Few years ago I saw L'enfant (2005) and I was very surprised that there's no film score throughout the movie. I think (not 100% sure) Keane (2004) also doesn't have background score.

Is there any specific reason, why some movies are made that way?

And is there a term coined for these type of movies?

4 Answers 4


Music is meant to add to the atmosphere and experience of a movie, and sometimes the atmosphere of silence adds exactly the mood that the movie is looking for.

An example of a film that used the absence of music to add to its atmosphere is Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds.

Wikipedia says the following about Hitchcock's decision to have a non-musical score:

Hitchcock decided to do without any conventional incidental score. Instead, he made use of sound effects and sparse source music in counterpoint to calculated silences. He wanted to use the electroacoustic Mixtur-Trautonium to create the birdcalls and noises. He had first encountered this predecessor to the synthesizer on Berlin radio in the late 1920s. It was invented by Friedrich Trautwein and further developed by Oskar Sala into the Trautonium, which would create some of the bird sounds for this film.

Many critics have discussed the results and the brilliance behind this decision. Here is a really good article on how the use of noise and sound effects as opposed to music are used to add to the dramatic effect of The Birds.

In music theory, it is taught that silence is just as important a part of music as noise is. Half of all musical scores are made up of rests which tell the musicians when not to play. There is even a famous composition of music by John Cage called 4'33" which is nothing but four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence.

[The piece] became for Cage the epitome of his idea that any sounds may constitute music.

TL;DR I don't think there is a universal term for movies that don't have a musical score, but I think it safe to say that each movie with such quality has done so in effort to add to the atmosphere and dramatic effect of that movie.

  • 4
    Dammit. Now I'm going to have 4'33" stuck in my head all day. By the way, another movie without a score is The China Syndrome, which is what immediately popped into my head when reading the question..I think the lack of music really adds to the drama of that particular film. Apr 1, 2016 at 13:42

Note: I have not seen the movies mentioned in the question.

When music appears in a movie only because it appears in universe it is called diegetic music. The reason is artistic, of course. Most of the time it is used to contrast over-constructed movies that, in the point of view of artists using this, didn't allow good story telling or led to expensive film making which prevents certain stories told by directors who could not afford to make the movie. A famous manifest employing this is Dogme 95. I just quote the important part from the Wikipedia page for the goals and (other) methods:

Goals and rules

The goal of the Dogme collective is to purify filmmaking by refusing expensive and spectacular special effects, post-production modifications and other technical gimmicks. The filmmakers concentrate on the story and the actors' performances. They believe this approach may better engage the audience, as they are not alienated or distracted by overproduction. To this end, Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg produced ten rules to which any Dogme film must conform. These rules, referred to as the "Vow of Chastity," are as follows:

  1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).
  2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot.)
  3. The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted.
  4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).
  5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.
  6. The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
  7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now).
  8. Genre movies are not acceptable.
  9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
  10. The director must not be credited.

Nearly no movie completely adhered to this principles.


David Raksin (Oscar-winning composer of Laura) used to tell this story:

He's sitting in a commissary when a girl runs up to him, all excited, "Hitch is making a new film, and, get this, there's no music in it!"

"Oh? And why is that?" Raksin had this great deadpan, perfect for conveying the sort of contempt he had for Hitchcock and his non-musically scored movie.

"It takes place in a lifeboat! Where would the music come from?"

"Go back and ask Hitch where the camera comes from."

  • In Hitch's case, I think he wanted to be the sole auteur of a film, which is basically impossible. But someone once commented that Psycho was a movie without a script, and it was followed by The Birds which not only had no script, it also had neither a score nor acting.

  • But "realism" is one reason given. This is a dumb reason, as Raksin pointedly illustrates—but "realism" can be a shorthand for "we get a different, less romantic effect when we don't use a score."

  • It's also used as a gag, sometimes, to lampshade the artifice of movie music, as in the French movie Diva. (It's been used in other movies since then, of course, where the audience thinks they're hearing a score, then someone turns on a radio, but I think Diva may have been the first to use that gag.)

  • Budget. 'nuff said.

  • The "rules" (as noted in the answer illustrating "Dogme") forbid it. Recently, the film Victoria was shot all in one take over the course of 140 minutes, and all the sound is ambient. (Thank God for subtitles.)

It's interesting to note that the first film scores predate sound, and were primarily a way to drown out the clatter-clatter of the projector!

But not all films had scores, and whatever music played was improved. (So, consider: Silent films sometimes had scores AND intertitles AND the producer/director could not count on the order or in some cases the editing of what they sent to people, meaning audiences at the time got potentially radically different views of movies.) The great Carl Stalling, who would go on to score the Looney Tunes, started as an in-house organist at a theater.

Carl Stalling's Jumpin' Jupiter still evokes the era of silent movie improv:

Note that some directors, like Fritz Lang, actually stopped using film scores with the advent of talkies.

In short, it's just part of the artist's palette.

  • Interesting that Raksin sees no difference at all between adding an artificial point of view from which we observe what is nominally visible and audible in the fictional universe, and adding music which the audience perceives but the characters in-fiction do not. If he'd said, "ask Hitch where the subtitles come from in the foreign releases", or "ask where the dancing robot on Fox football coverage comes from" then I'd have followed his point, but as it was he lost me. Aug 12, 2016 at 9:03
  • Anyway "it's on a lifeboat, where would the music come from?" is vacuous, since there's no orchestra present in most film scenes, or even a decent sound system. So anyone could make the same case for almost any movie (as does Dogme 95). Really, "it's on a lifeboat and we've chosen to emphasise that by reflecting in our film the impossibility of recorded music in that setting" Aug 12, 2016 at 9:10

Although I've always liked to believe that some movies are made without music so that those of us who have auditory disabilities aren't excluded from the audience, after researching a bit I think it's a slightly different reason. Often the music in movies is so loud that even non-disabled people have trouble hearing what the actors are saying. When you do a Google search about music in movies, the most numerous results are pages where people are asking why movie music is so loud that they can't hear the dialogue. Even reading YouTube comments on any random video, you'll see a majority of comments saying that they couldn't hear the actor/narrator because of the too-loud music. It might be more likely, then, that some movie makers acknowledge the ridiculousness of covering up the vital parts of the movie, like the dialogue, with "mood" sounds and that they omit or limit music for that reason. Think about it: if the story is immersive enough, if the actors are engaging enough, if the director is good enough, etc., then excessive music wouldn't be needed to add artificial "mood." Heck, of the available movies have had no music at all, the lack of music went entirely unnoticed by most viewers. That proves that music is often unnecessary. :)

Besides being unnecessary, music is often intrusive. In our society, we're surrounded 24/7 by music, no way to avoid it entirely. Can't go grocery shopping without getting our ears blasted. Even kids in school now are bombarded with loud "study help" music in the background, and at my niece's day care they turn on "nap music" cranked to 11 while the kids toss and turn and try their best to stay still and pretend to sleep during the two-hour noise blast. The absence of music in a movie gives people a break from the constant noise and lets people focus on the movie, really getting immersed in the movie without the distraction of the music attack that we have to struggle with in daily life.

With just a bit of research and reflection, I can see that there are more reasons for a movie to have no music than to have it.

Personally, I have hyperacusis and can't stand to hear music. Hearing music, even low-volume music, breaks down muscle tissue throughout my body, feels like my all of my muscles head to toe are being ripped out. This problem drastically limits the number of movies I can watch unless I mute them and only read the subtitles/captions. I wish the home releases of movies (DVDs, digital, etc) had an option to omit the music for the inclusion of people who have hearing disorders. I remember watching the movie Lion and saying to my friend, "this is awesome -- there's been no music since the movie started!" and right about then the first song started. Sigh.

(By the way, I'm new to this site and this is my first comment. I hope I'm doing it right. There's a huge intimidating list of rules and I hope I'm following them correctly so I can get some practice participating in meaningful discussions since my disability prevents me from participating in most in-person interactions. :) )

  • 1
    Welcome to the site! Music on film is not unnecessary nor intrusive when done right, you can read loads about how it helps creating the right mood in certain scenes. Check How to Answer and take the tour to learn more about the site.
    – Luciano
    Feb 4, 2020 at 10:04

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