What’s The Score? – The Godfather


This is my second What’s The Score post, and leave it to me to pick a 3 hour film to write about – but guys, it’s The Godfather, come on.  It’s a classic film but like I said, at three hours it’s a long one – so this ain’t going to be some quick-fix post.  I picked the film because not only is it one of the greatest films ever made (if you don’t agree, you’re wrong), but Nino Rota’s score is also well-known, and just a few bars of the two well-known themes – which we will look at later in this post – can suggest fear and power.  Let’s listen closer…

So, this 1972 classic opens with Vito Corleone, the Don of one of New York’s Five Families, tending to business during his daughter’s wedding reception. Just before this, as the title credits start up, we hear the first important theme – sometimes called ‘The Immigrant’, or otherwise known as ‘The Godfather Waltz’.

Now, this doesn’t mean that it’s got to be danced to in pairs just because it’s called a waltz – the waltz rather refers to the rhythm, 3 beats per bar as opposed to the more common 4 beats.  It is a slow, foreboding melody played on a trumpet that only lasts for a few moments, but sets the tone for the film – dark, serious.  The video above is just one version of the theme, which appears in numerous ways throughout the film.

After this opening scene, we cut abruptly to Vito’s daughter Connie’s wedding, complete with exciting music and dancing.  Here is an example of ‘diegetic music’ – music which generates from the screen, as in we can see the instrumentalists playing the music (realistically, dubbed over in post-production, but for the purpose of the story it is being played as the scene plays out).  Non-diegetic music refers to any part of the score which doesn’t originate on the screen – so an of the score that is added for effect, basically.  Most of the music from the wedding was composed especially by Francis Ford Coppola’s father Carmine, consisting of a tarantella and a mazurka – these are both folk dances, suggesting the family’s Sicilian roots (although mazurkas, as the name would suggest, are generally a Polish tradition).

It is noticeable from the start that when Don Corleone is asked for favours, there is no music to interrupt the scenes; in fact, most of Don Corleone’s dialogue is left without music, directing our focus squarely to what he has to say. While music is important in establishing character, sometimes before they have even said or done anything, the omission of a score can also give the audience some idea of a character’s position in the film – here, it is the don’s utmost authority and reverence.

When Johnny Fontane arrives, he sing  ‘I Have But One Heart’  – this is song was not originally written for the film, having been previously performed by Vic Damone and sung here by Al Martino.

It’s a classic ballad, very much the style of 1940s music and the schmaltzy, lovey-dovey lyrics and music play off against Michael telling Kay a story of Don Corleone’s coercion techniques – making someone an offer they can’t refuse.  The Youtube clip above ends just as Michael says the line, but in the full scene (just maybe two seconds more!) the song ends in the background as Michael says “That’s my family, Kay, that’s not me.”  This technique of ending a song in the background as a conversation comes to an end lends more impact to the dialogue, particularly when the subject matter and the musical tone conflict, as they do here.

More Italian style music plays, we’re reminded constantly of the party going on in the background – while Sonny angrily smashes up a photographer’s camera, lively music persists behind him, juxtaposing his violent outburst.  Likewise, the jaunty music is interspersed with the scenes of Fontaine asking for a favour, setting up an iconic scene to come – we’ve heard Michael describing one of his father’s irrefutable offers, and now we know he’s about to make another one.  Connie’s first dance is to an arrangement of ‘The Immigrant’, led by a mandolin – although this is most likely non-diegetic and for our benefit.

A jazzy piece of music covers the transition scene of Tom’s flight to California.  This is  “Manhattan Serenade” by Louis Alter – to me, it sounds like it should belong in a Woody Allen movie.  Despite the fact that the scene involves Tom flying to the West Coast, it has a New York sound, partly due to the clarinets and the swing-era vibe.  But notice when the men are talking business, the scores lets the dialogue speak alone once more.

The Immigrant is heard as we discover, along with the film executive, the horse’s head in the bed.  At this point, the solo trumpet acts somewhat like a fanfare in the distance – Vito’s control from afar, perhaps – followed by an arrangement which descends chromatically with clashing notes, crescendos and climaxes at the reveal of the horse’s head.  The only sounds from immediately after that point are crickets and screams.

There is music while Tom, Sonny and Vito discussion drug deals, but it is very low and slow-moving.  This adds tension, with just the slightest glimmer of the Immigrant coming in right at the end of the scene.  This is while Tom talks about how NOT getting in on the drugs trade now would be a mistake.

Then comes an example of how background noise can be used effectively in the place of a score.  There is someone typing in the background of the scene where Vito visits Virgil, which rattles along in the background, but the typing stops when Vito starts talking.  Whether this was intentional or not (and I imagine that this would be intentional) it is astonishingly subtle yet effective – you wouldn’t think of it as an obvious technique, but it works so well.  As Vito talks with Luca Brasi, we hear low strings, some mid range flourishes in the background, which suggest that something bad is going to happen.

This scene then cuts to Michael and Kay, who are out Christmas shopping. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” plays over the top, which I think separates them from the family and their Mafia dealings.  Nothing about the previous few scenes have suggested that it’s Christmas time, so this serves a stark contrast to the shadiness which preceded it.   The music continues over into Luca’s place, as he preps for his meeting with the dealers, the clicking of his gun abruptly ending the music. His footsteps are amplified as he goes to the bar, as is the shuffling of his feet as he dies – it is clear that in times of real tension in the film, the background sounds are amplified and almost orchestrated to great effect in place of actual music.

In the scene where Vito is shot, a trumpet can be heard in the background, running scales and arpeggios, as one would when practising.  I find it interesting that this happens just before Fredo fumbles the gun – he is not prepared yet, in need of practice.  A higher and more solemn, less imposing arrangement of The Immigrant then plays.  A sustained chord on strings is held as Michael arrives home to see his father, with piano chords punctuating every few beats, adding to the drama.  As Michael is greeted by Clemenza, a short excerpt of another theme is heard, but we will look at that later in another scene, where it has more meaning (and will thus add significance to its brief appearance here).  Over the course of a few minutes, a lot changes for the Corleone family, and we get a variety of musical ideas to show for it – although it never strays far from the same territory.

Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes – the very first few notes of the music that follows this line are quite similar to the Jaws theme – it’s really brief, but the danger made by that music is clear, and this semitone riff actually precedes Jaws by three years.  That’s just a little side note that I found interesting!

Right after the shooting of Paulie, the waltz version of The Immigrant plays – the signature of Vito’s control – through to the scene where Michael speaks to Kay on the phone.  More 1940s music plays while Kay and Michael share dinner, highlighting (for the brief period) that they have been eating and not talking much, not until he gets up to leave.

The same tense music from when Michael arrives at home plays once more when he arrives at the hospital to visit his father.  The harmony is slow moving, which just builds more tension through the repetition, enhanced by the skipping record in the background (diegetic).  This leads to another appearance of that motif from Michael’s arrival at home, a crescendo descent that repeats.  An ominous rhythm beats away in the background as Michael starts to realise that things aren’t right when nobody is at the hospital with his father.  The clarinets short semitone addition to this music illuminates the mafia connection.

Michael tells his father “I’m with you now, I’m with you” and The Immigrant theme plays once more, on sonorous strings with a sustained high note to create additional dissonance.  In this instance, I interpret the music as adding a second meaning to Michael’s words – he is not just with him at the hospital, but ‘with him’ in the family business.  The two are united now with that theme.  The same tense music from before – piano pulses over a held violin note – plays as Michael waits and watches, deterring the two assassins who were planning to kill his father.  When Michael is held by the police and has his jaw broken, there is no music but a great deal of background noise, including rumbles of thunder and a police radio.  This is followed by a new arrangement of The Godfather Waltz, with added rhythmic guitar notes and loud, foreboding trumpets, by way of transitioning from this scene to the next.

From this point there isn’t much music for a fair amount of time; the dialogue is important and interesting enough to keep the audience informed, and there’s a chance that any music could take the attention away.  When the music does come back, it is re-used from previous scenes again; the tense piano and sustained note while Michael waits to be picked up by Sollozzo, because we already know something is about to happen – we just don’t know whether this is a foreshadow that it will go wrong or right.

In the pivotal scene in the restaurant, the background noises are amplified – you know when you’re waiting for something, or you need full concentration, every little noise becomes the biggest irritation, or such a big deal?  That heightened sensitivity is evoked beautifully in this scene – the waiter popping the cork on the wine bottle and pouring it is louder than it needs to be.  Then the train in the background becomes much louder, almost like rushing white noise, and increases in the moments between Sollazzo’s last words and the gunshots as Michael kills McClusky and Sollozzo. As he leaves the restaurant, the theme we heard when Michael arrived home blasts briefly but loudly.  Don’t worry, we’ll get to it soon!

The music played after this scene is called “This Loneliness”, composed by Carmine Coppola, and appears to be diegetic in one scene but plays over the rest of the montage, showing newspaper headlines of increased gangland violence and the rest of the men lying low.  It is an old-fashioned, honky-tonk style piano piece that lends itself nicely to the era and contrasts the murderous nature of the previous scene nicely.

So, of the two themes that are most well known from The Godfather, the waltz (The Immigrant) has appeared many times, but now as we see Michael settling into Sicily, we become more acquainted with the other one – ‘The Love Theme’.  There are various arrangements of the theme throughout, including one named Apollonia after the woman Michael soon marries in Sicily, and these feature mandolins, guitars and accordians to make the sound more regional and European.

A comment about The Love Theme itself  – it doesn’t seem inherently romantic, does it? That’s partly because it’s in a minor key, and the melody seems somehow simultaneously unsettling and hopeful.  Notice that this so-called love theme isn’t used in either of the weddings as the main music; in Michael’s marriage to Apollonia, a piece of music entitled Suspirannu by Carmelo Zappulla can be heard.  I suppose it would be hard to associate any of the music in this film with ‘love’.  Meanwhile, in America…

After Sonny is set-up and gunned down at the toll booth, and Don Corleone is informed, a slow string arrangement of the Godfather theme plays.  It is let by the cello and trumpet, whose mournful, sonorous tones reflect the sadness of the scenes, though this is all before Don Corleone is actually told – there is no music to underpin this dialogue, and rightly so. Brando’s deliverance of his lines is enough atmosphere.

We see in the fearful scenes the use of music to enhance the fear and tension, but there is less music in sadder scenes, and sometimes it can be important to note when the choice is made to leave a scene un-scored.  Often films will amp up the swelling strings or in more recent times the solo piano.  Not in The Godfather. It goes a long time before the next musical moment in the film, as tragedy extends to Sicily in the form of a car bomb which kills Michael’s wife, and Don Corleone calls a meeting of the Five Families.  The gravity of what the Dons have to say is given the utmost respect, not just from the other characters but the score – the dialogue doesn’t need any enhancement, and in fact most if not all of Don Corleone’s music is left without music underneath.

Now, remember that piece that we’ve hinted at before, when Michael arrived home and we heard snippets of it?  Well, here it is in its main statement.  This scene sees Michael arriving home yet again ,and surprising Kay as she leads children out from school –  a piece that opens with descending woodwind sequence and suspended chords that resolve in syncopation with one another, though the overall harmonies seem to not completely resolve at all. In a way this reflects the scene in that the Five Families are coming to agreements – albeit under duress-  and Michael has returned home, and though these things should make things better, all is still not well. Michael tells Kay that he is working for his father, and now dresses like a mobster – and the name of this piece of music? ‘The New Godfather’.  I think of it as Michael’s theme.  Here is the scene in question, where Kay is reunited with Michael – great stuff:

As Michael and his entourage arrive in Las Vegas, the music is glitzy, a swing rhythm that really evokes the Vegas vibe, and while the soundtrack lists this as ‘Music from Vegas’ by Nino Rota, I suspect this isn’t actually an original piece – more likely an arrangement of some other band music.

When Don Corleone talks openly with his son Michael, lamenting that he never wanted this life for Michael and yet also wanted him to take the reigns, perhaps in a more official role, “Senator Corleone, Governor Corleone…”, the Godfather theme quietly plays underneath.  As I have mentioned before, Don Corleone’s speeches are largely left without music, but in this scene the music creeps in, suggesting that the power has all but entirely slipped from Don Corleone.  Sure enough, in his next and final scene we see him collapse while playing with his grandson.

More diegetic music appears in the christening, a church organ  which plays over the scene in the church as well as a montage of murders arranged by Michael, as assassins see to rest of the New York dons and Moe Greene. This part of the film is wonderfully constructed and has been parodied many times before.  The church organ plays under the entire scene, starting off as an arrangement of the passacaglia from Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, but once the priest starts asking about Michael’s devotion to God as the impending godfather to his nephew, Nino Rota’s ‘The Baptism’ starts underneath.  This is a more ominous piece, which perfectly highlights the dichotomy of this scene in which Michael simultaneously renounces Satan and stands responsible for the deaths of multiple men. I can’t put my finger on it, but there is something clumsy about Rota’s piece – perhaps it is because it comes straight after a nice bit of Bach. Following the baptism, there is another incredibly tense scene where Michael confronts Carlo regarding his brother’s death – this would be perfect for some atmospheric music to heighten the tension, get our nerves on edge for what we know is bound to come (we just don’t yet know how).  But Michael’s talking, and his transformation into a Don is basically complete – he’s ordering murders without flinching, invoking fear and those who cross him.

We get a teaser of the theme after Carlo is killed, just for a few moments, confirming for us musically what we already know, which is played out later as Kay confronts Michael – he assures Kay that “it” isn’t true.  As she leaves the room to fetch their drinks, an arrangement of The Godfather theme starts up, played on brass instruments with a defined waltz rhythm on pizzicato strings.  Kay looks on as Michael is addressed as ‘Don Corleone’, and the door is closed on her.

The end titles roll as an orchestral arrangement (harps and all – who doesn’t love harps?!) of The New Godfather theme starts.  Listed on the soundtrack as ‘The Godfather Finale’, this sumptuous arrangement of Michael’s theme reflects on Michael’s theme and closes the film perfectly.

I used information from the following websites, as well as Wikipedia and IMDB for this post.




5 thoughts on “What’s The Score? – The Godfather

  1. Pingback: Week Three Blog: The Godfather | english225ajb

  2. Thanks for posting this interesting insight. The upbeat band music played in the background during Connie’s wedding has bugged me for year. I doubt I’ll ever be able to find its name. Probably just a snippet composed for the soundtrack and never recorded in full.

  3. Just in case some of you came to this article looking for what the instrument is that plays the Godfather theme, it is an oboe. 😀 Sorry, don’t have a yahoo account so can’t put it on answers. Thanks for an excellent article about the Godfather score. It was a great refresher for me as I am writing my own take on it for a class. 🙂

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