Intro from Jay Allison: Andy Mills makes music out of words, naturally. He thinks you can too. You just have to listen to yourself, your trusted friends, and the story itself. Examples come from his individual work and from Radiolab. This is part of our Transom Series, "Using Music." You can find other how-tos in the series here: https://transom.org/tag/using-music/
Tips From a Non-Musician On Scoring Radio
Back before I knew how to read, or write or even tie my own shoes, my Ma had this boyfriend who gave me a guitar. It was not some little kid plastic thing either. It was a real, gorgeous electric guitar. I don’t have many memories of being this young, but I do remember that when he pulled this strange and exciting contraption out of its wooden case — I felt awe.
For the remainder of my childhood, I wanted to be a guitar-shredding rock star. But the trouble was, I lacked both the talent and the discipline to learn how to shred and (in full disclosure) I just talked too damn much. I talked through my lessons. I talked through school and, as a result, I often talked through detention. As far back as I can remember, I’ve been talking and telling stories.
But it wasn’t until I started making radio that I realized that I had stumbled upon the perfect place for a talkative-wanna-be musician.
The following is a humble list of scoring tips from one non-musician radio producer to another:
1. Recognize That You’ve Got This Shit In You Already
Even if you strip away all the instruments and sound effects — there is a natural and magnetic musicality that springs from the voice of a good storyteller. There is a cadence in the tease at the start of a good story. There is a rhythm in building suspense. There is a crescendo that leads to the climax.
Sometimes my friend (and fellow long-winded-talker) Robert Krulwich will be in another room telling someone a story on the phone and even though I can’t hear him well enough to make out the words he is saying, I’ll be held in attention by the muffled rising and falling of his voice.
Many radio makers (like me) who don’t know how to carry a tune or play an instrument, we do know this sort of music. It is down deep in our bones. It’s our well from which we draw. Don’t forget that.
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2. Work Collaboratively
When I first began to score my early radio stories, I was always disappointed with my use of music. Like a lot of public radio you hear, I used the music merely as a mood-enhancer or a tasty post-story digestive.
Then I started talking to my friends who are musicians. I told them what I heard in my head and they helped me transform that into what others would eventually hear on the radio.
I still remember the first time I sat down with my friend Jacob Boll from the band The Hudson Branch to work on scoring a radio story. We were listening to a rough draft of a story I was working on and he said of the subject of the story:
“She is speaking in the key of C most of the time — so let’s start with that.”
I thought, “Speaking in the key of C?!” Then, I realized that musicians are literate in the details of musical language in a way that I am not. Since then, I’ve not published anything without having the feedback or collaboration of a musician — even if it is just getting a friend to listen to drafts and provide a critique.
3. Look for the Music Inside the Story
This is something that gives me deep pleasure: when the subject/character in the story gives you the melody or the percussion for the score. Sometimes the interview subject will say something like: “The tick, tick, tick of time.” Sometimes they will slap the table at just the right moment. Other times the interview subject will have such a songful way of speaking that the melody just blossoms from their natural speaking voice.
The most blissful and over-the-top example of this can be heard in this little gem I put together with my aforementioned pals in The Hudson Branch.
It doesn’t always need to be quite so overt, but listening for those moments to emerge has helped me as a producer think differently about the relationship between the story I am telling and the music that helps me tell it.
4. Music As Movement
With its swells and pitch changes, music can evoke movement. Whether your character is literally moving or being emotionally moved, music can be the best way to go beyond mere words and deep into their experience.
Here are a couple examples from a Radiolab story our team produced this winter:
Listen for the way that the word “pollen” triggers a very specific theme. Then listen to how we use that theme to sonically move the listener up the mountain and then down to the valley below. (Props on this scoring belong to the one-and-only Dylan Keefe.)
This is a classic example of music moving time forward. Years are going by, snow is falling, then freezing, then melting. Sure, this music is pleasant and it’s in the right mood — but more importantly, it’s working as a musical stop-motion camera. It is helping our imaginations see thousands of years move by in 40 seconds.
Of course, if you haven’t heard our full Otzi story, please head over here and check it out.