A friend who is passionate about gay rights drew my attention to this cartoon by the American Jehova’s Witnesses:
I think my friend was inviting me to join him in abusing this piece of child indoctrination, and was therefore quite surprised when I came back with “mind if I analyse the soundtrack?”
Through my explorations in this blog, I have become even more fully aware of the potency of sound in an audio-visual context to reach beyond the the conscious, cognitive understanding and manipulate us at a deeper level.
I have not engaged in much musicological discussion yet, as this is an area with which I have been more familiar for longer than sound design and so there would be less in the way of discovery. However, of course, ‘non-diegetic’ music is a very powerful tool of influence on any audience. It seemed to work a treat on several people I know in ‘Brexit: the movie.’
Take a look at the first few minutes and listen to the portentous, cinematic music – drawing heavily on musical tropes conventionally aligned with heroism in Hollywood – underscoring the ‘ordinary people’ speaking of overthrowing the ‘undemocratic’ European Union:
repeated, rhythmic string ostinati,
sustained brass melodies,
tonic pedal bass,
use of minor mode,
regular use of suspension generating tension as well as the illusion of musical propulsion in a tonally static context,
emphatic percussion hits, swells and ‘rises’ (I notice a particularly ‘foregrounded’ hit following a big swell at the end of the introduction at 2:29, synced with the animated title text, which interestingly drew my attention to the similarities between the logo, with the arrow emerging from the ‘x’ in Brexit, to the male symbol… what is it about masculinity that we being invited to associate this message with…? but I digress!).
Film composer Robin Hoffmann, who produces an ongoing advice series on various aspects of of the job, has discussed this very topic. He says:
‘Remember that music has the power to manipulate emotionally and therefore alter the perception and eventually opinion of the audience. Very often this happens even on a subconscious level for the audience. This is why music has and is being used extensively on propaganda movies. So, while this can be a great tool, it also puts a bit of responsibility on the composer’s shoulders. As long as things stay fictional, such manipulation is often wanted and sometimes even necessary to “sell” the exotic locations/worlds sometimes depicted in fictional movies to the audience. But as soon as you’re scratching the surface of scoring real life events, especially on socially critical or political documentaries, you should radically tone down anything emotionally manipulative…’ (Hoffmann 2017)
The full piece, which is an interesting read, can be found here on March 14th 2017.
Anyway, back to the Jehova’s Witnesses.
The first thing we hear is the muted sound of children playing. We hear it over the titles, giving us the subject of the ‘lesson’. Then we see the little girl alone in a classroom, looking at the children’s drawings. The sound of the children is distant and outside and she is inside – our very first message. There is an outside world; it is separate and apart from the characters in this little story, the ones ‘privileged ‘ to be in ‘Jehova’s Kingdom’. We never see it. But inside, the girl is free safely to interrogate ideas presented to her by this other place.
Next we see the picture of the ‘two mummies’. What do we hear immediately afterwards? The school bell. Now we do know that it is a school bell, but the sound is also redolent of an alarm. There is a subtle hint about what we are supposed to think of the two mummies here. It is timed to accompany the look of uncertainty and discomfort on the girl’s face.
The next sound is home. Mum is clearly an artist. Home is peaceful and industrious; we hear the sound of creativity as the girl arrives home (a fruitful place of creation – or Creation? – which by drawing ‘appropriate’ pictures herself she, the girl, shows she is being trained to belong to).
When the girl says “Kerry drew two mummies,” there is a fraction of a second of silence, the first silence we have heard, drawing our attention to the words.
There is no diegetic sound under this whole dialogue. Sonically, the space is being cleared for the key point, “But what matters, is how Jehova feels.” (0:44). And this moment is where the non-diegetic musical score finally begins. (Is it non-diegetic? Or is it the music of heaven found with the discussions of the woman and girl? We shall see!)
The music, the organised, pleasing, regular sound, is clearly deemed to be Jehova‘s. All the random, unstructured foley sound heard up until this point, happening as a by-product of human activity, is, by contrast, meant to be heard as ‘of this world’.
We have a brief moment of a held G played by strings, then a slight swell, as mum picks up the Bible at 0:43. The music is anticipating something – and it turns out that this G is the dominant note, resolving into C major as the book is opened and we are transported into ‘Jehova’s’ world. It underlines the change of visuals too, as the colour turns from grey to warm, sunset colours.
The music is played on flutes and strings: sweet, triadic, a descending sequential chain of suspensions leading to a settled place. There is a fair bit of alternation between chords I and IV – the ‘amen’ function, if you like, and a movement that keeps the music stable within its key.
Note that the flute melody peaks at 1:01. This is where the mother says the words “male and female” with some emphasis on those words. A powerful bit of semiotics in this scoring here, making full use of the psychology of melodic structure; the anticipation and realisation of expectations as the arc of the melody crests provide something that feels like an answer to a question.
The music is very much in what I think of as an ‘American pastoral’ tradition. In Hollywood soundtrack, this gentle, consonant, orchestral sound is so often heard with panoramic agricultural landscapes featuring warm sunlight and expanses of fertile land, or reminiscence, or stirring messages in the dialogue or voice-over. We can roughly trace the musical language back to some of Aaron Copland’s most iconic work (Appalachian Spring may be the best known). In my opinion, the USA has a markedly patriotic culture as a whole, and there is a tendency to associate that which is American with that which is wholesome in their mainstream cultural output.
The foley sound in this section reinforces the pastoral musical hints – we hear birdsong, burbling streams, things associated with that which is natural. Can we infer an indirect comparison with what is not deemed to be natural here: a family built from a lesbian relationship? Again, the subtlety of this message bypasses conscious thought potentially and, although the tone of this cartoon at face value might be thought to be measured, the subtext diving straight into the subconscious of the young viewer seems pretty extreme to me.
Now, this sound-design layer of the soundtrack gives us a little foreshadowing of the next part of the message. While the sweet, pastoral music continues along its bland way into the airport images, the sounds above it turn to less appealing, man-made ones. Straight away as a viewer I felt less comfortable.
This leads into the next bit of their message. The things that you want to ‘take onto the plane’ that are ‘not allowed’. As the man carrying the (red!) bag full of forbidden items steps through the airport scanning machine, the alarm starts (1:19) and the soothing music stops. The girl’s voice, heard for the first time since mum started her ‘lesson’, says in a high pitch “he can’t go on the trip!” – the change in voice and in tone emphasises this plunging into a new soundworld. The flashing lights (that lack any realism in a straight analogy with the airport!) are also red, like the bag. The colour of danger, of fire, of blood. The jerk of the effect is all the more enhanced for having been preceded by a minute or so of bland c major flute, harp and string underscore.
The ‘Jehova’ music returns almost immediately as we are reassured that Jehova wants us to be his friends and live with him “for ever“. There is an interesting little bit of sound design in this next sequence (1:33-1:34). As the camera pulls backwards over the heavenly hills back to the man with the offending red bag, there are two ‘swoosh’ noises to coincide with cresting the hills. It is a sound of power and could possibly be intended to imply that Jehova (who wants us to make it to his paradise, it has just been stated) is now transporting us back to this gateway. The gateway is situated this time within the natural, ‘paradise,’ scenes, which lays the analogy bare. The ‘swoosh’ happens again as the camera zooms in on the errant man, as though Jehova is focusing his attention on him – and we see him, of course, consulting a Bible!
At 1:43 the scene returns to the present reality of home, and mum talking. Nonetheless, the ‘paradise’ music remains. Mum is saying “that means anything that Jehova doesn’t approve of.” She is bringing the heavenly message into our world, the music is saying, with her refusal to accept homosexuality as legitimate.
Then, at 1:46 the man dumps his bag of ‘disapproved of’ things and there is a satisfying foley representation of the bag landing, before a glittering Mark Tree welcomes him to paradise. These tinkles are magical sound, in Hollywood tradition, and are heard often in the Romance genre when the moment of resolution in the form of a kiss arrives. The union of God and his children has long been spoken of using a marriage analogy; the Church as the ‘Bride of Christ’ is familar to most Christians. The ‘magic’ tinkles of the Mark Tree are also commonly heard in Christmas movies when a child’s dreams are made true for us in moving picture form.
Thereafter, we return to the here and now – home. The girl wants “everyone to get to Paradise” and “so does Jehova”. Now the underscoring changes to another familiar Hollywood style. It is gently busy and there is internal emphasis of the rhythm. The texture in the orchestration is light and playful but still fuller, using pizzicato cellos, glockenspiel and clarinet. Now we are purposeful: this kind of style is usually used in Romantic Comedy to accompany a narrative moving on, a goal has been established. Often in Hollywood, we see people at work towards something positive when we hear this sound.
The composer employs harmonies that give a flavour of Mixolydian: 2 bars of dominant chord are followed by two bars repeating the melody sequentially, but springing up to the chord of the flat 7th. The effect of this progression is friendly, and like moving up steps towards a goal.
What is the goal? At 1:58 mum ask “what can you say to Kerry?” The clarinet plays a little melodic sequence, taken up by other wind:
Again, both the structure of this melody, based on the neutral intervals of major 2nds and perfect 4ths and 5ths, and the choice of orchestration, remind me of Copland in nationalistic mode – the wide open perfect intervals like the stretching of the American plains. They are, more obviously, reaching up towards heaven as the girl makes her plan to tell Kerry that she must reject her home and parents (essentially!).
A cute little tune, a bit like an advertising jingle, concludes the cartoon, as mum says “That’s awesome! Let’s practise!” and we conclude in C major with an added 6th. The added 6th to me is the most static of the blue notes, as it has no burning desire to resolve to another note. I attribute this partly to its being a member of the pentatonic family – it sits happily with a major triad as part of that scale of five semitone-free notes that sound consonant (even heavenly!) to human ears.
Major 7ths and 9ths (even though 9ths are also in the pentatonic scale) pull towards the tonic because of their proximity to it; minor 7ths potentially destabilise by pulling down towards the submediant note and even hint at a new tonic base on the existing chord IV; the more exotic or astringent added notes, such as a #11, have even more of a dissonant tendency to imply irresolution. But the added 6th, while it could flop down to the dominant note, sits complacent and I always think lends a self-satisfied (and distinctly ‘cheesy’) air to any harmonic world! The ‘JW’ logo appears as it lingers.
So, all in all, there are many messages to be found if you scratch just below the surface of this soundtrack. I think that for being insidious, this is all the more potent.
I should like to say, though it is not relevant to this discussion, that I am religious myself, but in a very different way from this group. I should like to find an example of spiritual ideas presented in a more honest, authentic and exploratory manner in audio-visual media as a starting point for open discussion of the ‘bigger picture’ and what gives our lives meaning. I’ll report back if I find such a thing, and take a look for contrast!
Hoffmann, R. 2017 Daily Film Scoring Bits. [online] March 14th 2017. Available from: http://www.robin-hoffmann.com/dfsb/daily-film-scoring-bits-archive-jan-jun-2017/. [Accessed: 26th November 2017]
The article Strange Voices: Subjectivity and Gender in Forbidden Planet’s Soundscape of Tomorrow, written by Stephen Prock and published in Journal of the Society for American Music, (Prock, Bick (ed) & Katz (ed) 2014) makes a few points that I found interesting:
That, originating from a kind of ‘semiotic limbo’ by using a kind of music that lacked the traditional heritage of orchestral film scoring, Louis and Bebe Barron’s electronic score reflected a certain ideological ambivalence in musical modernist thought at the time. There was a will among leading thinkers in the movement towards pure sonic autonomy; however there were tensions in such a music existing in a society based on commerce. So these electronic sounds were a fresh start in film scoring, losing certain historical baggage, but also brought these new sound-worlds into a more functional role than previously they had been used.
That the film is ‘obsessed with the body’ and that bodies male and newly vulnerable, female and sexualised, mechanical, alien, detached from consciousness and invisible, pervade it. It is argued that the Barrons’ sounds ‘tie their sonic representations more clearly and insistently to bodily representation, determining who or what is capable of being musically represented’. I was interested in the idea of electronic music signifying disembodiment and unseen beings.
That the Barron’s themselves, Louis in particular, seemed to compare their sound-emitting circuits to sentient beings: “When our circuits reached the end of their existence (an overload point), they would climax in an orgasm of power and die. In the film, many of the sounds seem like the last paroxysm of a living creature.” (Louis Barron). The author then compared their process in time of the circuits to the narrative arc of the film itself.
That sound itself seems to consume men at one point in the film – there is a moment of invisible energy represented by high-energy sound, during which the men’s bodies are simultaneously consumed. The author speaks of the possibility of male rape in the subtext of the film.
Voice is explored a little. Contemporary critics seemed to express their (strong) reactions to the sound-world of the score in terms of human affective or animal vocalisations.
That the only character with any kind of lyrical character music is the woman, Alta. Her own ‘quasi-leitmotif‘ becomes the love music and concludes the film. The suggestion here is that her personality is subsumed by the eventual entering into a traditional heterosexual union.
I have decided to start by looking afresh at my recent work in the light of our studies at University of Hertfordshire.
We have been given an overview of the varied and interdependent functions of soundtrack in the context of a film in the past fortnight.
A few ideas leaped out as being techniques I have used in some way before, and that might be worth developing.
I’m going to take them one by one and give them a post each.
So, the first one that I started thinking about was…
‘Leitmotif of Noise’
We looked in our first week at the creatively fruitful phenomenon in film that happens when diegetic sound fulfills the traditional role of non-diegetic music. We were shown a little of Forbidden Planet, with its ground-breaking electronic soundtrack by Louis and Bebe Barron. We noted that the soundtrack seems to occur in the narrative space and also to comment on the characters’ states of mind simultaneously.
As we examined this, I thought about traditional film scoring’s heavy use of leitmotif to cue audiences into the big themes of the story and the characterisation. However, contemporary scoring seems to be rejecting this, focusing on acting as the general subconscious of the story. I wondered if, as a kind of substitute signpost, diegetic sounds crossing into the non-diegetic realm could essentially act as a ‘leitmotif of noise’. So, associating a certain recurring sonic event with a theme or character.
This would, I thought, need a conscious and deliberate focussing of the use of sound.
I tried to think of examples of where this has happened.
I decided as a starting point, I would have a look at Brief Encounter. Because the film-makers had chosen to use Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto, there was no purpose-built film score to manipulate melody for its own purposes, even though the Rachmaninoff is used effectively to reflect the general mood and emotional arc of the story. I felt this alone might make it easier to pick out the role of the non-musical, designed soundtrack.
Could this ‘leitmotif gap’ have been filled by the equally iconic train sounds that we all associate as closely with the film as the use of the piano concerto?
(I would have to add, I’m sure this has been examined before, so I will also go on a quest for relevant writing on the subject. All suggestions gratefully received! However, it was an interesting exercise for me to do.)
I watched the film again and documented each time we hear the high-pitched, frantic whistle of the express train. Every time we hear it, seems to represent a moment of psychological danger and/or disarray in Laura’s mind.
Here are the key moments where I spotted it (times are approximate):
Just as the music of the opening credits climaxes (at about 1’45); the music is lost in the sound and this moment segues into the opening dialogue. It seems to serve as an introduction to this particular sound and the music tells us subconsciously, perhaps, to associate it with high feeling.
6’05 – we are told the ‘express’ is going through and the alarming noise obliterates the inconsequential dialogue about chocolate purchasing among secondary characters. This is the first time we walk through this moment – the second time, at 1’23’30, we know Laura comes close to committing suicide by throwing herself under the train here.
12’11 – Fred makes a joke about the children and Laura starts to cry. Interestingly, this time we hear it outside of the place within the story where the sound originates – the station. Although it is possible we are meant to assume that it could be overheard from the nearby railway, this use seems really deliberately non-diegetic to me. Laura senses the danger of losing control of herself and inadvertently doing irreparable damage to her marriage and home. This use of it at this early stage in the narrative cements it in my head as being something we are to associate with ‘danger’ – especially in Laura’s mind.
17’53 – we see Alec in the background and it is the first time within the storyline we see him (because I’m not counting the first account of the final scene that we see at the beginning). Alec looks up and noticesLaura just as the whistle sounds faintly. It is easy to miss but looks very carefully placed when you are paying attention!
18’12 – Laura gets the grit in her eye, thus providing the vehicle for their meeting – fate providing the next step towards infidelity.
59’48 – we hear it quietly as (it turns out, moments later) Alec is making the decision to return to Stephen’s flat with the expectation that she will follow.
1’00’07 – Alec announces his intention baldly – Laura refuses to follow, but we know her tortured ambivalence. This time, the whistle is long, loud and alarming; the danger of infidelity is now so great.
1’03’39 – after apparently escaping temptation, she changes her mind at the last minute and gets off the train again to go back to the flat.
1’23’30 – we hear the ‘suicide’ whistle for the second time and this time we are fully aware of its meaning. It is the climax and I believe the longest and loudest instance of the whistle. The camerawork backs it up this time around. We do not hear any more train noises after this last, final, greatest danger to her and her family.
So – in conclusion! – I do feel I can justifiably describe this as leitmotif of noise.
As to where this takes my work?
I’m really interested in how different people experience the world differently and how this can be portrayed through visual media with the help of sound.
The ‘dream’ is to use visual + aural media to counteract the polarisation of views and tribalism I’m seeing more and more on social media and to help people identify more strongly with people who seem different to them.
Autism is an obvious way into this, as there are sometimes dramatic differences in an autistic’s perceptions to that of a neurotypical brain, partly due to sensory processing differences. Autism is also close to me as there are several important people in my personal life who are on the autistic spectrum. However, I should like to refine these ideas to look at more subtle differences too, in due course.
Earlier this year, as an exercise for myself in storytelling with music and sound, I wrote a soundtrack to accompany a series of stills. The pictures were rudely snatched from a manga book about raising an autistic child, called ‘With the Light,’ by Keiko Tobe and I combined very traditional orchestral writing for the neurotypical protagonist with sound design for the autistic child protagonist’s point of view.
I was attempting to use music to retell the story along with my own response to it, so the music is in the foreground, and the sound has both diegetic and non-diegetic functions.
Here it is:
For this project, I had some really informative and interesting conversations with adults on the autistic spectrum about what sensory overload feels like, in order to represent little Hikaru’s meltdown – but I’ll discuss that more next time.)
For now, here are the things I did in this soundtrack that could at least partially be described as leitmotif of noise, if further developed in a longer piece.
The sound of little Hikaru playing with the sound of stones on a drain in the final segment of the piece is significant.
The book is mostly told from Sachiko’s point of view, but there are odd moments in the illustrations where we observe Hikaru observing. Many autistic people will tell you that as children – and in some cases into adulthood – they are well used to perceiving a lot more than people around them understand that they do.
I didn’t want Hikaru’s own loneliness and his observations of his mother’s unhappiness to go without note; I didn’t want him just to be a vehicle for Sachiko’s story.
The stones interrupt the music that represents Sachiko’s crisis periodically to help us remember that Hikaru is there – and listening, and, through the corner of his eye, watching.
The stones are the sound of a mother and child impeded in communication with one another, and they persist into the fade-out as the relationship continues not quite to function.
The stones work in conjunction with Hikaru’s own actual leitmotif, which is a diminished fifth resolving inwardly to a major third repeatedly.
(This is something I stole from a real-life little boy with autism, who had discovered and play this figure over and over again at a piano. It had interested me greatly at the time, having studied diatonic function, as it appeared from this that the dominant-tonic relationship might be something intrinsically meaningful to this child’s ear at least.)
The musical motif is used throughout the piece including as an intrusion in the more sound-based middle section – and represents Hikaru himself.
The knock of the mother-in-law
Perhaps rather ‘cheesily’ I appropriated the unfeeling mother-in-law’s imperious knock on the car window and turned the rhythm of the knock into a rhythmic motif of sorts, signifying the character. So what began as diegetic sound indicated an unwelcome intrusion, a harsh judgment, incomprehension of the difficult journey, then continued to indicate that meaning throughout.
What is relevant about this? Why does it matter that I’ve happened upon this device?
Well, if I do go with my initial plan and research and help portray in sound what affects cognitive and sensory world view, as a long-term device this would seem quite useful.
So often formative experiences determine how we respond in later life. I wonder if this device might be useful to signify this? A character behaving unreasonably could retain the sympathy of the audience if a sound associated with a formative experience recurs to remind them of the context for that behaviour.
In the example above, the books do continue to chart the progress of Sachiko and her family and (as is usually the case) life gets easier as the parents learn how to support the child’s development, and as the child gets older.
However, there are many difficult times along the way. What if the sound of the stones returned whenever Sachiko feels as though she and Hikaru are failing to relate to one another, when he feels lonely or misunderstood, or when they are both feeling bruised by an episode of sensory distress?
What if they returned when it seems her behaviour is overly defensive or touchy and she as a character becomes harder to like, helping the audience to recall the sadness of the early days and how it changed her?
I will look for examples of film or animation where this is used and will think about how I might like to use it in due course.
In my next post, I should like to refer again to With the Light, but looking more at the concept of ‘point of audition’ and how it might be exploited to examine different experiences of the world (due to neurology, perhaps, or other differences) some more, and how I can build on this with more subtlety.