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Wash U professor analyzes the music in war films before and after the Vietnam War

Todd Decker, musicology professor and chair of the Department of Music at Washington University
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Todd Decker, musicology professor and chair of the Department of Music at Washington University

The music used in films helps tell a story, guide plotlines and elicit emotional responses from an audience. This is especially true of war films.

Todd Decker noticed there is a distinct difference in the music of combat movies before the war in Vietnam and after it.

Prior to the Vietnam War, music was “meant to send the audience out of the theater marching along to victory,” said Decker, a professor of musicology and chair of the music department at Washington University in St. Louis.

“After Vietnam, what music does in war movies is open up a space where Americans are invited to cry,” he said.

Decker is author of the recently released book, “Hymns for the Fallen: Combat Movie Music and Sound After Vietnam.”

“A lot of the book is about how audiences have responded to and used these movies as ways to understand America’s involvement overseas in war and ways to understand soldiers and veterans,” Decker said.

The hallmarks of pre-Vietnam War movies are brass bands, marches and men singing or whistling. Violin music that might be heard at a funeral or memorial service is present in the music in post-Vietnam combat films. “Hymn to the Fallen” in Saving Private Ryan is a poignant example.

Listen to the interview with Decker to hear more about how music is used in war films. Films discussed specifically include, Apocalypse Now (1979), The Longest Day (1962), Platoon (1986) and Saving Private Ryan (1998).


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