Four decades is a short time in the grand scheme of all history, but in the realm of film music, it is a significant span. It is time enough to see overall trends and important shifts, and it provides an excellent vantage point from which one can contextualise a single score within a larger picture. As this article reappraises the score of The Shining, 40 years on, we have an opportunity to view this film and its music from multiple perspectives. I will focus on two of these: the score’s place within Kubrick’s oeuvre, and its position among the landscape of contemporary film scores — horror scores in particular. In this way, we may observe where the score followed trends and where it subverted them, and we may also come to greater clarity as to why this film has garnered such a revered place in popular culture.

Within Kubrick’s output, The Shining marked Kubrick’s eleventh feature film. It was the fourth film in a row to use a wealth of borrowed music as the score. The first of these was 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), followed by A Clockwork Orange (1971), and then Barry Lyndon (1975). These four films define the intricacies and subtleties of Kubrick’s relationship with pre-existent music — specifically art music — on his scores. Although his first four features had newly written scores (by Gerald Fried), Kubrick progressed to a middle period that utilized the services of arrangers like Nelson Riddle on Lolita and Lori Johnson on Dr. Strangelove. Although Riddle provided some new cues, it was his flexibility in using new and pre-existent music that seemingly appealed to Kubrick. By the time of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick was seeing the possibilities of using pre-existent concert music as score. As he famously stated in an interview with Michel Ciment, “Unless you want a pop score, I don’t see any reason not to avail yourself of the great orchestral music of the past and present.”1 This was something of a controversial statement, especially among film composers, whose primary purpose is to compose new music, creating bespoke scores for film. Jerry Goldsmith, in a scathing critique of Kubrick’s use of music in 2001, said that the music he chose “could not comment on the film because they were not a part of it. . . a score is a fabric which must be tailored to the film.”2 Yet the success of 2001, and the popularity and sales of its soundtrack (and music “inspired by”) must have validated Kubrick’s choice. For the next film, he worked with Wendy Carlos and producer Rachel Elkind on a score that used primarily pre-existent art music. The music of Beethoven looms large, but Rossini and Purcell are also present, as is one original piece by Carlos. Some of the music is played through a Moog synthesizer—an instrument that would recur later on in Kubrick’s oeuvre — giving it what now feels like a “retro-futuristic” sound.

In Barry Lyndon, Kubrick’s camp started research on the music in pre-production. Under consideration to helm the score were composer/conductor André Previn and Nino Rota. To each man, Kubrick made it clear that the task ahead was not that of composer, but that of arranger: someone to manipulate the musical choices to suit the film without a loss to the music’s integrity. Kubrick eventually hired Leonard Rosenman to arrange the chosen preexistent music, thus fully embracing the scoring method he had been developing over the previous two films. The score of Barry Lyndon is as lush and evocative as the era-specific costumes and set design. The visual artistry is served beautifully by the mostly historically appropriate score. The fact that some of the musical choices are slightly anachronistic has spurred discussion about possible meanings and interpretations.3 In 1982, Kubrick himself stated that the choice of Schubert’s Trio in E-flat, Op. 100 — composed in 1828 and therefore decades after the action of the film — was necessary, as “there are no tragic love-themes in eighteenth-century music….It has just the right restrained balance between the tragic and the romantic.”4

The Shining is a culmination of Kubrick’s musical usage, a “sophisticated interaction of music and moving image” which provides context, deepens our understanding of character, and participates in the narrative.5 Instead of opting for an arranger, as he had for Barry Lyndon, he entrusted some of the musical responsibilities to Gordon Stainforth. Stainforth was the music editor on The Shining, and his work was invaluable to the unique sonic landscape of the film. Kubrick gave Stainforth the music he favored for the film — pre-existent concert pieces by Krzysztof Penderecki, György Ligeti, and Béla Bartók — and provided a list of places where he wanted there to be music — along with a short description of the kinds of cues he thought would work best. It then fell to Stainforth to use the chosen music to “score” the scenes, then show Kubrick multiple versions with different cues.6 Film editor Ray Lovejoy was sometimes called in to alter footage to accommodate musical cuts (Kubrick disliked abrupt cuts in the music). Furthermore, Stainforth would sometimes layer more than one cue atop another, especially with Penderecki’s music for last third of the film. This overall process allowed Kubrick to hear multiple musical options for key scenes and choose what he felt was most effective.

Process aside, the score of The Shining functions in complex ways that both expand the traditional role of music in the horror film and use styles and timbres to delimit distinct psychic spaces. The listener may be conscious of three levels of music (and sound, as the lines between sound and music are often blurred) in the film. The pre-existent music of Penderecki, Ligeti, and Bartók form one of the levels, functioning primarily as the traditional horror score — building tension, matching up with violent scares, and providing momentum for action and chase scenes.

A second level lives within the action on-screen, the 1930s-era big band songs played in the Gold Room. These musical cues, tuneful and melodic, provide a stark contrast to the atonal and edgy horror soundtrack.7 It is worth noting that the songs aren’t exactly correct for the time period. The picture shown in the final frames of The Shining place Jack at a Fourth of July party in 1921 and the fashions suggest the 1920s “flapper” aesthetic, yet the prominent songs are from 1932-1934. The music lures Jack into a nostalgic reverie, yet it is a false nostalgia, because it is not Jack’s own past nor does it entirely jibe with the references to the 1920s. We may instead interpret that the music provides a sonic doorway to some idealized past where every night is a fancy party. It may also point to the idea that the Overlook Hotel possesses an accumulation of memories from its heyday, a collection of remembrances of decades’ worth of party-goers. Of the four 1930s-era songs in the film, “Midnight, the Stars, and You” has taken on a rich post-Shining life, appearing in numerous films and other media — Snowpiercer (Bong Joon Ho, 2013), Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg, 2018), Toy Story 4 (Josh Cooley, 2019). The prominence of the song in the final moments of The Shining, has led to its nearly inseparable identification (and overt and covert references to it) with the film. It has become a signal in itself, a warning to the audience that even though pretty music is playing, something is definitely not right here.

The third level, I would argue, was provided by composer Wendy Carlos. Although she and producer Rachel Elkind offered Kubrick many possible cues for inclusion on the score,8 only three made the final cut. The first opens the film; it is a synthesized version of the 13th-century chant Dies Irae. The atmospheric cue “Rocky Mountains” accompanies the Torrances’ journey to the Overlook Hotel. Finally, “Shining/Heartbeat” functions more in the realm of sound than music. It appears three times in a twenty-minute span, seemingly representing the psychic connection (the “shine”) between Danny and Dick Halloran. The use of Carlos’ synthesized cues is a nod not just to the previous collaboration between Kubrick and Carlos, but also a connection to the electronic/synthesized musical language shared by some contemporary horror films.

It is here that our discussion leaves The Shining behind for a moment to briefly discuss the general film music landscape of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The choices for scoring were indeed rich. The pop song score had become extremely important, and jazz continued to make inroads as a viable stylistic choice. Even the sweeping orchestral style of the ’30s and ’40s was making a comeback in scores like John Williams’ Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977). At the end of the 1960s, the synthesizer came to the fore, but it’s worth noting the presence of other types of electronic instruments in scores decades earlier. Composer Miklós Rózsa included the theremin in the scores for Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock, 1945) and The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder, 1945). In these cases, the new sound was added to an orchestral score to enhance the unwelcome feelings of obsession (The Lost Weekend) and paranoia (Spellbound).9 Forbidden Planet (Fred McLeod Wilcox, 1956) gave the world one of the first all-electronic scores, courtesy of the husband and wife team, Bebe and Louis Barron. The new timbres in this film represented an aesthetic that was wholly “alien” and new. The electronic sounds and avant-garde compositional techniques (used often, but not exclusively) pushed the envelope even further by blurring the lines between sound and music on the score.

The development of modular synthesizers in the 1960s, like those from Buchla and Associates and Moog Music, led to the first commercially available instruments. With these, composers had new and exciting timbral resources to be used by themselves or within the context of a more traditional paradigm. One of the first to take advantage of the opportunity was John Barry (with the help of engineer Phil Ramone), whose score for the sixth James Bond installment, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Peter Hunt, 1969), “marked the first time any major film studio had featured the synthesizer so prominently, and at the same time fully integrated within the traditional orchestra.”10 Barry had previously experimented with synthesizers for the scores to The Lion in Winter (Anthony Harvey, 1968) and Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969).

The year 1978 was an important one for the synthesizer in film scores. Although not a horror film, it is worth noting that Giorgio Moroder’s score to Midnight Express (Alan Parker, 1978) took home the Academy Award for Best Original Score. It is a radical departure from the film score that won the year before, John Williams’ Star Wars. Williams’ approach for this film (and its many sequels) combined the leitmotivic procedures of Wagner, the heroic neo-Romanticism of Korngold, and a pastiche of more chromatic modernist music (especially for action or to signify desolation). While Williams’ musical cues looked back to these traditions, Moroder’s score relies less on memorable or melodic themes and more on atmosphere and texture. The timbres of the synthesizer on the score both mimic traditional instruments and provide bold new sounds.11

Throughout the seventies, the scope and interpretation of how the synthesizer signified within narrative film scores expanded, and in time, three broad categories developed.12 The use that concerns us most here are the scores in which synthesizers are a conspicuous part of the film’s non-diegetic underscore. The other functions that are not within the scope of this chapter are: film scores in which synthesizers enhance or imitate traditional instruments, and those scores in which synthesizers appear within the context of popular song.

When Moog pioneer Wendy Carlos13 approached Kubrick about contributing music to A Clockwork Orange, a great collaboration was born. The dystopian future of A Clockwork Orange was a perfect place for the Moog, and for the analog vocoder, through which some vocals were recorded. Although synthesizers began appearing in many different kinds of films in both prominent and more covert roles, they found a welcoming home in the genre of horror, and particularly in the slasher film subgenre, which saw its so-called “golden age” in 1978-1984. There are two obvious reasons for this, one artistic and one practical. First, the timbres of the synthesizers could feel uncanny and subconsciously unsettling to the audience, and consequently added to suspense by clouding the distinction between sound and music. Second, synthesized scores could be conceived and recorded by a single person (alone or with someone to help with programming and/or recording); any score that can be conceived and realized by a single human being will cost less than a score that requires not just a complement of musicians, but also arrangers, copyists, and sound engineers.

This was the era in which The Shining was created. After Barry Lyndon, Kubrick wasn’t looking specifically for a horror film, but after reading Stephen King’s novel, he was intrigued by both the story and its “cinematic potential.”14 Naturally, the production explored many avenues for the film’s look, its cinematography, its lighting, and its sound. Kubrick’s vision for the film evolved over time as well, and it’s not clear what effect, if any, contemporary film music (especially that of horror and slasher films) had on production. The Shining, however, regardless had a part to play in the realm of sound and music in that era.

The broad view of horror films in the ’70s and ’80s reveals not a singular mode of style or composition, but a varied collection of techniques. Some of these garnered more attention than others because of industry recognition (awards and accolades) or box office success. What follows is by no means an exhaustive list or an even remotely complete picture, but rather a few useful examples to show the range of musical options being used immediately before and after the release of The Shining in 1980.

The Severed Arm (Tom Alderman, 1973) and The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) are two films from the same year that exemplify the ends of the economic spectrum and two radically different modes of scoring. The Severed Arm is an extremely low budget independent film of questionable quality. It was director Tom Alderman’s second and final time in the director’s chair — he’d also helmed Coed Dorm in 1971. The synth-heavy score by Phillan Bishop is suitably jarring and uneasy, but the dense layers of sound and timbres interfere with dialogue. Alderman’s film shows the pitfalls of a “more is more” approach to scoring.15

On the other hand, Friedkin’s extremely successful film, The Exorcist had a $12 million budget and the clout of Warner Bros. behind it. Friedkin had originally thought of using no music (but “demonic sounds” instead), but ended up commissioning a score from Lalo Schifrin. The conflict that followed is well documented,16 and resulted in Friedkin tossing out (literally) Schifrin’s score. Friedkin instead chose a score compiled from pre-existent music including Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” and Polymorphia by Krzysztof Penderecki — the latter also used in The Shining — and some original cues by Jack Nitzsche. Kubrick, who had been offered the opportunity to direct The Exorcist,17 reportedly enjoyed the film very much.18

The year 1978 also saw the release of John Carpenter’s Halloween. Carpenter, whose father was the head of the music department at Western Kentucky University, grew up hearing classical music as the soundtrack to his own imagination.19 He had scored a number of his own short films and his first two features. Ironic then that Halloween, his third feature, should have had a score that was something of an afterthought. When Halloween was screened sans music and sound effects, and it was deemed not at all scary, Carpenter resolved to “save it with the music.”20 Dan Wyman served as creative consultant and also programmed the synthesizers that Carpenter would use on the project. The overwhelming success of the film, and the eventual enormous profit margin for the independently-made project, consequently spawned countless imitators.

When speaking about his experience scoring his own films, Carpenter noted, “I was the fastest and cheapest I could get,”21 illustrating two appealing aspects of synthesizer scores. The economics of both time and money could not have been lost on producers. There is a strong tradition ­­– led by the success of Halloween – of horror films being made on a shoestring budget. The risk is great, as are the rewards.22 The tradition has continued into the 2000s. Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, 2007), for example, earned more than 13,000 times its original budget.23

In 1980, Friday the 13th (Sean S. Cunningham) premiered, just a month before The Shining. Harry Manfredini’s original score is orchestral, adhering to traditional practices long seen in both art and film music to build suspense and underscore action. It is interesting to note that director Sean S. Cunningham had asked for choral music,24 but budget constraints precluded the idea. Instead, Manfredini, influenced by some choral music of Penderecki, devised the haunting stalker cue by recording his own voice speaking the syllables and then, according to the composer, “run[ning] them through this ’70s echo thing.”25 Manfredini was inspired by a key aspect from John Williams’s score for Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975): in Jaws, Williams’ tell-tale theme only appears when the shark it present; it is never used to mislead the audience. So it is with Manfredini’s “ki ki ki, ma ma ma” cue.

The 1980s became the moment at which synthesizers were becoming more ubiquitous, yet more invisible. Sampling of acoustic instruments allowed music departments to use synthesized sounds to stand in for players, especially when cost was an issue.26 For reasons both artistic and economical, the synthesizer remained (and remains) a viable compositional choice, especially in the horror/slasher realm, and retains a firm hold on sci-fi as well.27 The use of synthesizer sounds (in digital programs like Pro Tools) continues, and is often used to evoke a nostalgia for the golden age of low-budget slasher films, the drones of dark horror, or the brittle crispness of campy sci-fi action.

For some, however, the synth score, came to read as an undesirable “low-budget” aesthetic. When Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (Jack Sholder, 1985) was in production, composer Christopher Young was asked to eschew the synth sound used in the original film (composed by Charles Bernstein) and use an orchestra instead. The new production team had a $3 million budget and a desire for a slightly different aesthetic. Young explained, “They thought that an orchestral score would lift the film’s production values.”28 The film received mixed reviews, but was praised for its innovative special effects. Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (Chuck Russell, 1987) returns to a synthesized score, this time composed by Angelo Badalamenti.

The Shining’s use of pre-existent art music sets it mostly apart from the ’70s and ’80s synth tradition, even with Carlos’ handful of synth cues. This allows the film to exist in a more neutral temporal space — a space, I would argue, also occupied by The Exorcist. In a larger sense, this neutral temporal space, what we may interpret as “timelessness,” also pervades 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange. The orchestra, because of its centuries-long tradition, and its reliable presence in film scores since the 1930s, has a timeless quality. This could be one of the reasons The Shining endures as a perennial favorite, a classic. This is not to say that synth-heavy scores cannot become classics. There is no denying that Halloween is an important cultural object, and its score is very much part of its appeal. Kubrick’s reliance on pre-existent art music, however, does move the score of The Shining to a slightly different category.

The Shining occupies an important place among the horror films of the ’70s and ’80s. Not only does the film continue to inspire imitations and homages (signaling its continued presence in popular imagination), Kubrick’s musical choices have created a musical legacy that has been imitated and emulated. A filmmaker whose seems to have been greatly influenced by Kubrick’s modus operandi is Terrence Malick. A notoriously reclusive filmmaker, who also shares Kubrick’s penchant for long pre-production periods, Malick has shown a taste for newly composed tracks alongside pre-existent classical music as we see in Kubrick’s scores to 2001, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut. Malick’s scores to Days of Heaven, The Tree of Life, Knight of Cups, and The New World all encompass a Kubrickian sensibility and sensitivity to music.

Martin Scorsese, too, has been one of the greatest champions of using pre-existent music, often Italian Romantic opera, in his films. The score to Scorsese’s 2010 film Shutter Island, however, was something of a departure. The dissonant and instrumental score drew immediate comparisons to the music of The Shining, especially as it contained Ligeti’s Lontano, which appears in The Shining, and selections from Penderecki, whose music provided so much of Kubrick’s soundscape for the Overlook Hotel. In the same vein as The Shining, the score to Shutter Island also has era-specific songs to provide melodic contrast to the more dissonant choices.

We may also see the stamp of Kubrick in Johnny Greenwood’s score to There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007) with its use of both Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D and Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres” from 1977. Greenwood’s original music for the film also bears marks of the influence of Penderecki. Greenwood has spoken at length about his affinity for Penderecki’s music and has written Penderecki-inspired pieces including “Popcorn Superhet Receiver” (which appears on the score of There Will Be Blood) and 48 Responses to Polymorphia. The latter piece obviously took Penderecki’s Polymorphia (1961) — which appears in The Shining — as a point of departure, while “Popcorn Superhet Receiver” was inspired by Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1961).

When we look back at The Shining, we may begin to see the ways it sits apart from the horror films of its time. Unlike many of its contemporaries, this film is a relevant pop culture object even now. Its musical choices — particularly the music of Penderecki and “Midnight, the Stars, and You” — have inspired both filmmakers and composers to emulate Kubrick’s methods, but also to embellish and amplify this model of scoring. The music may be a key to understanding why The Shining continues to grow in popularity — gaining fans and inspiring serious scholarly study. It is only now, 40 years later, that we can begin to unpack the long-term ramifications of Kubrick’s musical and sonic choices.


  1. Michel Ciment, Kubrick: the Definitive Edition, Gilbert Adair, trans. (New York: Faber and Faber, 1982), p. 153.
  2. Tony Thomas, Film Score: View from the Podium (New York: A.S. Barnes and Co., 1979), p. 228.
  3. Dominic Lash explores the use of anachronisms in the score in “Distance Listening: Musical Anachronism in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry LyndonCinerge: Il Cinema e le alter Arti (12 April 2017), https://cinergie.unibo.it/article/view/7348/7317
  4. Michel Ciment, Kubrick: the Definitive Edition, Gilbert Adair, trans. (New York: Faber and Faber, 1982), 174.
  5. Jeremy Barham, “Incorporating Monsters: Music as Context, Character and Construction in Kubrick’s The Shining” in Terror Tracks: Music, Sound and Horror Cinema, Philip Hayard, ed. (London: Oakville, 2009), p. 137.
  6. This process is laid out in detail in Jeremy Barham’s “Incorporating Monsters: Music as Context, Character and Construction in Kubrick’s The Shining” in Terror Tracks: Music, Sound and Horror Cinema, ed. Philip Hayward (London: Oackville, 2009), p. 145.
  7. Luis M. Garcia Mainar, Narrative and Stylistic patterns in the Films of Stanley Kubrick (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 1999), p. 56.
  8. See Christine Lee Gengaro, Listening to Stanley Kubrick: the Music in His Films (Scarecrow Press, 2012), pp. 186-190.
  9. Larry M. Timm, Film Music: the Soul of Cinema (New York: Pearson, 2020), pp. 133, 135.
  10. Jon Burlingame, The Music of James Bond (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 84-85.
  11. Roger Hickman, Reel Music: Exploring 100 Years of Film Music, 2nd ed. (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2017), p. 368.
  12. Roger Hickman, Reel Music: Exploring 100 Years of Film Music, 2nd ed. (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2017), p. 366.
  13. The artist behind the wildly successful Switched on Bach album of 1968.
  14. Quoted in Vincent LoBrutto, Stanley Kubrick: A Biography (New York: Da Capo Press, 1999), p. 412.
  15. Garrett Neil and Sean Neil, Review of The Severed Arm (September 2013) https://www.somethingawful.com/movie-reviews/severedarm/1/
  16. George Park “The Devil’s Music: Lalo Schifrin, William Friedkin, and the struggle to score The ExorcistFilm Score Monthly (February 1999), p. 24.
  17. John Baxter, Stanley Kubrick: A Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), p. 122.
  18. See Nick Wrigley, interview with Jan Harlan (November 2019) https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/interviews/right-hand-man-jan-harlan-stanley-kubrick
  19. Chris Parkin “The Soundtracks that Inspired Film Director and Musician John Carpenter” (February 2019) https://www.redbull.com/gb-en/film-soundtracks-that-inspired-john-carpenter
  20. John Carpenter’s composer notes to the soundtrack of Halloween. https://theofficialjohncarpenter.com/halloween-soundtrack/
  21. John Carpenter’s composer notes to the soundtrack of Halloween. https://theofficialjohncarpenter.com/halloween-soundtrack/
  22. Stephen Follows, “What the Data Says About Producing Low-Budget Horror Films” Stephen Follows Film and Data Education (October 2018) https://stephenfollows.com/what-the-data-says-about-producing-low-budget-horror-films/
  23. Sarah Cunnane, “Low-Budget Horror Movies That Killed at the Box Office” (October 2019) https://moneywise.com/a/low-budget-horror-movies-that-killed-at-the-box-office
  24. A few years earlier, Jerry Goldsmith had won an Academy Award for his orchestral and choral score for The Omen (1976). The choral Black Mass theme, “Ave Satani” had become almost instantly iconic.
  25. Jason Arnopp Interview with Harry Manfredini in Slasherama (2005) https://web.archive.org/web/20060511052302/http://www.slasherama.com/features/harry.HTML
  26. James Buhler and David Neumeyer, Hearing the Movies: Music and Sound in Film History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 383.
  27. Now, of course, retro synthesizer sounds are available for every digital audio workstation, and modern composers can give a nod to the slasher and sci-fi films of the ’70s and ’80s with a simple click of the mouse. One of the most overt homages to the ’80s synthesizer score is the music for Stranger Things, an ’80s-era sci-fi series featuring the music of Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon.
  28. Michael Schelle, The Score: Interviews with Film Composers (Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 1999), p. 390.

About The Author

Dr. Christine Lee Gengaro teaches music history at Los Angeles City College. Her first book was Listening to Stanley Kubrick: the Music in His Films (Scarecrow, 2012), and her study of the music of The Shining was published in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining: Studies in the Horror Film (Centipede, 2015).

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