Classical Music

in Pop Culture

Classical music is all around us, whether we know it or not. Sometimes a song is repeated so many times in our daily lives -- like in a ringtone or an alarm clock -- that you might recognize the melody but not know that it’s actually part of a symphony or a sonata. In other instances movies and television shows sneak it in to heighten the intensity of a moment. The examples below not only feature some of the most famous classical pieces in iconic movies, but they are pulled to the forefront, making them critical to the scenes they are used with.

Scenes in Iconic Movies

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey - Also Sprach Zarathustra/Richard Strauss

Despite the fact that this "futuristic" movie is from 1968, Also sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss (not to be confused with Johann Strauss II) is nearly inseparable from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The epic opening of Also sprach Zarathustra conjures up feelings of grandeur and mental images of the vast space in the universe.
Stanley Kubrik intentionally included very little speaking dialogue in the film and instead used music and images to evoke different emotions. 2001: A Space Odessey was innovative in the way that it featured existing recordings of classical music, unlike most other movies, which usually have original scores written by a composer.
 
There is a somewhat scandalous story behind Kubrick's choice to use these pieces -- which were used as placeholders during pre-production -- instead of the original music he had commissioned from Alex North.

2. The Social Network - In the Hall of the Mountain King/Edvard Grieg

There are few pieces in classical music that build as much tension and excitement as In the Hall of the Mountain King by Edvard Grieg. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross from Nine Inch Nails do a great job creating their own cranked-up version in The Social Network, the biographical drama about the creation of Facebook.
In an interview for Pitchfork, David Fincher, the film's director, cites electronic-classical music artist Wendy Carlos as inspiration for this arrangement of In the Hall of the Mountain King. The original piece is a part of Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, which has several other notable melodies that are frequently used in pop culture. 

3. Apocalypse Now - Ride of the Valkyries/Richard Wagner

This is definitely not the only time Ride of the Valkyries by Richard Wagner has been used to soundtrack a movie or television show. According to Wikipedia, a valkyrie is "one of a host of female figures who choose those who may die in battle and those who may live", and hence, the appropriate backdrop for the invasion scene in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now.
Wagner was predominantly an opera composer and adamantly resisted performing this piece separately from Der Ring des Nibelungen, the collection of operas that Ride of the Valkyries comes from. Eventually he relented and conducted the piece himself in London on May 12, 1877.
4. Black Swan - Swan Lake/Pyotr Tchaikovsky
Black Swan is a psychological horror movie about a ballet dancer, so it's no surprise that it features one of the most famous classical music pieces for ballet: Swan Lake by Pyotr Tchaikovsky. The dramatic melodies in this piece perfectly encapsulate the intense and crushing emotions in Black Swan.
 
Tchaikovsky used "Leitmotif" technique in composing Swan Lake, which just means certain characters get their own special recurring theme or melody played every time they appear.