Why Do the “Bad Guys” Listen to Classical Music?

sherlock-and-music

Have you ever noticed that in some movies the “bad guy” is really into classical music (particularly from the 18th-19th centuries)? Siegfried in Get Smart, Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows…etc. But why? As someone who personally enjoys classical music, what is it about the genre that attracts the psychos in film?

Maybe it has something to do with the complexity of the music. (Although it doesn’t have to be too complex to understand. See How to Actually Enjoy Classical Music (For Book Lovers) if you’re interested.) Maybe dark minds who carefully structure their crimes are assumed to appreciate the careful structure of the music. Maybe… But do you think any evil character would like classical music? What about Scar in The Lion King or The Joker in Batman? Can you picture them sitting down with some nice Beethoven or Mahler? (By the way, the types of classical music that these characters often listen to are not the only types of classical music. It’s actually a really diverse genre spanning many centuries and continues to be composed today.)

Of course, there is also the occasional character like Sherlock Holmes himself who enjoys playing classical violin. Yet his character is portrayed as a bit on the dark (even psychologically disturbed) side in some ways, too.

I’m not proposing any definitive answers here, but it’s an interesting thing to think about. Why classical music? Why not jazz? Pop? Hip-hop??

I’m interested in what other “evil”characters you’ve noticed in films (or even books) who like classical music or whether you know of any exceptions to the rule. And why do you think this association exists?

 

If you liked this post, you might want to check out Classical Music Stories where music is imagined as a sort of movie score for literature like Romeo and Juliet, Harry Potter, Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, and more. (Breaking the “evil” stereotype one book and one piece at a time…haha.)

Twitter: @ifmermaids

32 thoughts on “Why Do the “Bad Guys” Listen to Classical Music?

  1. I don’t know almost anything about classical music (but I wanna learn!), but I think it might have something to do with classical music being linked to intelligence and lots of bad guys being portrayed as very intelligent people, even if they’re not the most moral ones. There’s a page on TvTropes about this, the trope is called Wicked Cultured and there are quite a few examples there.

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    • Great! I didn’t know about TvTropes so thanks!! And I think you’re right. I feel like less intelligent criminals (the hyenas in The Lion King?) would be less likely to be linked (wow alliteration) to classical music. Anyways, it really is a cool genre! If you have any questions or want suggestions for listening please don’t hesitate to ask. 🙂

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      • I love TvTropes, it’s one of my favorite sites 🙂
        There’s a course on KhanAcademy about the masterpieces of classical music, so I’ll start learning there, it seems really interesting 🙂 I used to listen to it while studying, but that was just some Mozart I found on Youtube playing in background, now I would like to actually understand it. And I like to listen to 2Cellos but I’m not sure if their covers are really considered classical music.

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  2. Love this post, haha! Such a good question. I think it has to do with intelligence, like someone above commented. But I also think it has to do with isolation and/or rigidity. Like, jazz and pop and other music is more laid back and friendly. Like, you can jam with your friends kind of thing. Classical has such a stigma of snottiness (unfortunately) which can also feel isolating and lonely, as many villains often are.

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  3. It’s definitely one of those tropes that lends itself to Big Bads like Evil Sounds Deep and Those Evil Brits (bad guys often have English accents, thinking back to Scar again). I can see the complexity of the music drawing a complex and disturbed mind. Throw a little minor key in there, and you know something is afoot 😉

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  4. For some reason, I don’t think Scar would listen to music, classical or otherwise. He’d listen to recitations of great Shakespeare soliloquies.

    Funny thought…What if the villains really do like hip-hop or Japanese rock music, but they quickly switch to Beethoven or Mozart whenever the hero enters their lair just so they can intimidate the hero with their superior taste in music and implied greater intelligence? 😀

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  5. I have always wondered that too. Just finished a book in which the bad guy was into classical music. You’d think they prefer Black Sabbath or something like that. I don’t know any crime villians, but if I ever meet one, I’ll be sure to ask what they listen to.

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  6. My first three thoughts were (1) Hannibal, (2) protagonist in Blacklist, and (3) protagonist in White Collar. Classical music evokes certain images in most people that are associated with brilliant criminals. For example, both Hannibal and classical music are sullen and provocative; Blacklist, sophisticated yet soft hearted; White Collar, rich and arousing. Above that, as other readers have pointed out, all three characters and classical music are intelligent/educated.

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    • That’s interesting about the protagonists! I wouldn’t characterize classical music as sullen per se, though I suppose some of it is. That’s the thing: classical music is so diverse but films and TV tend to focus in on certain stereotypical aspects of it. Interesting stuff. Thanks for commenting!

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  7. Ah this is such an interesting read! I’ve never actually noticed this myself – but now you’ve pointed it out I can’t stop realising it in every TV Show or movie that I watch. I completely agree that it must be intentional and clearly to do with the sheer complexity of the music. Surely it would be interesting to compare the different composers that each ‘bad guy’ listens to – and see whether it correlates with their character?! Such a great post!

    femaleonthebassline.wordpress.com

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    • Thanks so much! It really does seem to be everywhere!! And I’ve wondered about the comparisons, too…why associate specific composers (and for that matter, specific pieces) with particular characters? Who even gets to make those decisions in the TV/movie universe? Anyways, thanks for commenting (which also let me find your blog…wow! It sounds like you’ve had some amazing musical and other experiences this year!!)

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  8. I had never noticed this trope, but it sure is an interesting one! The Phantom of the Opera and Edward Cullen come to mind.

    I think you’ve come up with an interesting and plausible explanation for the villain-classical music dynamic.

    Here’s another thought: villains are often idealists, in a way. They have incredibly high standards of how humanity should be, and they are repulsed by the way humanity actually is. This sense of disgust makes them feel entitled to carry out crime sprees (either with the aim of making a better humanity or because they think humanity is corrupt and unworthy of mercy). BUT, at the same time, their idealist hearts may be drawn to humanity’s greatest accomplishments, things like classical music, because they represent a rare instance of fulfilled potential. Could also explain why villains often have a love-hate relationship with heroes.

    And one more: perhaps, in addition to villains being drawn to complexity, writers themselves are drawn to complexity. They don’t want to create flat, predictable villains, so they try to give them some romantic flourishes…like a silk cord to strangle people or a collection of Mozart records for their hours of scheming. Maybe it’s one of those cases where everyone tried to avoid cliches by doing the same thing. = D

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  9. Pingback: Clair de Lune in Two Popular Movies (What’s Up With That?) | If Mermaids Wore Suspenders

  10. I tend to listen to classical music more than my precious film scores when I read because they’re usually less distracting and can help me focus–no words and the music drowns out the world around me. My focus is bad, as I’m easily distracted and a restless person. Funny enough I’m going through all my Sherlock Holmes stories right now–and yes, classical music’s been in my ears most of the time. As long as there’s no crazy bombastic moments to jolt me out of my thought, or singing, I can listen and just enjoy it as I read. It calms me down a bit and keeps me in the moment. I suppose it’s the structure and you can be still to it. I don’t see much toe tapping and head bopping to classical music, right?

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    • Interesting! I don’t listen to music when I read but I know a lot of people who do! It’s funny you mention toe tapping and head bopping because I feel like people actually probably can and would move to classical music if it wasn’t a bit of a social faux pas in concerts! People dance to classical music like in ballroom dancing, after all!

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