Marilyn Monroe and Rachmaninoff: Can Movies Sell Music?

Sex sells everything or so it seems.

My earliest recollection of any connection between sex and music was the 1955 film The Seven Year Itch, with Tom Ewell and Marilyn Monroe. The former imagined seducing the latter when a combination of circumstances fueled his fantasy: a stale, seven-year-old marriage; his wife’s temporary absence; and the availability of Ms. Monroe, his smoldering new neighbor. Ewell’s plan was to use Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #2 to win her ardor. The scene above depicts his strategy.

Classical music in film usually isn’t intended to engender lust, although the cinematic hit 10,” starring Bo Derek (with Dudley Moore playing the Ewell-like role), gave it a try in 1980, with Ravel’s Bolero serving to keep the erotic pace. Various recordings of the piece dominated the pop and classical charts in the months following.

The use of such music raises the question of whether a movie featuring a classic opus can open the audience to classical scores beyond those pieces featured in the film. Favorites like Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001: A Space Odyssey), Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (Platoon), or Mozart’s Piano Concerto #21 (Elvira Madigan) raised interest in the featured works, but not other selections from the oeuvres of those composers. In light of these failures, should a film be expected to convince a classical newbie to dive deeper into the world of symphonic music simply because of its connection with a single appealing piece?

Let’s start with the music attached to Ms. Monroe and Ms. Derek in the already mentioned films. Does any lonely soul watching Tom Ewell or Dudley Moore think he might achieve his romantic fantasy solely by his choice of CD while on a date? Surely no man with a recording of Bolero or Rachmaninoff playing in his living room regularly brings sex to the mind of women. Thus, a film’s featured sound track, if it is to cause anyone to listen after the cinema’s end, will have to stand on its own. Powerful men have an evolutionary/sexual advantage connected to the need of our female ancestors to find a protector and bread-winner. Contemporary males who listen to Bruckner give their dates no clue to those talents.


Nor is film likely to create wide interest in classical music without a sexual connection to ladies like the two featured above. No boom in the record sales of Richard Strauss’s other compositions was created by Stanley Kubrik’s use of Also Sprach Zarathustra in Space Odyssey, nor did Mozart’s 600+ compositions fly off the store shelves because the slow movement from his Concerto #21 was featured in an art film hit.

Those who believe cinema might increase the classical audience should consider what must be overcome to do so. Music used in movies competes with dialogue, scenery, and plot for the viewer’s attention. By comparison, the standard concert hall symphonic fare offers no dialogue, no story, and the unremarkable sight of a group of sitting musicians — usually at a distance — fiddling, drumming, and blowing; all dressed in similar outfits.

Music at a concert is supposed to speak for itself, while a movie’s narrative line is intended to transcend the background audio. The implied message is that the score is secondary, designed only to create a mood. If the film tunes are being given second class status by the movie makers, why would anyone believe the rest of the composer’s works were worth their time?

Then there is the obstacle classical music confronts when it is heard by an audience of the uninitiated. The standard wisdom of the crowd is that classical music is “relaxing” at best, boring at worst. If they listen to something attractive on the film’s soundtrack, most may conclude the beauty or excitement is an anomaly, nothing like the standard classics they know or think they know. Surely this belief doesn’t spur the listeners to explore beyond a particular piece that, for them at least, is the exception proving the rule.

One more challenge stands in the way of the film-goer’s transformation from someone who doesn’t listen to many classics to one who does: effort. Anyone who wishes to learn to love the classics must put in a good deal of time. The Beethoven Symphony #5 takes somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 minutes no matter what. A Rodin sculpture, on the other hand, can be observed for whatever unit of time you wish to put into the examination. Concert promoters do what they can, but they cannot generate motivation or cut the score without mutilating the art.


Don’t underestimate the effort required to become a convert to an unfamiliar art form, even in the case of visual art. Chicago’s grandly successful and much visited Millennium Park was expected to generate increased attendance at the nearby Art Institute when the former opened in 2004. The failure to achieve the expected bump in Art Institute admissions was “a puzzle” to the museum because the art repository was only one block from the new outdoor venue. Perhaps part of the answer then, is that movies are movies, paintings are paintings, and Bolero’s ability to attract an audience guarantees no crossover even to another of Ravel’s famous works, like La Valse. Those who go to a public park want a park experience, not one authored by Van Gogh. Those who visit a Chinese restaurant aren’t looking for pizza.

Presenters have added movie screen close-ups of the players to the concert experience, big screen painting reproductions to enhance performances of Pictures at an Exhibition, iPads to provide a technological jump from the old style paper medium of program booklets, and lectures before concerts to tell the audience what they might want to notice when the program starts. In the end, however, do these produce the “buy in” intended? Doesn’t the music live or die on its own merits?

Concert promoters have tried about everything to expand the audience for the classics, with questionable success. What can one say that hasn’t already been said? Two things:

  1. In the words of impresario Sol Hurok, “If people don’t want to come, nothing will stop them.”
  2. If you have a seven-year itch, try some talcum power.

Following the scene from The Seven Year Itch is a poster from the movie “10” featuring Bo Derek. The bottom image is the Crown Fountain (facing Michigan Avenue), part of Chicago’s Millennium Park.

12 thoughts on “Marilyn Monroe and Rachmaninoff: Can Movies Sell Music?

  1. Ha! I like that! Try some talcum powder!
    Two random thoughts: I think introduction to classical music as a child is the perfect avenue for a life long appreciation of such music. When that music is paired with parental enjoyment and valued by parents, then children grow up hearing and loving that music. It’s harder to start to love classical music as an adult maybe b/c the music pool has been diluted? As children, my siblings and I heard certain compositions over and over again and those are known and loved. I wish now there had been even more.
    Second random thought just concerns sound tracks in movies…. in my mind, there are sound tracks that have become modern classes: To Kill A Mockingbird, Dr Zhivago, Gone With The Wind to name just three. Evocative, at times even, to tears.

    Liked by 1 person

    • drgeraldstein

      I certainly agree, JT, that exposure is helpful, but have seen enough examples of kids who were exposed at home and at school without a continuing interest to think that perhaps some people have little taste for the classics no matter their exposure. If anyone can figure out how to fill the concert halls, he will make a fortune. It’s a tough time for all the arts. Interestingly, the outgoing Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert, said he thinks part of the difficulty of filling the halls is that there are simply too many such concerts being given. And yes, there is much fine movie music not borrowed from the classics. Glad you enjoyed the talcum powder joke!


  2. I share JT’s view: “I think introduction to classical music as a child is the perfect avenue for a life long appreciation of such music. When that music is paired with parental enjoyment and valued by parents, then children grow up hearing and loving that music.”

    I would like to add that exposure to classical music in our schools can also go a long way in cultivating an enduring love for this and other art forms.


  3. Agree on both counts, Rosaliene. As I suggested to JT, however, the concert presenters wish they had a magic bullet.


  4. Being a musician and emphasizing musical instruction in my daughters’ education was important to me and the subject of conflict with my (soon-t0-be ex) wife. I didn’t force music on my kids but they were surrounded by it with me. I allowed music to permeate throughout the home, autos and life overall. Music can be many things to many people ranging from a full-on immersion in life experience to entertainment to simply background noise. I assert that music is a gift from God to be discovered within ourselves. Our very souls are moved by pieces that reach deep within and connect to our emotions. Have you ever seen a sorrowful man fall to pieces within the opening bar of tune? Have you seen a sensual smile expand across the face of a lover after 4-5 notes are played for his/her special song?

    Music is soulful be it James Brown or Johann Sebastian Bach.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. DR Stein, May I please email you a question? Thank you.


  6. […] recalled how Marilyn’s performance awakened him to sex – and classical music – on his blog this week. (You can watch ‘the Rachmaninoff scene’ […]

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Maybe the trick to drawing a larger classical music audience isn’t just through the composers and their pieces. I think we could look to the performers to create a bigger fan base. I’m going to CSO’s performance of Verdi’s Falstaff not because I know anything about that particular piece, but rather that I know Muti is a fine interpreter of Verdi’s music and that oboe extraordinaire Alex Klein is making a rare appearance. Yo-yo Ma, Yuja Wang, James Galway, Mark O’Connor and many others bring classical music to the forefront not just through film scores but also crossover to other genres, or making headlines for their clothing choices 😉 If we can get young people interested because they are ardent fans of these performers, and not any less than Justin Timerlake or Lady Gaga, then maybe classical music will have its own revival.


    • Thanks, J.Z. To some degree, I think, the limitations of this method of drawing crowds has been demonstrated by the very people you mention. They are big personalities or, like Kennedy, fueled by the showmanship and attire they display. Unfortunately (perhaps) many of the best performers are not the kind of people who would be persuaded to do this, or, if persuaded, would do it very well. Moreover, if, for example, Yuja Wang were able to turn her audience on to the music for music’s sake alone, one would expect a bigger audience would develop even for pianists whose attire did not draw as much attention. But, you are certainly right that the classical concert experience is far different from that of many more popular performers. If you can figure out a way to create a crossover, then you will soon become very rich!


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