Using Music: Jonathan Mitchell
The composer Edgard Varese had a great way of thinking about music. He called it “organized sound.” I like that, because it says all sounds can be music, all you need to do is organize them. And that means every radio story can be thought of as a piece of music — the talking, the location sounds, even the silences — these are all musical elements.
When you add music to your story and let it run under a person talking, what you’re really doing is creating a new piece of music. It’s like when a hip-hop artist samples a short bit of music, loops it, adds a beat, and starts rapping. What we’re doing is a lot like that; we’re just working in a different style. Every sound you bring into your story is working together to create not just a story experience, but a musical experience, and the music you’re making can either serve or undermine the meaning of your story.
Sometimes the best musical choice is to not add any music at all; some stories are just better and more effective when it’s simply a person’s voice and nothing else. If you want to add music because you think the person talking is boring, you don’t really need to add music — what you need is better material. If you want to add music to mask background noise, what you really need is to make a better recording.
But if you have a really good reason to add music, one that springs organically out of the story you’re telling, that gives it deeper meaning, resonance, and clarity, it will often become very clear what kind of music you’re looking for. Whenever I have a hard time deciding what music to use or where to put it, usually that means I don’t really understand why I’m putting music there in the first place. But a good reason tells me so much: where it should be placed, what style it should be, what mood it needs to convey. If music really belongs in your story, it won’t be hard to find clues that tell you what kind of music to use.
Here’s an example. It’s from a story I made for Studio 360 in February 2012 about an engineering professor named Adrian Bejan. He had just written a book about a theory he has of understanding how the world works, called The Constructal Law. It’s very interesting, but it’s also very abstract and visual, and so it was a challenge to find a way to clearly present his ideas using sound.
Here’s a portion of the raw audio, before I added sound design. This section begins about 1:30 into the story, after we’ve gotten to know Bejan a bit and learned how he arrived at his theory. It’s the section when we explain what his theory actually is.
The story asks you to imagine the life of a river basin. It’s a dynamic, morphing system that emerges naturally, eventually forming a pattern that resembles a tree. When I started to think about what kind of music to use, I focused on the word “pattern.” There’s a lot of repetitive action in the forming of these patterns, and they start simply and become more and more complex. This made me think of the repetitive, minimalist music of composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass. I listened to a lot of their music, looking for just the right piece. At one point, I tried putting one of Glass’ string quartets into the story, to hear how it sounded in context. But it just wasn’t working; it was the right idea, but the music didn’t quite fit.
Then I remembered a Reich-like piece by the band Tortoise from their album TNT, called “Ten-Day Interval.” Here’s what it sounds like:
It starts very simply, and it’s very repetitive. But it also has these periodic vibraphone strikes in the opening measures that I thought might be useful to underline points in Bejan’s description. And then 28 seconds in, the marimba enters. Marimbas are made of wood, which I felt could be evocative of a tree. The simple, repetitive pattern at the beginning acts like a spine, or trunk, and the marimba is like branches off of that spine. The music grows and becomes more complex (like a tree) as more instruments are added. And the bass line and organs create harmonic movement, which gives it a nice sense of momentum. I tried it out in the story, and it was perfect.
Here is the final mix of this section (1:30-3:05), and a corresponding screenshot of the Pro Tools session. My narration is the red track, Bejan is the green track, the music is the blue track, and the next seven tracks are sound effects. You may want to listen to the mix while looking at the screen shot.
Things To Note
[The letters below correspond to the letters in the photo above.]
- (A) I chose to keep the first 20 seconds of this section in the clear, without any sound design or music. It follows a section that has a lot of sound design, and I wanted the simple definition of Bejan’s Constructal Law to be very clearly stated and understood. This also makes it feel important: whenever you use music and then take it away, the next thing that’s said always feels more important.
Around :20 into this section, the story moves into an example of how this principle would exist in nature, and asks you to imagine a river basin. I felt that this would be a good place to bring in sound, because it’s asking you to imagine; it’s taking you into a subjective headspace.
- (B) You’ll notice in the session that I’ve placed spaces between Bejan’s descriptions of the river basin’s activities. That’s because I wanted to leave space where I could add sound design elements that illustrated and helped us feel the river basin’s evolution.
- (C) The audio here is taken from a longer recording of ocean waves. I isolated a single wave crash so that I could control its exact placement in relation to Bejan’s description. The words and sounds are working together, their placement is meant to have an ebb and flow that makes the information easier to digest and picture in your mind. Here, I’m thinking of the wave sounds as a musical element – they are sonic gestures with a clear tension and release, and they create a sense of movement and momentum.
- (D) Around :40 into the section, as the story talks about the rivers forming “patterns,” I begin to fade up our music. The music is meant to be illustrative of the concept we’re discussing in the story: a recognizable pattern that emerges out of the chaotic river. The arrows are pointing to the vibraphone strikes in the music. You’ll notice that, because the music is very repetitive, I was able to extend the music in places so that these vibraphone strikes hit at precisely the moment when they would underline points in Bejan’s description, almost like turning on a lightbulb. He says, “the drawing of the Mississippi River Basin,” and then (bing!) a connection is made. It happens a second time after he says “morphing animal.” It’s meant to help reinforce the listener’s parsing of the information.
- (E) At 1:14 into the section, right after Bejan says, “infinity of points,” the marimba enters. This change in texture and expanding of the instrumentation helps to create the image of lots of points connecting to a single branch. You’ll also notice that I added a little space for this music before the narration continues, giving us a moment to think about that image. The more complex texture also reinforces the next section, which talks about all the different places this pattern exists in the world.
The Finished Piece
Here is the finished piece, so you can hear how this section worked in context with the entire story.
When you’re making your story, the most important thing is to be honest with yourself about what you really want to hear. Don’t make the thing that’s fun to make — make the thing that’s fun to hear. And when you choose to add music, only use music you really truly love. The best connection you have to your audience is your own sense of taste. Trust it, and make it happy. Because chances are, if you can truly please yourself, you will be able to please other people too.
About Jonathan Mitchell
Jonathan Mitchell is the creator and producer of The Truth, a podcast that makes short films without pictures. He’s contributed a wide range of pieces — documentaries, fictional stories, non-narrated sound collages, and original music — to all sorts of public radio programs, including Radiolab, Studio 360, This American Life, Snap Judgment, and PBS’s Nova. He studied music composition at University of Illinois and Mills College, and lives in New York City.