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Death By Music?

Ever since the advent of moving pictures, music has been an integral part of the process. It helps breathe life and emotion into a two-dimensional world, and helps us more easily connect with the story being told. However, it can also have the direct opposite effect. It’s finding that subtle balance between overbearing and undetectable that allows the music to do the job that it was meant to do. So, with that in mind, ask yourself these questions when picking music for your video…

1)      Does it stylistically fit the piece?  

Okay, this is an absolutely extreme case of wrong music for a scene (and ironic, when you consider that The Birds didn’t have a traditional film score…only music played or sung by people on screen), but you get the point. This frightening (for it’s time) scene is no longer what Hitchcock intended for the scene, and the only thing changed in it is the music. Had you added something a little more suspenseful, perhaps the scene could have been made better, but the point is simple…pick the right music or risk losing the entire intent of your scene.

2)      Can you have too much music?

In a word, yes. If you go to the 5:00 mark of this video, you’ll hear them go through 4 songs within a minute. Four! Let’s put aside the cost of licensing rights for a second (and the idea of selling a soundtrack), and think about the scene. Really, you can do this with two songs…one to show the emotion of Sandler as he goes to the girl, and the one when he picks the wrong window. When I first watched this film, this one scene screamed out at me. I couldn’t get past just how many songs they had put in to such a small amount of time, and how much that messed with my ability to attach myself to the scene. The last thing you want is to have something stick in the viewers head for the wrong reasons.

3)      Who/What is telling the story; the music or the narrative?

Sometimes, having a song with lyrics can help you tell the story better than any lines of dialogue or sound byte. But examine the scene and ask yourself what you want the viewer to be focusing on…the speaker or the music. Putting a song with lyrics underneath someone talking can create a battle for audible attention in the viewer. They begin by focusing on the speaker, but there’s that subliminal part of the brain that hears the music and identifies with it. If that music has lyrics, then the brain tends to start to divide its attention between the words of the person on screen and the words of the song. Imagine watching Titanic, and being forced to mentally sift between the dialogue and Celine Dion singing. It would have taken away from the impact of the dialogue. Instead, an instrumental track worked best (James Horner does do a very good score), and the dialogue was elevated.

4)      Does it even need music?

I find one thing that documentaries do well is choose when not to put music in to a scene. There’s something riveting and intimate about ambient noise when someone on camera is pouring their heart out and they have to pause to compose themselves. It’s what documentaries are all about…real life. No matter how much we would like it, life does not have a soundtrack. We can’t have theme music whenever we enter a room (unless you bring a stereo, but that’s not recommended…it may lead to noise violations). Adding music to a powerful narrative or interview can have the exact opposite effect that music is supposed to have…it can create a sense of unreality, thereby preventing the viewer from connecting to the subject.

The same thing can be true for horror movies…

Imagine if the makers of this film had added music to this iconic scene from The Blair Witch Project? It would have totally ruined the film, as it would have taken away from the entire premise/”found footage” style. It would have created a sense of unreality, and disconnected the viewer from the mystique this film created. Music would have ruined this scene and, in turn, made The Blair Witch Project just another movie.It’s my hope that the same, sparse style is used in Apollo 18, as that looks to have the same feel as BWP.

Of course, in the end, it never hurts to try something, but be critical in the edit suite. Try it, but be honest with yourself. If it doesn’t work, take the music out and try another track. If that doesn’t work, try watching it without music. It may take you hours either trying to find the right music, or debating with yourself if it even needs music. Just remember that while there is no right or wrong, per se, some things are more right than others.

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