Piano in Film: Five Famous Piano Cues

Piano in Film: Five Famous Piano Cues

Music and film have always been closely intertwined. Even before movies featured dialogue and dedicated soundtracks, they were often accompanied by live music. Today, modern audiences are treated to massive soundscapes across all genres of film. And yet, a solitary piano performance is still powerful and memorable enough to convey a theme, character, emotion, or location.

At skybox Audio, we’re merging the real, dynamic sounds of piano with modern software. Our product, Hammers + Waves, has allowed countless hobbyists, musicians, producers, and composers to capture the most authentic acoustic piano sounds via precise automated sampling. Most recently, Hammers + Waves has made its mark on film history, contributing to celebrated soundtracks that have made their way to the Oscars.

On March 27th, the Academy Awards will host their 94th celebration. Two days after that, musicians and music lovers around the world will celebrate Piano Day, the 88th day of the year (representing a piano’s 88 keys). What better time, then, to explore the key role that the acoustic piano has played and continues to play in cinematic music? 

How the Piano Became a Movie Star

You don’t have to look far to notice piano’s significance in film. Piano-driven music in movies dates all the way back to the 1890s where it all began. In an interview with NPR, film archivist and author Ken Wlaschin notes that the first live musical performance accompanying a film occurred in Paris in 1896 – the instrument in question? A piano. It wasn’t until 1927 that film and recorded audio were finally synchronized in The Jazz Singer, albeit just for a couple of minutes.

Between then and now, dozens upon dozens of movies have been made about real and fictional pianists, including Moonlight Sonata (1937), A Song to Remember (1945), Amadeus (1984), The Piano (1993), Immortal Beloved (1994), The Pianist (2002), Ray (2004), Copying Beethoven (2006), La La Land (2016), Green Book (2018), Soul (2020), the recent tick, tick...BOOM! (2021), and many more. Likewise, piano-centric scenes have become some of the most memorable moments in film – one only needs to watch key scenes from Casablanca (1942), Blade Runner (1982), Groundhog Day (1993), Big (1998), Twilight (2008), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), and countless others to get the idea.

Whether the piano is the main focus of the film or an element of a single scene, the instrument is always an opening for character exploration. The notes and the very form of the piano itself reveal something about characters’ emotional states, ambitions, and connections. In Big, the giant piano mat not only expresses Josh Baskin’s (played by Tom Hanks) boyish energy and curiosity, but also extracts the inner child of Robert Loggia’s character, MacMillan. Scott Joplin’s “Bethena” bookends Benjamin’s (portrayed by Brad Pitt) reverse journey from old age to childhood in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, reminding the audience that despite his waning memory and changing appearance, the man’s soul is eternal. And in Pixar’s Soul, the press of a single “C” note on his old piano reminds Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) of life’s simple beauty and why he loves playing music in the first place.

5 Famous Piano-Driven Cues in Modern Film History

More than just a prop or character device, however, the acoustic piano has also made its mark on some of the most popular and beloved films to date through masterful compositions. These piano cues have become inseparable from their respective films. Indeed, without such memorable melodies and sounds, none of the following films would be the same.


Halloween Theme - John Carpenter (Halloween, 1978)

    Taken by itself, the main piano melody in John Carpenter’s “Halloween” theme doesn’t feel too foreboding, aside from an off-kilter 5/4 time signature and staccato articulation. When accompanied by the buzzing, dissonant synth chords and sudden modulation, however, the composition takes on an ominous, violent tone, well-suited for the film’s atmosphere. The theme plays throughout the entire movie for long stretches at a time, as if to remind audiences that there’s no escape from Michael Myers, evil incarnate.


    American Beauty - Thomas Newman (American Beauty, 1999)

      The gentle piano featured in Thomas Newman’s “American Beauty” theme almost seems to speak. In one of the film’s most pivotal scenes, wherein Ricky monologues about the beauty of a plastic bag he filmed, the piano notes fill the spaces between his words and sing alongside them, as if in conversation with him. Newman’s use of the Dorian scale lends an ethereal whimsicality to the scene. This memorable theme also lacks resolution, much like the lives of the film’s yearning characters.


      Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Theme - Jon Brion (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2004)

        Composer Job Brion complements Michel Gondry’s non-linear masterpiece with a titular theme that’s suitably quirky, dreamy, and hypnotically repetitive. The film’s star-crossed lovers, Joel Barish and Clementine Kruczynski must fight against self-inflicted memory loss to find one another again and again. Similarly, the piano-driven melody loops at unconventional intervals and briefly changes key before returning, as if forgetting its place before starting over in an endless loop.


        Married Life - Michael Giacchino (Up, 2009)

            Pixar’s unique tale about the adventures of an aging widower and curious young boy surprised and delighted audiences in 2009, but one scene in particular stood out and broke the mold of animation forever. Just seven minutes in, the film moves into a four-minute montage that runs through the entire marriage between protagonist Carl Fredricksen and his wife, Ellie. Giacchino’s dynamic, jazzy “Married Life” underscores the scene, arranged primarily with clarinet, violin, and piano. Though the piano simply holds down the rhythm at first, it takes over the melody at key moments, such as when Carl and Ellie daydream about having children, when Ellie suffers a miscarriage, as they plan their trip to South America, and when a dying Ellie hands their adventure book to Carl. The piano is the only instrument left as the montage ends with Carl returning home alone, single balloon in hand.


            Time - Hans Zimmer (Inception, 2010)


            Like all of Christopher Nolan’s films, time serves a central role in this mind-bending thriller, in which professional thief Dom Cobb leads a group to extract key information from people’s dreams. Hans Zimmer’s “Time” plays towards the film’s conclusion as Cobb finally awakens from a multi-layered dream and returns to his children, though it remains uncertain whether or not he is truly awake. The triumphant and melancholy song builds and builds, starting with quiet strings behind piano chords and gradually gaining additional orchestration, including heartbeat-like percussion, electric guitar, and horns. Despite the composition’s emerging grandiosity, those initial piano chords remain constant until the very end, where they’re brought up several octaves and accompanied by airy strings. Ultimately, only piano remains before being cut off by a bright, screeching note played in reverse.

            skybox Audio and the Oscars

            We’re proud to have become a part of the piano’s legacy in film, recently contributing to films that have made it all the way to the Academy Awards with our product, Hammers + Waves. Captured with beyond-human precision by robotic automation, Hammers + Waves is a 10 instrument modern keyboard collection like no other. 

            Last year, renowned producer, composer, and pianist James Poyser of The Roots teamed up with us to beta test some of our products. After telling us how thrilled he was with our instruments, he let us know he was using the UX Upright for the main sound of a film he was working on at the time. That film, Two Distant Strangers (2020), went on to win an Oscar for best live-action short film. In a similar situation, composer Germaine Franco (who previously worked on Coco (2017), Tag (2018), Little (2019), and more) used our software in her work on Disney’s Encanto (2021), which has received three Oscar nominations this year, including best music (original score).

            It’s both humbling and thrilling to know that some of the industry’s most illustrious professionals have turned to our tools for their work, even while they have access to the world’s top instruments and studios. At skybox Audio, we can’t wait to see how our products and tools are used in the future, especially in the film industry.

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