
The swing style of the music conveys a lot of information about the atmosphere of the location and the types of characters who inhabit it because a majority of the audience would be familiar with swing music and jazz’s associations with smoky night clubs and sometimes seedy establishments. The music is a short-hand for setting up a scene and this is one of the reasons why using types of diegetic music which is familiar to the audience works so well in the context of the film. You could argue that, had synthesized music been used (perhaps a more obvious choice to give the impression of a futuristic type of music) the scenes in the cantina would have been less effective in establishing the cantina’s atmosphere.
The interaction of diegetic music and on-screen action can convey information about a scene which non-diegetic music cannot. For example the first piece by the cantina band is brought to an abrupt stop when Ben Kenobi ignites his lightsaber to defend Luke. However, when Han Solo shoots Greedo, the alien who has come to collect money from him, the cantina band continue playing their second piece. This reveals that whilst blaster fire is a common occurrence in this dangerous part of the galaxy, the use of a lightsaber is a rare and unusual occurrence. If Williams had scored non-diegetic (score) music for this scene, the effect would not have been as effective because the score would inform the audience’s impression of events but it would not demonstrate the reactions of characters within the scene.
In Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, when we first encounter the giant slug-like alien, Jabba the Hutt in his throne room, the diegetic music which accompanies him is written in a quasi-Baroque style (the soundtrack album labels the track ‘Jabba’s Baroque Recital’). The music is designed to function as purely background material (it is less prominent than the similarly functioning music of the cantina band in A New Hope) and helps establish Jabba’s dungeon-like palace as a royal court full of minstrels and other acts (such as the exotic dancers).
When Luke Skywalker appears in hologram form, the diegetic music continues seemingly indifferently to the message which the Jedi delivers to Jabba. The fact that no non-diegetic music accompanies the first appearance of the main protagonist in the trilogy, suggests that Luke is not recognised as an important character in Jabba’s world and that the calm atmosphere of the throne room is not at risk of being disturbed. Only when Jabba mentions Han Solo (“I like Captain Solo where he is”) does a sudden stinger of non-diegetic score occur, immediately connecting with the audience and reminding them of the grave danger which Solo (who is frozen in carbonite) is in. The introduction of this music also starts to paint Jabba in a negative light which the indifferent diegetic music up until this point had been unable to do. There is a striking contrast both in the musical style of the diegetic and non-diegetic music and ways in which these types of cues are used, effectively colouring the audience’s interpretation of events.
Through the use of such different musics (jazz in the cantina, baroque – as well as rock – in Jabba’s palace), Williams establishes the world of Tatooine and the Star Wars galaxy as a diverse and unusual place. But the diegetic music is not simply incidental; rather, it is constantly presenting the audience with subconscious information about the scene and characters, in a way which the non-diegetic score is often unable to do.
What other films have particularly effective diegetic music? And are there other interesting uses of diegetic (or source) music you can think of? Let me know in the comments section below.