Music Man: Scorsese and the Soundtrack of ‘Shutter Island’

© 2012

“Why don’t we shape the movie first, and then actually get the artists we like?” While he may not have been speaking about Shutter Island, Scorsese could easily have been describing the soundtrack for his 2010 psychological thriller. Often touted as a “musical director” (Swed), Scorsese has developed a unique style through his manipulation and use of music to construct the soundtracks of his films. Scorsese’s decision to use, almost strictly, the sounds and pieces of modern classical composers for Shutter Island could seem like a breakaway from his usual style of a classic rock soundtrack, but it is decision’s intent—to amplify the emotional ideas (Robertson)—that marks the use of music in Shutter Island distinctly “Scorsese-esque.”

Before examining Shutter Island and its own music, there is a question to be answered: what is it that makes Scorsese’s use of music unique to Scorsese? The answer: nothing and everything. At its core, music in films is either diegetic or non-diegetic; while diegetic music is part of the narrative sphere of the film (Kurczynski), non-diegetic music is played over the top of the on-screen visual action (Coyle 96). Throughout his films, Scorsese, like many other directors, takes advantage of both diegetic and non-diegetic music. Perhaps his best and well-known example of the application and importance of both diegetic and non-diegetic music is in his 1990 film, Goodfellas. Unlike many directors, however, Scorsese was not only heavily-involved in the song-selection process for the film, but oversaw the entire process personally. Scorsese chose the songs for Goodfellas specifically so that, as presented in the film, each song commented on the scene or the characters “in an oblique way” (Gilbert)—oftentimes, the lyrics of songs were put between lines of dialogue to comment on the action occurring in a scene. In talking about the film’s soundtrack and its importance to the film itself, Scorsese stated:

“A lot of music is used in movies today just to establish a time and a place and I think this is lazy. Ever since Who’s That Knocking and Mean Streets, I wanted to take advantage of the emotional impact of music.” (160)

In addition, Scorsese also created a rule to which he adhered that each musical selection in the scenes was a piece which could have been heard at that time (Thompson). For example, if a scene took place in 1973, he could use any song that was current or older. According to Scorsese, on Goodfellas, he also shot numerous of the non-dialogue scenes to playback—that is, he had the music featured in the film playing on set. One of the more famous examples of such a practice from that film is the use of Derek and the Dominos’ 1971 song, “Layla”, which plays over the sequence in which the dead bodies are discovered in a pink Cadillac, a garbage bin, and a meat-truck. Scorsese deliberately planned the camera movements and editing around the music of the song and, in order to achieve such audio-visual harmony, played the song on the set while shooting those sequences (Thompson).

Music, in Scorsese’s work, is, therefore, not only integral to the process of creating the physical product, but in the cementing of the content—of illuminating themes, character actions, settings, and, especially, moods and emotions. It is this deliberate and almost delicate treatment of music that complements what Annette Wernblad, in her critical study of Scorsese’s films, called:

“[Scorsese’s] idiosyncratic filmic style [that] is exhilarating and hypnotizing, distinguished by a dazzling energy and restlessness, and a musicality that goes way beyond just the use of music. He has an unequalled gift for getting under our skin, for deeply affecting, and sometimes enraging, his audience.” (2)

Within these filmic masterpieces, music is more than sound to fill a silent void, but a character within itself. Scorsese’s influence on the importance of music in relation to story and camera movement stems from his own love of the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1951 film, The Tales of Hoffman—in particular, the swordfight which occurs between the characters of Hoffman and Schlemil on a gondola which features neither dialogue nor sound effects, instead letting the score provide all the emotional context as well as sound for the scene (Scorsese).

It is from this foundation in his meticulous treatment of music in film, that Scorsese has created a wall of emotional sound in the soundtrack of Shutter Island. Scorsese’s use of sound here is as compelling and sensitive as his more familiar pop and rock music soundtracks like Mean Streets or Goodfellas. As stated in the introduction, the music of Shutter Island is made up almost completely of modern classical composers—it seems to exist as its own love song to modern classical music. “Modern” classical music, more often identified as “Contemporary” classical music, is a time period of classical music beginning circa 1945. The music of this period is characterized primarily by increasing levels of experimentation among composers, especially with increasingly dissonant pitch language and the rise of a greater presence of atonal pieces (Du Noyer). This is certainly true, on this soundtrack, where the challenging classical and modernist musical works by John Cage, Gustav Mahler, Morton Feldman, György Ligeti, Krzysztof Penderecki and John Adams are omnipresent. Here, Scorsese’s composers and pieces are chosen deliberately to form a compelling, complex soundtrack in which the frequently grating and eerie music seems to emanate from the harsh terrain of the island itself.

The film opens on Ingram Marshall’s Fog Tropes with a seemingly simple bass note:  the sound of a foghorn. From this sonic base grows French horns as the mists of the Boston harbor permeate the screen. It is here, from the diegetic transitioning to non-diegetic opening notes, that the brilliance of the score is demonstrated perfectly: the music neither cues any particular action nor explains any aspect of the plot. It, instead, adds emotional texture, serving as a kind of alternate universe for the film. In the world of Shutter Island, solitary notes and dissonant clusters of notes hang, unwavering, around and in the air of Ashecliffe Hospital. The music is so dense, so intense and even claustrophobic in its effect, that the rare moments of pure silence—where the music cuts away to reveal a profound and empty quiet—hit as though all the air had been suddenly sucked away, leaving behind an almost nausea-inducing vacuum.

Continuing upon the heels of Marshall’s dissonant study in sonics is, perhaps, Scorsese’s most iconic and recognizable use of his film’s soundtrack in Shutter Island with the presence of the fourth Passacaglia movement from Krzysztof Penderecki’s Symphony No. 3. It seems no coincidence that the piece’s unwavering ostinato sounds as the film’s protagonist, Edward “Teddy” Daniels, and his partner, Chuck Aule, get their first glimpse of the island—the intense, ominous nature of the music suggests that the horrors to be revealed on the island will have a personal provenance for Teddy. It is the movement’s very own musical construction that echoes and mirrors the journey that Teddy himself embarks upon in the film.

The Passacaglia movement features an expressive and musical arch—slowly building to a climax and then slowly coming back down—similar to its first movement in the representation of a simple, repeated eighth-note ostinato, on D, sounded by low strings. This is not only the pulse, but the musical and sonic base of the entire movement. It would seem to echo the seeming steadiness of Teddy’s character when he is first introduced: he is a man who is focused intently, almost obsessively, upon the job at hand and seeks to, in no way, waver from said job. Following Teddy in this job is his partner, Chuck, who, musically, is represented by the A-flat which occurs in the low brass to play in tandem with the strings and horns on D. Like Scorsese’s choice in shots and editing of the interactions between Chuck and Teddy, this A-flat signals that, while working together with Teddy, something is not quite “right” about Chuck—the A-flat forms what is called a tritone with the D. The tritone is a highly dissonant chord that, throughout the early history of classical music, was strictly avoided, having been nicknamed diabolus in musica, “the Devil in music” (Fonville). It was because of that symbolic association with the devil and its avoidance in Medieval music, that this interval came to be heard in Western cultural convention as suggesting an “evil” connotative meaning in music (Arnold).

Here, the “oblique comment” upon the film is made, not with lyrics, but with musical construction: there is something fundamentally wrong with the world of this film, as evidenced by the dissonance of the tritone, and it stems from this partnership between Teddy and Chuck. Scorsese uses the dissonance and discordance of the Passacaglia to reinforce the darkness of film’s—and hero’s—journey. In the music, Penderecki builds the movement and momentum through the addition of instruments, as the upper strings and winds sound the ostinato as the movement unfolds towards its dramatic shift. All of this confusion and building of tension is mirrored in Scorsese’s visual and narrative representation of Teddy’s psychological disarray: a mosaic of his past and present realities, his memories, dreams and hallucinations.

Just as the movement’s most dramatic shift occurs when the ostinato moves from D to F, the film’s most dramatic shift occurs when Teddy climbs into the great lighthouse on the island—the source of the earlier foghorn noises—and discovers the horrible truth: “Teddy Daniels” is really Andrew Laeddis, incarcerated for killing his wife after she drowned their children. Here, in the music, Penderecki brings the Passacaglia to a climax with large sections of the brass and winds stating slow chromatic melodies against the ostinato on F. As a result, the music becomes an overwhelming block of orchestral sound. In the film, this great climactic moment occurs in an emotionally overwhelming moment of clarity for Teddy/Laeddis: the memory of killing his wife briefly returns to Laeddis, and he passes out.

Finally, after the climax of the movement, the ostinato of the Passacaglia returns to D and the movement experiences a dénouement. Similarly, the film experiences a gradual recession towards conclusion as Laeddis wakes up, fully cognizant of his true identity. This is where both the movement and the film play a trick on their audiences: the symphony movement ends not only with a gradual recession of musical momentum, but with a brief recall to the lyricism of the previous movement, the Adagio. To achieve this, solo winds play brief melodies over the now-fragmented ostinato. Finally, the movement comes to a close with only the ostinato in the bass. Scorsese imitates this fragmentation and wistfulness perfectly in the closing scene of the film: Laeddis is sitting on steps on the hospital grounds with Dr. Sheehan, and begins to call him “Chuck”, stating they need to expose the conspiracy of Ashecliffe Hospital to the world:

Laeddis: “What’s our next move?”
Sheehan: “You tell me.”
Laeddis: “We gotta get off this rock, Chuck…back to the mainland—whatever the hell is going on here, it’s bad.”

The hero has appeared to regress—just as the movement briefly does with its call back to the Adagio—back to his delusion which had, until the reveal, been the film’s and his own reality. Dr. Cawley orders Laeddis to the lighthouse to be lobotomized and, here, Scorsese closes the film musically on that low ostinato at the end of the movement. While the sound could signal the true return of the “Teddy” persona, it is the film’s last lines and the different, more fragmented nature of the ostinato that accomplishes Scorsese’s intent:

Laeddis: “You know this place makes me wonder.”
Sheehan: “Yeah, what’s that, boss?”
Laeddis: “Which would be worse: to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?”

Laeddis’ self-awareness is complete, and he is now the creator of the ultimate illusion, choosing a metaphorical “death” or end over continuation of his life. The film and the ostinato close on what is assumed to be Laeddis’ final departure toward the lighthouse.

In examining Scorsese’s use of music, one can discover the director’s personal style in relating audio and musical with the visual. The music and soundtracks to his films do not just tell the audience what to think, but are objective correlatives of what the audience feels and experiences at a visceral level when watching a Scorsese film. He places and designs music’s tones and moods to become inextricable from his films’ layers of emotion, from their color and depth, and from their narrative complexity. The effects of the sounds, especially within Shutter Island, catalyze the visual and narrative suspense created through Scorsese’s own direction. In particular, his unique approach in dramatizing non-diegetic music creates soundscapes that accompany and additionally reinforce the suspense and emotion inherent to the visuals and narrative context.


Works Cited

Arnold, Denis. “Tritone.” The New Oxford Companion to Music, Volume 1: A-J. Oxford University Press, 1983.

“Contemporary.” The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music. Ed. Paul Du Noyer, Paul. Fulham: Flame Tree Publishing, 2003.

Coyle, Rebecca. “Pop Goes the Music Track: Scoring the Popular Song in the Contemporary Film Sound Track.” Metro Magazine. 2004: 94-95.

Fonville, John. “Ben Johnston’s Extended Just Intonation- A Guide for Interpreters.” Perspectives of New Music 21 July 1991.

Gilbert, Matthew (September 16, 1990). “Scorsese Tackles the Mob”. Boston Globe.

Goodfellas. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Ray Liotta, Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino. Warner Bros., 1990.

Kurczynski, Gregory. “On Outsight Radio Hours Interview with horror filmmaker Gregory Kurczynski.” Outsight Radio Hours. <;

Robertson, Robbie. qtd. in “Shutter Island As A New-Music Haven.LA Times Online Blog. Retrieved on 22 April 2012. <;

Scorsese, Martin. (1993). Martin Scorsese’s Favorite Films. Retrieved 23 April 2012, from <;

—. . Scorsese on Scorsese. Eds. David Thompson, and Ian Christie. Londong: Faber and Faber, 2003.

Shutter Island. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Leonardo DiCaprio, Sir Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Mark Ruffalo. Paramount Pictures, 2010.

Swed, Mark. Shutter Island As A New-Music Haven.LA Times Online Blog. Retrieved on 22 April 2012 <;

Wernblad, Annette. The Passion of Martin Scorsese: A Critical Study of the Films. Jefferson: MacFarland & Company, Inc., 2011.


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