Guy Pearce in drag miming to an opera aria on top of a bus travelling through the desert

Exploring Australian Film Music

Listen up! Music in Australian Film

From Classic Songs to Original Scores
 Johnny Milner

WARNING: this article may contain names, images or voices of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.


Our new curated collection Australian Film Music highlights the role of music in film and shows how it can function as a powerful and manipulative mode of cinematic expression.

It seeks to dispel the commonly assumed notion that the most effective film music operates as a subconscious backdrop – that the musical score or soundtrack should be unobtrusive and not call attention to itself.

In the collection, we use pivotal musical moments from a range of Australian features to explore some of film music's most common functions.

Choosing the Right Song

Film music is music either directly composed or expressly chosen to accompany motion pictures. Film music can be a piece of music that pre-dates a film's production: a pop song, a jazz number or a classical composition.

In Muriel's Wedding (PJ Hogan, 1994), for example, the music of ABBA forms the backbone of the film's soundtrack, functioning as a significant plot device and assisting in characterisation. In The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliott, 1994), we encounter Felicia (Guy Pearce), dressed in drag, miming to an aria from Verdi's La Traviata – all on top of a bus moving through the Australian desert.

And in Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975), the Romanian panpipe music of Gheorghe Zamfir transcends the film's boundaries – calling attention to events both onscreen and off, including the mysterious power taking hold of the schoolgirls:

Picnic at Hanging Rock (excerpt), 1975. NFSA title: 3

Establishing a Setting

Compositions and songs from the past can also help establish a setting or particular time and place. The Sapphires (Wayne Blair, 2012) employs the soul music of Motown to recreate its Vietnam war setting – while also commenting on racial discrimination. In Strictly Ballroom (Baz Luhrmann, 1992), singer John Paul Young re-records the 1970s disco classic 'Love Is in the Air' – rebranding the music and opening it up to new audiences. In each case, the music engages the film's viewers in shared pleasures of reminiscence and plays a critical role in the film's commercial imperatives.

Settling the Score 

In our curated collection, we feature several prominent original Australian film scores. These include Nick Cave and Warren Ellis's haunting music for The Proposition (John Hillcoat, 2005), and Peter Gabriel's world music score for Rabbit-Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce, 2002) – which not only fashions a mood and atmosphere but also stimulates empathy for the film's central characters.

The collection also showcases larger orchestral scores such as Mad Max (George Miller, 1979) and The Man from Snowy River (George Miller, 1982). These scores draw from 19th-century Romantic operatic traditions, particularly a system of assigning leitmotifs (musical motifs) to characters and themes – a defining trait of the traditional film score. See, for instance, this excerpt featuring the downhill ride in The Man from Snowy River, Bruce Rowland's music crucial in heightening the drama of the fast-paced action sequence:

The Man from Snowy River (excerpt), 1982. NFSA title: 6988

David Hirschfelder's large ensemble score for the film Australia (Baz Luhrmann, 2008) integrates original compositions, covers and medleys – and synchronises them to a story set during the Second World War. The music pays homage to Australian history and highlights the grandeur and spectacle of the outback. It also musically emphasises a diversity of views of Australia.

Other prominent scores in the collection include Bruce Smeaton's ‘Ascent Theme’ (Picnic at Hanging Rock) and John Barry's romantic arrangement for Walkabout (1971). These examples demonstrate how music can mimic through pitch, rhythm and volume the action occurring onscreen. The ascending music in Picnic at Hanging Rock matches imagery of the girls ascending the rock, for instance.

Signifying through Instrumentation 

Fundamental to Australian film music is instrumentation – including instruments associated with Aboriginal culture and those that signify Anglo-Celtic settler society and colonialism.

Indigenous instruments in films such as Ten Canoes (Rolf de Heer, 2006) connect directly and accurately to Aboriginal history. In other cases, such as Crocodile Dundee (Peter Faiman, 1985), they function as a broad symbol of Australia, primarily aimed at an international audience.

One Night the Moon (Rachel Perkins, 2001) uses musical signifiers of Aboriginal culture and white Australian culture to explore two contrasting perspectives on land ownership:

One Night the Moon (excerpt), 2001. NFSA title: 577244
Told almost solely through music, this unusual film is more of a short cinematic opera. The cinematography is a good example of the camera's love of the Australian landscape and the editing in this clip is exemplary. The contrast of the farmer's song ('This Land is Mine', written by Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody) with European violins and the tracker's song with a didgeridoo cleverly speaks to the heart of the film's conflict.

In Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton, 2009) and The Proposition (2005), the dissonant out-of-tune violin represents colonialism's impact. In Shine (Scott Hicks, 1996) and The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993), the piano functions as the unique voice of each film's lead character. The instrument helps to express their feelings and torments.

Hearing Film

To appreciate the immense importance of music in film, you only need to turn down the volume when watching a scene from a known movie. Or better yet, turn the volume down and then play an alternative passage of music over the top of the images. The meaning and mood of the scene will change – dramatically.

Through our Australian Film Music curated collection, you can explore one of the more under-appreciated dimensions of cinema. Welcome to the wonderful world of Australian film music.

Dr John Milner completed his PhD at the ANU School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics in 2017 and has published widely on the aesthetics of film, music and art. His work is used in various institutions across Australia and abroad, including as a teaching resource.