[Terror on the Turntable] Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING: A Legacy of Soundtrack Perfection

When it comes to horror powerhouses, there are few films that can compete with Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 masterpiece that is The Shining. Everything about it is enthralling, deliberate and intense. Yes yes, arguments can be made regarding the adaptation of the Stephen King novel that it was based on, but that is a conversation for another day. One of the key elements in the overall execution and delivery of the film is the soundtrack.

Kubrick was a man full of vision. Every single choice he made in his films was conceptualized, planned and executed with an immense amount of thought behind them. These choices included the soundtracks for his films.  He would never settle for less than his vision, and this high standard that he set for himself and his work would ripple through his employees and collaborators. Sometimes that ripple would be a large one. For example, Kubrick famously scrapped the entire Alex North score for a 2001: A Space Odyssey in favor of select classical pieces. Oh, and he failed to notify Alex North about the change. Sometimes those ripples would be smaller and more readily accepted.  For example, his relationship and collaboration with composer Wendy Carlos.


stanley kubrick the shining


Wendy Carlos and her associate Rachel Elkind first worked with Kubrick on his 1971 film A Clockwork Orange.  Carlos’ classical background and skilled keyboard work, combined with her intense knowledge of synthesizers and manipulation of sound was the perfect fit for the dystopian film. The results were beautiful, perfect and iconic.  Therefore, it was no surprise to anyone when Kubrick would call on the two again when it came to scoring The Shining. A full score was created, and in typical Kubrick fashion, he cherry picked the pieces he found to fit best.

The pieces that came out on top are the now infamous ‘The Shining Theme’ and a track titled ‘Rocky Mountains.’ Very in line with Kubrick’s general vibe, the theme song is a re-imagined version of the Berlioz ‘Dies Irae’ segment of ‘Symphonie fantastique.’ The sweeping landscape is laid out before us as the deliberate plodding of the low synthetic notes accompanies the lone car winding its way towards the Overlook. The eerie whispers and vocalizations, familiar yet not quite human allude to a presence, a mystery that is waiting for just the right moment to reveal itself.



The next Carlos track, ‘Rocky Mountains’, is a swirling, layered electronic gem. The swells and momentum slowly building towards something ominous and foreboding. To achieve just the right sounds, Carlos created her own unique instrument. She calls is the ‘circular controller’ and it allows the synthetic tones to have a vocal like quality; like a voice being carried and received from another dimension. While the rest of Carlos’ compositions would never make it into the final cut of The Shining, she always seemed to understand. On her website, she wrote this regarding her collaboration with Kubrick after she received news of his passing:

Stanley Kubrick was not an easy man to work for. He was vastly interesting, completely open about all his “secrets”, and had a dry sense of humor. You were always stimulated working with him. But it was seldom painless. I liked Stanley, I enjoyed Stanley, I loved his intelligence and curiosity — but he often drove me nuts. We’d completely, passionately disagree on some detail, where a day earlier we were seeing things in essentially congruent ways. Yin and yang. I think he rather took my abilities and attempts to please him for granted, but I never knew for sure, and now never will. I did try to do my best work for him each time, each “cue”. How could you not? After all, creative perfectionists have become nearly an anathema as the centuries increment. So much of what we are asked to read, to hear, to look at, even to eat, seems the result of expedience, a matter of pure commerce. Intelligence, even touches of genius (as he had ample times,) have become quaint relics of an earlier age. Our loss, more than you may think.


Now, outside these original compositions, The Shining is a supremely cultivated collection of early 20th century pieces. The composers Kubrick pulled from for the soundtrack include Krzysztof Penderecki, Bela Bartok and György Ligeti. And yes, let’s not forget Henry Hall And The Gleneagles Hotel Band and their syrupy, yet effective song ‘Home.’ Kubrick knew each piece inside and out and knew which segment of each one would fit in just the right place, in just the right way. Let’s talk about a few specifics shall we?

First up, Bela Bartok’s ‘Music For Strings, Percussion And Celesta.’ This piece accompanies Wendy and Danny as they explore the maze early in the film.  What is seemingly a fun, innocent outing shared by a mother and child carries with it an ominous tone. The syncopated rhythmic pattern combined with the unpredictable melody keeps the listener on edge. As the timpani swells underneath, the harp and deliberate tonal steps elude to a buildup; a buildup to what we aren’t quite sure.  




Another pivotal collaborative scene between score and visuals arrives when Jack enters Room 237. For this scene, the music is pulled from Krzysztof Penderecki’s ‘The Awakening Of Jacob.’ The swelling strings and sliding tonal shifts feel drawn out, like a fog slowly rolling in. Over the top of the music is a heartbeat, whose heartbeat is up for interpretation.  Perhaps it is Jack‘s. Perhaps it is the heartbeat of a new Jack, a new life coming into existence.  Perhaps it is the heartbeat of the Overlook reborn yet again. Slowly, as the scene progresses and the mysterious woman’s beauty falls away, the instrumentation becomes a swirling nest of sounds conveying the confusion and madness slowly setting in and taking hold of Jack.  

The final piece we’re going to talk about is an excerpt from another Penderecki piece titled ‘Utrenja.’ This piece is quoted several times in the film, but most effectively towards the end when Wendy is fleeing from the manic Jack and encounters various incarnations of the Overlook. The whispers and vocalizations of the choir in the piece represent the Overlook and its many ghosts finally speaking and coming fully awake. Nothing is being held back at this point and the swirling instruments combined with the voices mirror the chaos occurring within Wendy‘s mind as well as the scenes unfolding before her.


“..The whispers and vocalizations of the choir in the piece represent the Overlook and its many ghosts finally speaking and coming fully awake.”


Outside of these compositions, there’s one more aspect of sound design I wish to address in the film; Danny‘s ability to ‘shine.’ Whenever Danny is exhibiting or experience a moment when his shine abilities are being engaged, they are accompanied by a series of low and extremely high-pitched tones. Similar to how humans associate high frequencies with animals, these auditory cues imply a sixth sense that only Danny (and later Dick) are familiar with.  In fact, when Dick and Danny communicate via the shining, they expose us to an auditory like feedback loop.  And really, when you stop to think about it, how does a filmmaker relay a non-visual conveyance of communication in a visual format? An auditory cue is the perfect solution.


danny torrance the shining doctor sleep


What’s so unique about The Shining is the way in which Kubrick and his sound team were able to unify various pieces of music to not only be effective, but to be cohesive as well.  Kubrick knew these composers and their works so intimately, he was able to quote just the right portions of their works and allow the audience to simply dwell in the moment without calling attention to the switch in composer or piece. It’s an iconic soundtrack and one any horror, Kubrick or film fan should have in their possession. Here’s the catch…they’re a little hard to come by and not as prevalent as one might think. If physical media is your thing, there are vinyl and CD copies floating around out there in the internet realm, but be ready to pay anywhere from $40-$100+.  Otherwise, the digital realm is apt to be a reliable option.

Any way you look at it, this film is iconic and the score is a major contributor to that fact. The combination of Carlos’ original electronic creations combined with the forward thinking compositions of composers past, unify to create a horror score juggernaut. The Shining remains a prime example of what happens when a film is united on both auditory and visual fronts and the sheer power behind a well executed vision.

What are your some of your favorite moments in The Shining? Have another fave Kubrick soundtrack? Let us know over on our Facebook Group on Twitter!


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