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Playing the Heart Strings

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For the best reading experience, play "Hearts and Strings" or the "Pay Your Respects" theme from Batman: Arkham City while reading.

Where the drama/violence/awesome is too much for real sound or even sound effects to convey. The soundtrack is reduced in volume, and/or muffled, or even muted altogether.

Except for the strings.

A string section plays a mournful piece, usually built around subtle chord progression. A solo string can also apply. The peaceful yet haunting sound provides dissonance with the image, and yet this dissonance echoes the conflict on the screen. Often used to accompany a dramatic death, or a climactic battle, especially if the fighting is between people who should normally be friends. It can also be used for romantic or intense moments. Though it is often used as just plain background music, this trope is often lampshaded and parodied by the presence of an actual violinist(s) who happens to be behind our protagonists during their moment of tragedy.


Easily parodied, as there are many well known pieces of music that could be used to produce this trope.

Subtrope of Simple Score of Sadness. Compare with One-Woman Wail, which is often used in the same way. See also Lonely Piano Piece. See Mood Motif.


    open/close all folders 

  • Bleach: Renji's soliloquy after he is defeated by Ichigo has very sad background music accompanying it featuring violins prominently. This theme shows up a few other times in the show.
  • Fist of the North Star had a specific string-only piece for particularly tragic scenes, usually involving Manly Tears.
  • Final episode of Maison Ikkoku had the original opening song play in the background in a string version.
  • The prologue theme of Kotoura-san is 10 and a half minutes' worth of this. After a while, it suddenly turns into a Song of Solace and then into a Grief Song when the old woman sends the cat that Haruka had befriended to an animal shelter. Certain sections of the song even become a Recurring Riff to maintain this effect.
  • In One Piece, Bink's no Sake do the job when Bartholomew Kuma separated the Mugiwaras by sending them in every corner of the world
  • In Puella Magi Madoka Magica the Movie: Rebellion "This is my Despair" plays when Homura becomes a witch.

    Films — Animated 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The climax of Avengers: Infinity War features I Feel You, full of bittersweet splendor, when Vision allows a tearful Wanda to destroy the Mind Stone keeping him alive as a last-ditch Heroic Sacrifice to stop Thanos, all while the rest of the Avengers desperately try to Hold the Line.
  • Used several times in Casualties of War. This is the best example (starts around the halfway mark).
  • "Ashokan Farewell", used as the title music for Ken Burns' The Civil War, starts out this way.
  • The Departed as Queenan is tossed off the building in slow-motion.
  • Harry Potter:
    • Order of the Phoenix does this, after Sirius' death.
    • The Half Blood Prince also has a go.
    • Deathly Hallows Part 2 also has a bit of an attempt, and this one works wonders. The song Courtyard Apocalypse is played as the trio fight their way through the Hogwarts courtyard, and they see some pretty vicious stuff. The sound is slightly muted, but it is noticeable.
  • The ten-minute finale of Michael Mann's 1992 adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans plays this trope for all it is worth, as seen here.
  • Lampshaded in I'm Gonna Git You Sucka after a man is shot.
    [sad violin music plays]
    John Slade: Ma'am, how is he?
    Woman: He's dead, can't you hear the music?
  • The Lord of the Rings features this on a Norwegian fiddle, especially when the riders of Rohan join a battle.
  • Platoon. Sgt. Elias' death scene used Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings. See it on YouTube, starting at 2:00. The piece is used at several other points in the film.
  • In The Machinist, a sad violin solo plays during The Reveal when we are treated to a flashback showing the tragic and lethal car accident that started the hero's journey into self-destruction. Watch the scene here (major spoilers!).
  • In Sherlock Holmes (2009), Watson gets one of these when caught in an explosion.
  • Used in the first Spider-Man movie when Peter comes home to Aunt May after Uncle Ben's death.
  • Star Trek (2009): This is the music that plays during the opening Curb-Stomp Battle / Heroic Sacrifice.
  • In Three Kingdoms, Phoenix Heights battle between the Zhao and Cao's top commanders, the dramatic strings with bass beats are diegetic; Cao Ying herself plays the zither while her soldiers beat the drums. A few other times Cao plays to unnerve the defenders, and it works, since even Zhao finds her sinister.
  • "The End" from United 93 is pretty much this trope in its pure, distilled form.
  • Danny Elfman's score for The Wolfman (2010) makes very good use of the strings, probably as a subtle Shout-Out to the original score.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Abed and Shirley's outro in Community episode "Modern Warfare".
  • Doctor Who:
  • In Season 9 of How I Met Your Mother, Barber's Adagio for Strings plays when Marshall nearly delivers the seventh slap onto Barney, in slow motion.
    • Season 5's "Jenkins" uses the same piece when Robin turns the tables on Ted's class's drinking game, and during the resulting hangover.
  • Plays during the Darkest Hour moment in Game of Thrones episode "Battle of the Bastards", when Jon is being trampled by the retreating Wildlings and it looks like he and his forces are losing the battle. Watch the scene here.
  • In the The Goodies Christmas Special "The Goodies and the Beanstalk", Tim Brooke-Taylor starts moping once they all become poor and Hearts and Flowers starts up. It turns out to be Grahame Garden playing the violin.
  • Rimmer's possibly-death-scene gets this treatment in the last episode of Red Dwarf's Series VIII.
  • The Granada adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes adventure "The Final Problem" has a sorrowful violin piece accompanying Holmes and Moriarty's plunge into Reichenbach Falls. That said, this whole series made good use of violins in the opening theme and the rest of the soundtrack, since Holmes plays the violin himself.

  • Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, one of the saddest, most moving pieces of music out there, fits this trope to a T. Among other things, it was used to commemorate the death of Roosevelt and the Twin Tower bombings.
  • The song "Harder To Believe Than Not To" on Steve Taylor's album I Predict 1990 is played entirely in this fashion, giving it a very mournful feeling.
  • The Cruxshadows use an electric violin in many of their songs.
  • Garbage's "Happy Home" uses this to make their usual Downer Ending ballad even more depressing.
  • The finale of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 9 is a string-dominated slow movement with sad melodies and anguished harmonies. The final page of the score, in particular, has only strings playing very slowly and quietly, with the operative performance direction being ersterbend (dying away). Leonard Bernstein described this ending as "the closest we have ever come, in any work of art, to experiencing the very act of dying... It is terrifying, and paralyzing, as the last strands of sound disintegrate."

  • Hamilton
    • "Congratulations" from the Off-Broadway production features violins prominent as Angelica reflects on the miserable years she lost in London.
    • After Eliza sings "You-you-you-you" for the first time in "Burn," a violin continues playing through and after her last note before stopping sharply. It reminds that even as she is angry with her husband, the events of the previous song have left her miserable.
    • "It's Quiet Down" prominently features violins when the characters are their saddest. Violins take over as Hamilton attempts to discuss his son's death with his estranged wife.
  • The overture to Of Thee I Sing has a short violin solo whose tune appears in the show as Diana's lament, "I was the most beautiful blossom in all the Southland."
  • "Åse's Death" from Peer Gynt. Peer continues talking when muted strings play this piece quietly during his mother's death scene, ironically oblivious in her dying moments as he tells her a wild tale.
  • "Billy's Death" from the ballet Billy the Kid.
  • Sunset Boulevard: During "Final Scene", a slow, somber, instrumental string version of "Sunset Boulevard" plays as a dirge to the fallen Joe Gillis.
  • Cirque du Soleil's Volta has a major Tear Jerker example during "The Bee and the Wind", in which the Woman in White performs an electric violin solo, adding a One-Woman Wail in the last third, while a BMX flatland rider and a ballet dancer re-enact Waz's childhood memories of bicycling with his mom.

    Video Games 
  • Skies of Arcadia: Legend, which gradually builds up to a rearrangement of part of the main theme
  • Used in the final cutscene of Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) — which is actually a string version of Princess Elise's theme "My Destiny" — when Elise realises that she must blow out the Flame of Solaris, preventing the villain from ever existing... but also preventing her from ever meeting Sonic and causing the entire plot of the game to have never happened. This is used to signify Elise's heartbreak from having to lose her friend/one-sided love interest, to save the world.
  • Both played straight briefly and parodied in the original version of Stage 6 of Um Jammer Lammy: first, when Lammy is killed in a Banana Peel accident and her black-and-white soul Ascends to a Higher Plane of Existence... sort of; and then, when Lammy laments her own death in hell, "Parappa's End Roll in G Minor" plays briefly during the fake end credits... right before Jack Smash appears and stops the credits before taking her away to Teriyaki Yoko. (The full version of the sad-string song can be heard in the original soundtrack, though.)


    Western Animation 
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender. The finale has an epic (and glowy) firebending duel between siblings, accompanied by this trope, called The Last Agni Kai.
  • South Park:
    • In the episode "Something Wall-Mart This Way Comes," when Mr. Farkle tells the boys that he has to close his shop because he can't compete with Wall-Mart, Cartman pulls out a little violin and starts playing. Kyle tells him to stop, but Cartman insists he just felt like playing the violin. A little later, when Kyle starts talking about all the other people who have lost their jobs due to Wall-Mart, Cartman pulls it out again. This time, Kyle pulls it out of his hands and breaks it, but Cartman is unphased, saying he can get another one at Wall-Mart for five bucks.
    • In the episode "Something Wall Mart This Way Comes", Cartman pulls out a violin and starts mockingly playing a sad tune all while a retail shop owner bemoans the fact that he has to close down his business due to Wallmart being around the corner. You can watch the scene here at 4:50.


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