Popular Songs in Film: From Diegetic to Non-Diegetic

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While films of the 1930s and 40s were mainly furnished with orchestral music, they also drew upon popular songs. These films, however, made a major distinction between these two types of music: whereas orchestral music usually provided the non-diegetic accompaniment, which is not heard by the characters in the film, sung popular music was diegetic in that it had its apparent source in the fictional world of the film. The reason for this distinction appears to be that, once the voice began to be synchronized with film, and therefore become diegetic, it was always considered to be diegetic, regardless of whether voices spoke words or sang songs. Apparently, the idea of a disembodied voice filling the soundtrack was just too unpalatable in the early sound era, but later it was to become an important way in which film music is used.

This began to change in the 1950s, and by the late 60s, the popular song had claimed its place as a viable alternative to orchestral music in the non-diegetic accompaniment. This post explores some of the historical steps in this changing use of popular songs in film from diegetic to non-diegetic music.

Popular Songs as Diegetic Music

The Jazz Singer (1927) was a landmark film because it was the first to feature entire sequences of synchronized sound with dialogue. Naturally, almost all of these sequences involved the main character, Jakie Rabinowitz (Al Jolson), singing jazz, the popular music of the day. Although jazz does enter non-diegetically, it is always purely orchestral music. The use of the voice is restricted to the diegetic world. Here’s a short clip featuring Jolson singing “Toot Toot Tootsie” (by the way, Jolson’s words here, “Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You ain’t heard nothin’ yet”, are the first words ever synchronized on film):


Once films began to be made with completely synchronized sound, the potential for this diegetic use of popular songs grew and thus musicals became quite common in these early years of sound film. One famous example is The Broadway Melody (1929), which was the first sound film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

But even when films were not musicals, popular songs always had their source clearly established in the film’s diegetic world. All of the popular songs in Casablanca (1942) for instance are grounded in performances we see onscreen. And even though the popular song “As Time Goes By”, which first appears as a diegetic song, is used in Max Steiner’s non-diegetic score, it once again is used only orchestrally, never vocally. The scene in which Rick first sees Ilsa again demonstrates this well, as Sam’s diegetic singing and playing give way to a non-diegetic orchestral variation of the tune when Rick’s and Ilsa’s eyes meet (watch from 1:20):

High Noon and the Vocal Song as Non-Diegetic Music

Although not in a popular style, the main title music of High Noon (1952) set an important precedent for later films. Sung as a western ballad by Tex Ritter, Dimitri Tiomkin’s “Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling” was used at various points throughout the film as non-diegetic music. In this way, it clearly expressed the psychological state of marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper). Here’s a clip of the end of the film, where the song enters as non-diegetic accompaniment to Kane and his wife Amy’s departure from town (the song enters at 1:50):

Popular Song as Non-Diegetic Main Title Music

Blackboard Jungle (1955) is well known for its use of Bill Haley & His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” in the main title sequence. This non-diegetic use of a popular song was groundbreaking in film history as it not only validated rock ‘n’ roll as a viable alternative to the orchestral sound (just as Alex North’s score to A Streetcar Named Desire and Elmer Bernstein’s for The Man with the Golden Arm did for jazz), but it also used popular song in a way that did not have its source in the film’s fictional world. In this case, however, the song does not reappear in the film proper as it does in High Noon. Even so, its impact was powerful enough for it to be reused as the main title music for George Lucas’ American Graffiti in 1973, which had an all-popular soundtrack. View the main titles of Blackboard Jungle below (the song begins at 0:41):

Popular Song as Performance-Based Non-Diegetic Music

The Beatles’ musical comedy A Hard Day’s Night (1964) uses only the band’s songs as musical accompaniment. In almost every case, we see the band performing the song, so the music remains grounded in the film’s world as diegetic music. In one scene, we hear “Can’t Buy Me Love” while the band enjoys a playful time outdoors. A similar treatment of the same song occurs again later in the film. Both instances are non-diegetic uses of popular song, and yet at the same time, as Buhler, Neumeyer, and Deemer observe in Hearing the Movies,

“Although music is not simply the product of onscreen performance in A Hard Day’s Night, the presence of the Beatles clearly motivates and so also contains the music. If ‘Can’t Buy me Love’ offers a kind of nondiegetic commentary on the scene, it nevertheless seems that the band is commenting on itself, much like a character’s voice-over narration might in a dramatic film. There is in that sense little separation of the music from the character(s).”

In this film, then, the nondiegetic popular music is not completely independent of the film’s diegesis. It still remains grounded by the idea of musical performance, in much the same manner as a music video. View the scene here:

Popular Song as Pure Non-Diegetic Music

The Graduate (1967) is really the film that set the popular song free from its diegetic use in film. In this case, we hear the songs of Simon and Garfunkel as non-diegetic accompaniment for Ben (Dustin Hoffmann), especially in scenes that focus in on the character’s face, suggesting that he is lost in thought. The music now has no source in the diegesis and is present to enhance our understanding of Ben’s state of mind. This purely non-diegetic use of popular song opened the door for countless other films that featured such songs in much the same way, Easy Rider (1969) being a famous example that followed only two years later. Here is a well-known montage from The Graduate that is set to “The Sounds of Silence”:

From this point on, popular songs appeared non-diegetically anywhere in a film and commonly as the entire soundtrack, a trend that continues in many films today.

4 thoughts on “Popular Songs in Film: From Diegetic to Non-Diegetic”

  1. I can think of excellent examples of songs non-diegetically featured in films and these were in the 1950’s and afterwards: 1. “Johnny Guitar” (Peggy Lee – sung right at the end of the film – and the “soaps” of the mid-late 50’s, eg. Douglas Sirk’s “Imitation of Life” and other Warners films from that period using Johnny Matthis or Nat “King” Cole singing them. Examples from “Johnny Guitar” and “Imitation of Life”:

    http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/235184/Johnny-Guitar-Movie-Clip-Opening-Credits.html

    (Though the “Johnny Guitar” is non-diegetic it is referring to diegetic music later when the character played by Sterling Hayden plays and sings the guitar and the song which closes the film.)

    Sirk’s “Imitation of Life” uses music to establish the ‘melodramatic’ tone of the entire film to come. It also places the film squarely in the era of a particular singer and song, eg. Nat “King” Cole. (Note how those diamonds in the opening graphics look like giant soap bubbles.) The song specifically sets the basis of the narrative.

    http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/581178/Imitation-Of-Life-Movie-Clip-Title-Song-Credits.html

    Same in the mid 1960’s with John Wayne’s “El Dorado” (though this wasn’t a popular song, per se, but a ballad which alludes to the narrative arc by establishing the challenges and endurance necessary to prove masculinity.)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zihn6FuFWZg

  2. I wonder, also, how we might define the diegetic music in Hawks’ “Rio Bravo” which refers to the non-diegetic soundtrack of “Red River”. The characters in “Rio Bravo” (Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson) actually sing the main theme (which was only ever a melody) from the 1948 “Red River” and make it into a song in “Rio Bravo”, when they are killing time inside the jail. This was a deliberate homage and ‘textural reference’ to Hawks’ “Red River”. Would this be ‘source scoring’?

  3. Great examples, Sue. This is why I don’t say films were “the first” to use popular songs a certain way. One can usually find earlier examples. So while The Graduate or A Hard Day’s Night, for example, are not the first films to use popular songs non-diegetically, they were hugely influential. So I like to use films like these as landmarks in the history of film music. It would be interesting to search for influences of these earlier examples you mention on later films…

    As for the scene in Rio Bravo you mention, since it doesn’t seek to express the inner psychology of the characters in the manner of non-diegetic music, I’d still call it diegetic music. But there is that interesting connection with Red River. Perhaps one might call it “intertextual” diegetic music?

  4. I’ve listened again to that song in “Rio Bravo” and it appears slightly different from the score for “Red River”. There are passages which are the same, but the music itself IS different. I have erroneously believed it was exactly the same music. And it is diegetic music, which is the same as the plaintive music played on the trumpet which comes from the saloon across the road, heard and commented upon by the characters but not actually SEEN being played. It doesn’t matter because diegetic music is heard by the characters. Hawks uses the trumpet melody effectively in “Rio Bravo” when the Walter Brennan character (“Stumpy”) plays it on the harmonica and it’s meant to represent, I think, the slow passing of time inside the jail and for “Chance” (Wayne) it is a possible omen of death and, therefore, disturbing to him. He’s a man NOT in touch with his emotions (and we find this when he meets “Feathers” – Angie Dickinson).

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