Taking Control Of The Music

image of musical notes
Listen to “Taking Control Of The Music”

I’ve begun to wonder if I wait too long to think about the exact music I’ll use to score a story.

The first time I think about music comes as I’m reporting. I start wondering how to tell the story and scoring may come to mind. Nothing specific. Just an inkling music might be a useful tool to help tell the story.

A similar thought might occur to me while logging tape. Again, nothing specific.

I won’t get a strong sense of whether a story should be scored until I write the script. I’ll come to some point in the story where it might make sense to transition from one scene to another, or move forward in time, with scoring. I imagine where music might start and end. I’ll even include notations like “Music starts cold, fades under.” Or, “Music fades up . . . hold . . . back under.” But, typically, I still haven’t given any consideration to what the music might be. That doesn’t come until the next step.

After the script is edited a couple of times, I lay out the story in my editing software. Narration here . . . Quotes there . . . Ambiance under this section . . .

When I reach the point in the story that calls for music, that’s when I figure out what music to use. And the process takes forever and is always frustrating.

I have a few basic factors in mind when selecting music — pacing, timbre, instrumentation, and the emotional core of the story. And, what I’ll do is this: play a song I think might work and simultaneously play the tape. I listen to how the music and the tape work together. Do they complement and support each other? Or, is the music too distracting — too busy, too fast, too complicated, too angular, too dense, too . . .

I’ll repeat this process over and over and over and over. Yeah, sure, sometimes I’ll nail it early. I know a lot of music. That helps. But, usually, selecting music is a painstaking, repetitive process. And, often, I’m not fully satisfied with the choice.

The reason why it’s so laborious was never fully obvious to me until I spoke to Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda. They’re both sound designers and audio engineers at Reveal, the documentary program from PRX and the Center for Investigative Reporting. They said the reason that finding a song takes so long is because the song wasn’t composed with the story in mind. Who knows what exactly was in the musician’s head but it definitely wasn’t the piece I’m making. And that’s why so many songs don’t fit.

Instead of waiting until late in the process, Jim and Fernando attend editorial discussions and story planning early on. This allows them the ability to develop specific thoughts about music right from the get-go. Then, when it’s time to start scoring a story, they have a much stronger sense of what might work. Do they nail the music right away? Not all the time. But, ultimately, because they’re thinking about music from beginning to end, they believe they have music that fits well or, as Jim puts it, is “coincident and sympathetic to the story.”

So, I’m going to give it a try. Next time I score a story, I’ll think about specific music at the outset.

Jim and Fernando have another approach to scoring that helps them select music that works more easily – they write it. They’re composers and they write the scoring music for Reveal. They use a huge library of samples from the Vienna Symphonic Library and East West. That allows them compose exactly what they want for a story.

While most producers and small production shops don’t have the skill set or staff or budget to write their own music, the way Jim and Fernando approach composition is instructional for the rest of us who have to pull music — painstakingly — from a library. On this episode of HowSound, they deconstruct the music they wrote for the Reveal documentary “Take No Prisoners.” I was all ears.

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