Using Music: Jonathan Mitchell

January 14th, 2014 | by Jonathan Mitchell | Series:
Jonathan Mitchell

Jonathan Mitchell

Editor’s Note: When you introduce music to a story, it changes everything. For a long time, we’ve wanted to talk about the effects and techniques of using music in radio pieces. Now we’re beginning a series of short features with insights from some of the best public radio producers and podcasters. We’re kicking it off with producer Jonathan Mitchell (The Truth) who is utterly musical in his approach. Jay A

Organizing Sound

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.

An Example

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.

photo of Jonathan's ProTools session

Jonathan’s ProTools Session

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.

You can find more features about Using Music here.

19 Comments on “Using Music: Jonathan Mitchell”

  • Cosmo says:

    Very cool, thanks Jonathan. One thing I’m still not clear on, what kind of permission, if any, do you need to use a piece of music in this way?

    • Brian says:

      If I’m not mistaken, you either have to have a certain license that allows you to use other people’s music in your production, you can use music that is in the public domain freely, or you can use music that has been released under a creative commons license which allows you to use it if you follow the various stipulations that they provide you. Sometimes these stipulations are that it can’t be used for commercial usage, so that’s out of the question for most broadcasting, some allow you to use it for commercial usages as long as you don’t edit the piece of music, some let you use it for commercial usage as long as credit is given to the artist, and some other various combinations of things of that nature.

      • Kevin says:

        One note on creative commons usage – I’m not certain, but I always thought that there was a distinction between commercial and editorial usage. So, even music not allowed for commercial broadcasting can be used for editorial purposes, but it couldn’t be used in an advertisement.

      • palagic456 says:

        As a musician registered with BMI, I an nearly certain that this is not so. If you want to use copywriter material, you’d better get permission first or risk legal action. Most musicians are flattered to have their material used, but permission is key.

  • plewis995 says:

    About three years ago someone asked me that irksome question, “If money was no object and you could do anything you wanted to do with your career, what would you do?”. Well, money is an object, but I still need to find a way to be doing this every day. It’s brilliant: “Trust it, and make it happy. Because chances are, if you can truly please yourself, you will be able to please other people too.”

  • I listen to a lot of podcasts and am frequently distracted by underlying music, often to the point of having to stop listening. But yours is a great example of how, when it’s done right, sound design transforms and uplifts the information into more of a work of art. In this example you artfully invoke sound and music that focus the brain in a way that feels like I’m experiencing the information rather than simply listening.
    Can you tell us about how long it typically takes you to craft the sound design for a half hour NPR-level piece?

    • Thanks John!
      On a piece like this (which is about 6 minutes long), I try to not spend more than 40 hours total (that includes collecting interviews, writing, and editing/mixing). This one went fairly quickly, because it only had one interview subject. I don’t do many half-hour pieces. The amount of time mostly depends on the scope of the project, and how much time we actually have. For a typical “Truth” story, which is dramatic fiction, we’ll spread the writing out over a month, and the production and post-production takes about 1.5 to 2 weeks.

  • Luisa Beck says:

    This is incredibly helpful. Thank you so much for writing this. My only request is that you write more articles such as these! As a radio producer who is new to music composition, dissecting examples like this is a great way to begin learning some elements of sound design.

  • Brilliantly, economically, inspiringly told, Jonathan — this is such a great addition to Transom! Luisa, I’d venture to say that you could get farther, faster, building your chops in audio+music production by taking one of your own past stories and trying to mirror the various strategies and moves Jonathan describes here. Like playing music, at a certain point this becomes much more about practice than about reading the theory of it. Take that piece of yours, think very specifically about exact moments you might bring music in, and take it out, and know exactly why. Then try several variations. Try it with five different pieces of instrumental music you like. I think you’ll quickly develop a better feel for what works, and what doesn’t. As you go, also pay attention what feels clunky (and what feels efficient) about the way you are cutting and moving clips and music in your audio-editing program — if you can clearly imagine a move you want to make, but it feels clunky or imprecise, chances are there’s a better way if you try out different tools within your program.

    The music rights issues raised by Cosmo, Mark and Brian are a greyer, and unsimple, topic for a different thread. But if you all are AIR members, please check out the listserve archive — this issue has been extensively parsed on the AIR list over the years, and the results are searchable. I’m a producer and musician, not a lawyer, so take this with salt, but here’s the gist as I understand it: if you are producing audio for a broadcast outlet that is covered by umbrella music licensing agreements (such as public radio) you can use almost any music and be covered by those licenses. Be prepared to report the music you do use. But if you are producing audio for a podcast, or for sale, or for some other outlet that does not have music licensing agreements in place, then you need to use only music that you have all the explicit rights to use. This is a good time to draw on music from an agreeable local musician or band you know, or maybe to nab some creative commons music from But, as a starting point, I would strongly encourage you all not to let the rights Q stop you fromdigging in and getting to work with music you like, just to learn and refine the skills involved in working with the techniques Jonathan describes here, and others. As you are learning, just play your mixes for yourself, friends and co-workers as you are learning — and don’t try to offer them for sale on iTunes. It’s not as if the NSA is spying on your home computer, right?

  • John Biewen says:

    Brilliant, Jonathan. I heartily agree with your emphasis on WHY. I often find myself asking students: How is this music functioning? Is it marking a transition or a chapter shift? Highlighting or illustrating something being said? Setting a mood? Or is it just lying there, droning away for its own sake? And if its job is done, shouldn’t it go away? Thanks for letting us in on your thought process with this terrific example, so clearly explained.

  • Mat B. says:

    Thank you Transom and thank you Jonathan. This is super helpful (I only wish it was longer, more in-depth and with more examples!).

  • jakoblewis says:

    Wonderfully helpful article! I recently had to do a piece where I incorporated rain sounds. This just opened my eyes to some new possibilities. Although I must confess I often will get lost for hours essentially making music in my story, when I need to be editing the dialogue of my piece. I’m curious when you add the the music and sound elements to the piece. Do you have the whole piece written first, and then add all the sound/music, or do you do it organically throughout the process?

    • Thanks Jakob!
      When it comes to process, there are many different ways to do this and I think people should do whatever they feel most comfortable doing. For me, I like to get as close to writing directly with sound as possible, and bring in sound and music as early as possible. I find that when I add sounds and music at the last minute, it can lead to sound having a much less integral role in the writing than I would like. Sometimes I like to start with music and let it influence my placement of clips, because music can communicate all kinds of things, or affect our perception of the meaning of a clip. Sometimes I’ll find that I don’t need a certain piece of interview, for example, because the music or sound is already saying that. This is especially true when I’m making a montage; often the music tells me what kind of material I need and where it is best placed. So, I like to have a give and take, and try to create opportunities for all of the various elements to influence one another.

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