The Role of Music in Bringing Out The Theme in a Clockwork Orange

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Words: 2615 |

Pages: 5.5|

14 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Words: 2615|Pages: 5.5|14 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange is a novel pervaded by a multifaceted and intrinsic musical presence. Protagonist Alex’s fondness for classical music imbues his character with interesting dimensions, and resonates well thematically -- the music in the novel can be characterized as a synecdoche for high culture, as offset by Alex’s violent and antisocial behavior. Some of the most violent scenes of the novel are carried out to the music of various Classical- and Romantic-era composers, creating especially jarring moments in the narrative, complete with a wealth of interesting hermeneutic possibilities. Stanley Kubrick’s infamous 1971 adaptation, a film notorious for its depictions of violence and remarkable for its faithfulness to its source material, accordingly features a score reflective of the novel’s musical disposition, though it chooses a particular work -- Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony -- to act as a sort of narrative catalyst. Examining both Burgess’s novel and Kubrick’s cinematic adaptation, I will outline how music is used in the works in both similar and contrasting ways, bringing into focus aspects of the relationship between the mediums of film, music, and literature.

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Considering the connection between his two arts, Burgess states in an article entitled “Music and Literature”: ‘Music might have pretended, with Berlioz and Strauss, to absorb literature, but in fact it had turned itself into an adjunct of literature -- critical, illustrative.” Throughout A Clockwork Orange, it may be argued that music is presented accordingly as both a critical and illustrative force; Burgess draws on his musical influences and proficiency to enrich this exploration of morality. Alex’s first-person narration is accompanied by music in various contexts at various vital points in the narrative. It is playing when he is found in states of rumination. For example, early in the novel he listens to Bach whilst considering the actions of himself and his “droogs” during the preceding day:

<BLOCKQUOTE>The name was about A Clockwork Orange. Listening to J.S. Bach I began to pony better what that meant now, and I thought, slooshying away to the brown gorgeousness of the German master, that I would like to have tolchocked them both harder. (38) </BLOCKQUOTE>

In this particular instance, the music seems to bring Alex to a realization; it acts as an obvious and important mechanism in the narrative. It helps unlocks a supposed meaning in the title -- A Clockwork Orange -- of the novel-in-progress he had destroyed earlier in the day, illuminating what will later return as an important thematic element. Later, in one of the most controversial sections, the sounds of Beethoven’s Ninth seem to directly trigger the “tigers” in Alex, spurring him to rape two ten-year-old girls:

<BLOCKQUOTE>Then I pulled the lovely Ninth out of its sleeve, so that Ludwig van was now nagoy [naked] too, and I set the needle hissing on to the last movement, which was all bliss. There it was then, the bass strings like govoreeting away from under my bed at the rest of the orchestra... and then the lovely blissful tune all about Joy being a glorious spark like of heaven, and then I felt the old tigers leap in me and then I leapt on these two young ptitsas. (50-51) </BLOCKQUOTE>

Here, Alex curiously aligns Beethoven with himself through an animalistic sensibility: in removing the ninth from its sleeve, he has, in accordance with the above words, brought the music to reflect his own state of nakedness. Burgess is taking this music -- a sort of music inevitably associated with a certain elegance and order -- and literarily debasing it in an effort to alarm readers, as highlighted by Galia Hanoch-Roe: “Himself a composer, Burgess sought to shock readers by the use of these works as catalysts for such extreme psychopathic behaviour.”

The preceding two examples demonstrate how Burgess uses music illustratively in A Clockwork Orange. As the work moves through its second act, however, we can ascertain how the role of music obtains a critical stance as well as an illustrative one. The Ludovico technique, the central element in the novel’s exploration of choice and free will, produces for Alex an unfortunate side effect: he can no longer listen to classical music without experiencing an intense and debilitating physical sickness. The treatment is designed to condition the subject to feel this sickness when exposed to any sort of physical or sexual violence, and Burgess uses this idea to investigate important questions regarding autonomy, as a criminal who undergoes the Ludovico technique becomes a sort of robot. Regarding his previously venerated “ultra-violence,” Alex becomes incapable of choice. In the climactic moment of the final section, he is driven to attempt suicide by the sounds he once relished so much:

<BLOCKQUOTE>The music was still pouring in all brass and drums and the violins miles up through the wall... Then I got on to the sill, the music blasting away to my left, and I shut the glazzies and I felt the cold wind on my litso. Then I jumped. (188)</BLOCKQUOTE>

This side effect is characterized by one doctor figure as the “punishment element”; indeed, it is the political activist and author of the aforementioned fictional A Clockwork Orange that exploits this, seeking vengeance on Alex for the raping and murdering of the former’s wife. Ergo, Burgess frames the moral pitfalls of the Ludovico technique with the theme of music. The removal of choice is compounded by the fatal side effect, and the powerful descriptions of music -- for example, the use of verbs such as “pouring” and “blasting” -- are used to frame the protagonist’s would-be downfall. Where before the sounds of Beethoven’s Ninth stirred his psychopathic tendencies, now the “gromky and violent” music of fictional Danish composer Otto Skadelig awakens a different sort of animal within him. Where before Beethoven and others facilitated his ultra-violence, here the same music brings about much the same effect, only to Alex’s own detriment. Ultimately, music is used as a critical force in the novel, as it helps frame the vital idea that the removal of free will only replaces the existing problem with another. As Alex protests at the completion of the Ludovico treatment:

<BLOCKQUOTE>Am I like just some animal or dog? ... Am I just to be like a clock-work orange?</BLOCKQUOTE>

It is interesting to note that the Alex pre- and post-Ludovico treatment are connected by this theme of animalism, be it the “tigers” of ultra-violence or the “dog” of the incarceration of autonomy. Music is interwoven with this idea, acting as a catalyst for the ultra-violence perpetrated during the first section of the novel, and inducing the depression, the stunting physical sickness, of the final section.

Moving now to Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic version of A Clockwork Orange, I will highlight some of the more important differences in how music is used thematically in the film, as distinct from the novel. Kubrick opted to use Beethoven’s Ninth as a narrative constant in the adaptation, as opposed to using various compositions throughout. This bestows the work with an interesting thematic prominence. Hanoch-Roe explains effectively in her article titled “Beethoven’s Ninth: An ‘Ode to Choice’ as Presented in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange”:

<BLOCKQUOTE>Contrary to other films, in which the music plays an important yet subordinating role to the plot, expressing and magnifying the dramatic developments and emotional intensity, here the music takes the role of a commentator following the plot closely, almost to the degree of a protagonist in the film itself.</BLOCKQUOTE>

In this fashion, it can be argued that music takes on a decidedly more central role in the film than in the novel. Partly, this is obviously owing to the medium: cinema comprising both audio and visual elements, music commands a much greater influence over the audience than with, say, a printed description in a novel. Kubrick’s adaptation, however, recognizes the thematic importance music holds in the novel and translates it effectively to the screen. As Hanoch-Roe explains, the Ninth is heard on five occasions in the film; at key moments, actively listened to by the protagonist, and always in conjunction with acts of violence. Unlike the novel, the Ludovico treatment prevents Alex from listening to only Beethoven’s Ninth, and this piece is the one that causes Alex to attempt suicide. The alignment of Alex with Beethoven himself -- an idea flirted with in the novel -- is given greater consideration here. Visually, as the music provides the protagonist with illustrious violent and sexual visions, some of his facial expressions are remarkably similar to those of the seminal composer, as reflected in a large portrait hanging on Alex’s wall. Similarly, the previously discussed scene in which Alex is spurred to suicide sees the character of F. Alexander playing the lethal music on a stereo below the floors of the room in which Alex finds himself trapped. Kubrick constructs the shot so that the writer is portrayed as an image of Beethoven, the arrangement of his clothes implying the contours of a statuette. The Ninth itself, as mentioned, has interesting narrative importance, as the structure of the symphony actually mirrors that of the film. The finale of the both film and symphony occur simultaneously, as noted by Hanoch-Roe:

<BLOCKQUOTE>The finale of the both film and symphony reach an ecstatic climax of salvation and liberation. In a visual and actual sense this scene correlates to both text and the music resounding with great force from the speakers. The full orchestra, choir and soloists reach a catharsis together with Alex.</BLOCKQUOTE>

It is, of course, at this point in the narrative that Alex, having survived his suicide attempt, has been cured of the effects of the Ludovico treatment. That he can now enjoy the music again becomes synonymous with his ability to experience and perpetrate violence, and so the character’s final catharsis, heightened enormously by the bombastic final movement of the Ninth, is hugely ironic. This exemplifies one of the ways that the cinematic version utilizes music in which the novel does not: that the structure of a specific piece is played progressively with the film’s most pivotal points is a narrative technique that Kubrick executes captivatingly. Concerning my earlier dyad of illustrative and critical employment of music in Burgess’ novel, the film’s treatment of the theme is arguably more important, as it places it on the same level as Alex’s progression while also acting as a sort of Wagnerian leitmotif. Music in the film is more than illustrative or critical: it is a superseding narrative force.

The film’s score also includes music that makes no appearance in the novel and that is removed from the ideas previously described: for example, music’s relationship with Alex and his psychological dispositions. As distinct from the compiled classical side of the score, there is electronically synthesized music composed by Wendy Carlos peppered throughout the work and presented non-diegetically, presumably to help frame the futuristic and dystopian setting. A quirky addition is the inclusion of Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown’s “Singin’ in the Rain.” Alex sings it whilst attacking the writer and preparing to rape his wife early in the film, and it is through the singing of the same song in the third act that he is recognized, again exemplifying music’s narrative prominence, if in a more ironically light-hearted sense. Where the film conversely loses some of the musical elements of the novel is in the offset of using Beethoven and the Ninth as the almost exclusive source of diegetic music. The fact that Alex is conditioned only against the sound of the Ninth in the film -- as opposed to all music in the book -- arguably removes some of the dramatic effect of the film’s exploration of the moral questions of the effects of the Ludovico technique in comparison with the novel’s. Though the Ninth’s narrative prominence in the film ensures the thematic importance of music remains in the final act, I would argue that Burgess’s juxtaposition of the musical influence on Alex with his psychological tendencies before and after the Ludovico treatment is compromised somewhat in the Kubrick adaptation.

To describe now a use of music that carries the same implications in both novel and film, there is an omnipresent dichotomy in A Clockwork Orange of violence and culture; music, as well as other performative elements, is used to blur the division between the two. Alex’s alignment with classical music acts as a jarring character trait for both the reader and the audience, and indeed, for the characters themselves. Referring again to Hanoch-Roe’s essay:

<BLOCKQUOTE>Kubrick elicits in the spectator a sense of unease about the connection between violence and culture as represented by Alex and Beethoven’s Ninth. The Spectators, as well as the authorities of order... are taken aback when they see a picture... of Beethoven in Alex’s cell.</BLOCKQUOTE>

This is an area that the novel and the film have in common. The subversion of music’s position in the cultural umbrella, placing it somewhere between the idioms of the violent and the civilized, is something that both works strive to do. That classical music is played against many of the most violent scenes is perhaps the most obvious implication of this, but it is also exemplified in more subtle ways. For example, the Ludovico treatment is designed so that the subject may be quickly reintegrated into society; it is ironic then that it is the cultural sign of classical music that unravels its pretensions. The Kubrick version includes visual cues as well, such as the aforementioned scene composed to frame Frank Alexander as Beethoven: here it is as if Alex is being played like a puppet by the composer and by all of high culture. The battle between culture and violence is also represented visually in the cat-lady scene, as noted by Hanoch-Roe, “when Alex attacks her with a huge phallic sculpture (referred to as an ‘important work of art’) while the cat-lady defends herself with a bust of Beethoven.” Here, it again appears that Beethoven is not quite on the protagonist’s side, which holds interesting implications: the music may be shifted somewhere between the idioms of violence and culture, but Alex himself is always kept firmly outside of the latter.

In conclusion, music’s thematic vigor in both of these incarnations of A Clockwork Orange cannot be overlooked. The musical presence molds the protagonist and his place in the exploration of the implications of the possession of choice and free will. Burgess ensures that the implications of Alex’s connection with music are always at the forefront. Kubrick’s version employs a single bombastic and overarching work to connect with both Alex and the audience in the narrative’s most pivotal moments. Ultimately, I would make the argument that the screen adaptation succeeds much more than the novel, at least in this last point: music is experienced not just by Alex, but by the audience as well. Printed media’s obvious limitations on this front prevent it from having quite the same effect; a reader may only interpret what Alex is hearing based on the literary descriptions (many of which portray fictional music), which, while powerful, simply could not connect with an audience as much as actually hearing the music itself.


Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. London: William Heinnemann Ltd (1967). London: Penguin Classics (2000)

Burgess, Anthony. “Music and Literature.” The Wilson Quarterly (1976-). Vol. 7, No. 5 (Winter, 1983), pp. 86-97, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Stable URL:

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Hanoch-Roe, Galia. “Beethoven’s Ninth: An ‘Ode to Choice’ as Presented in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.” International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music. Vol. 33, No. 2 (Dec., 2002), pp. 171-179, Croatian Musicological Society. Stable URL:

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The Role of Music in Bringing Out the Theme in a Clockwork Orange. (2018, May 27). GradesFixer. Retrieved April 17, 2024, from
“The Role of Music in Bringing Out the Theme in a Clockwork Orange.” GradesFixer, 27 May 2018,
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