In the opening sequence of “Miller’s Crossing,” a 1990 gang­ster film by Joel and Ethan Coen, a tracking shot of tree­tops dis­solves into a static shot of a black fedora on a forest floor. The shift in imagery is marked by a rad­ical shift in sound­track, where­upon a pop-​​oriented pro­gres­sion of a mys­te­rious and fore­boding nature replaces a pseudo-​​Irish tune of har­monic simplicity.

When the hat is blown away by a gust of wind, the Irish melody returns, “restoring order and pre­dictability to the credit sequence,” noted Matthew McDonald, an assis­tant pro­fessor of music in the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design.

The music that marks the image of the hat blowing in the wind is an odd and unset­tling detour,” he explained. “We are left to wonder whether the hat actu­ally appeared or was an apparition.”

McDonald addressed the meaning of music in the Coen brothers’ movies last Thursday after­noon in Ryder Hall for an audi­ence of stu­dents, fac­ulty and staff.

Like the Coen brothers, McDonald grew up in Min­nesota, where, he joked, “the sim­plest expla­na­tion is the best and sto­icism is the greatest of all virtues.”

The film­makers agree, refusing to sat­isfy critics who call the black fedora an irrefutable symbol of sex and death. As Ethan once put it, “The hat doesn’t ‘rep­re­sent’ any­thing. It’s just a hat blown by the wind.”

The flat-​​out denial did not deter McDonald from dig­ging deeper into the meaning of music in the Coen brothers’ fil­mog­raphy of off­beat hits, including “Fargo,” “Blood Simple” and “No Country for Old Men.”

He said Carter Burwell’s score of “A Serious Man,” a 2009 med­i­ta­tion on a middle-​​aged math teacher from sub­urban Min­nesota whom he calls a “modern-​​day Job,” pays homage to Igor Stravinsky’s 1947 ballet “Orpheus.”

Both the tragic Greek hero and the film’s pro­tag­o­nist share a lack of faith, which McDonald said ulti­mately led to their downfalls.

This asso­ci­a­tion with ‘Orpheus’ enhances the mytho­log­ical aspects of the film’s nar­ra­tive,” McDonald explained. “Music, because it is inher­ently inscrutable, pro­vides the Coens with an ideal vehicle through which to smuggle the sug­ges­tion of sym­bolic meaning into their films.”

Music,” he added, “can imbue filmic ele­ments with the aura of mean­ing­ful­ness without pro­viding con­crete meaning.”