Sunday, July 31, 2016

Guide to the blog available

I have put together a Guide to this blog, which now has more than 260 posts going back to February 2009. Tags are even greater in number. This document offers a topical guide, including live links. You can find it in my Dropbox Public folder: Guide.

Table of Contents

Part 1: Posts relating to pedagogy, with collation to the textbook, second edition
Part 2: Topical List of All Other Posts
    Film Production and Presentation
Music Catalogues and Handbooks/Guides
Music and Musicians
Music and Effects: Advice and Opinion
Composer Articles and Interviews
Sound Effects
Film Futures
Part 3: Alphabetical List of All Posts by Title
Part 4: Chronological List of Posts on Early Cinema, with Introductory Texts
Part 5: Topical List of Tags
Film titles
Actors and Performers
Directors, Producers, and Studios      
Genres, Styles, and Eras
Film and Film Music Terms
Film Production and Exhibition: general      
Film Production and Exhibition: Equipment                  
Film Exhibition: Illustrated Song
Composers and Composition
Music Publication, including manuals and catalogues
Columnists, Article Authors, Textbook Authors, and Scholars  along with some titles
Hearing the Movies pedagogy
Places, including Cities and Theaters
Site Administration and Unclassified
Part 6: Alphabetical List of Tags
Appendix: Documents for Erno Rapee’s Encyclopedia referenced in this HtM blog post: Rapee

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Review of HtM2

Blake Howe has written a thorough, thoughtful, and very practically minded review of currently available textbooks for undergraduate film and media music classes. Hearing the Movies, second edition, is included and receives some very complimentary remarks, which, needless to say, we are happy to hear: in particular, comments about the chronological organization in the new edition, the close readings in chapters 10, 12, and 14, and the expansion and better integration of the writing exercises from the first edition.

The citation is Journal of Music History Pedagogy 6 (2016). Here's a link: Howe review.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Group assignment

For instructors: We have added a file to the HtM, second edition, page. Find it on the course website, under Ancillary Resource Center, in the folder Course Planning and Sample Syllabi. The file is called "Group Oral Presentation." Jim Buhler, who developed and implemented the assignment, reports that it has been surprisingly successful.

Here is the lead paragraph for the file:
For this assignment, your section will give a ten-minute presentation during the large lecture class on a brief reception history of your assigned film (based on a set of reviews) and relate your findings to the soundtrack. You will then show a definitive musical scene of the film and explain why it exemplifies a theme you have encountered in your work on the final project. The presentation should conclude with closing thoughts and ending credits for the group.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Designing Sound

This essay by Douglas Murray is a guest article on the site Designing Sound, a multi-author blog for sound design professionals. Much of the site's content will probably not be very accessible or even of much interest to others.

Murray's piece is the exception. The article is on background sound (ambient or environmental sound) and is especially rich with information. It is also very accessible, and could easily be read even in conjunction with Hearing the Movies, chapter 1.

For example, where we say
If the foreground shows us where to direct attention, the background provides a sense of presence, of a continuous, uniform space that joins the sound and image edits into the appearance of a unified physical place, a “world.”  (HtM, 11)
Murray writes that
Movies essentially need to have background sound at all times. By adding background sounds to a scene we define what the scene is, where we are, and what’s happening around us, even off screen. 
Whether consciously listened to, or subconsciously heard, background sounds define the space, the time and the mood of the scene. 
Where we write
A background sound common to a series of shots helps convince us that each piece of dialogue comes from the same space—although, in fact, dialogue is typically edited along with the images and is often rerecorded after the fact.
Murray says
BG sounds even define the duration of the scene. We connect shots together in our mind if they have continuous sounds running behind them. For example, if we see a sequence of shots accompanied by a steady background sound, we will gather the shots together in our minds as being from the same time and place.
And, when Murray describes the function of background in this way,
Even though we hear [ambient] sounds, and can often describe what we heard if asked, we aren’t focusing on the background sounds in a scene because we are engaged in the characters and story.
That sounds pretty much the same as our description:
The foreground/background structure ensures that narratively important figures are placed in the foreground [—] image and sound tracks are arranged in such a way that we know what to pay attention to, what is important in order for us to understand the narrative. 
Here are some other observations from the article (quotes are slightly edited).

  • When the background sound changes with each shot, then we experience each shot as in its own place and time. 
  • [Expected environmental] sounds are not likely to attract a lot of conscious attention, but there would be a sense of absence if they or some other plausible sounds were lacking, especially at the beginning of the scene while we are orienting ourselves to the new situation. 
  • A marvelous side benefit of putting in these expected sounds is that the sound designer can think “musically” and use this palette of sounds the way a composer uses the available instruments in an ensemble.
  • Absence of sound can create a tension like holding one’s breath. 
  • Two tasks for the sound designer: Establish the location, then direct the audience’s point of view by withholding most sounds and selectively presenting just the desired sounds. 
  • Dynamics may be a sound designer's enemy in backgrounds. Our ears prick up when we hear sudden changes in sound level and we attend to the new sound, assessing the threat or import of this sudden change. So a loud sound like a car by or dog bark or door slam can take you right out of the movie.
  • Remember that the mixer will probably play your beautifully designed atmosphere track at an ephemeral or subliminal level, so that just a whiff of it bleeds into audibility. . . . This practice is so widespread that mixing a background track to a more than subliminal level becomes some sort of statement. Low level backgrounds are a convention today — perhaps to a fault.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Major chords and minor chords

Professor Scott Murphy has created three delightful and instructive YouTube videos that demonstrate very common treatments of triads in American film music of the past thirty years.

How Movies Mourn With Only Two Chords.
An 18 minute, three part video tutorial and quiz! Part 1 shows anyone how to play the two chords, Part 2 explains them in music-theory terms, and Part 3 is the quiz, in which Murphy plays excerpts (and speaks dialogue at the same time) and the viewer guesses the film source. One important takeaway is how common this single pairing of triads is in American film music of the past 30 years.
How to Imitate a Whole Lot of Hollywood Film Music in Four Easy Steps.
"Even someone who has no prior musical training can use the information in this video to create chord progressions that not only sound like the movies, but are associated with particular affects, settings, or narrative elements." The video is in two parts: the first identifies and shows how to play the several chord pairs that the second part (starting at about 4:45) then connects to particular moods or affects and illustrates with examples from films. Here is a graphic of the ten chord pairs (watch the video for explanation of the labels "M2M" etc.):

How to Imitate Even More Closely a Whole Lot of Hollywood Film Music with One More Easy Step.
The level of music theory is a step up from the earlier videos -- triad inversions combined with the triad pairs -- but the tutorial is just as clear and the payoff is some useful observations on underscore cues by Howard Shore and Hans Zimmer.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Music in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

In the midst of all the promotion, discussion, and excitement surrounding the premiere of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens in December 2015, there were several excellent essays/posts/comments on music and sound, in this film and in the series overall.

Frank Lehman analyzes the three (!) official trailers for the film: Musicology Now post. In addition to discussing themes and keys, he makes the general point that "In each preview, Williams’s recognizable melodies are offered as a kind of nostalgizing payoff, something awarded to the listener after a span of thematically ambiguous material."

Lehman also wrote a Mashable column called "7 Things we learned about Star Wars: The Force Awakens from its music." We won't tell you what those 7 things are, but they're almost all musical hints about individual characters. (Many others have speculated on different aspects of the themes and their presentation, especially Rey's.)

A relative newcomer that we can recommend to students and instructors is Film Music Notes, written and maintained by Mark Richards, a composer and music theorist (Toronto; Florida State University). He has a six-part series of posts on the new film.

And, of course, Stars Wars series composer John Williams has several interviews about The Force Awakens, a film that he says brought new energy and vitality to his writing. Here is one in the Los Angeles Times. And another on the BMI site: interview. And here are a couple youtube videos: Williams discusses the new film. Williams conducts the opening of the score.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Kristin Thompson on Gravity

We analyze Gravity (2013) as an action film in chapter 14. The focus is on the film's first act, up to the arrival of the debris field in which astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) gets caught. During this scene, we note that
music serves in the place of most of the sound effects. . . . Music is in essence performing the function of rendering [the] impossible sound [of the debris], relating how the experience feels rather than how it sounds. Underscoring feeling has, of course, long been a common function of film music, but [here the music mimics the] energy of the lethal objects much more than any subject’s inner emotional life. (HtM, second edition, 503)
For students who might want to explore the treatment of music and sound in Gravity further, we recommend a remarkable pair of blog posts by Kristin Thompson:  Gravity 1; Gravity 2. These may be called blog posts, but together they add up to an in-depth backstory and scholarly analysis of all the main aspects of the film, including sound and music.

Here are the headings:

Gravity 1: Two Characters Adrift in an Experimental Film
An experimental blockbuster
Who needs psychological depth in a crisis?
Challenges and goals
Motifs and causal motivation
Character motivation, fortuitous events, and religion
It all worked
Gravity 2: Thinking Inside the Box
Screaming on the set
Follow the bouncing axis
The LED Light Box
Previs as environment
Staging without a stage
Iris in
Puppeteers and eyes
The sounds of silence
The space between
The section on "sounds of silence" in Gravity 2 consists largely of quotes, but taken together they offer a good summary of the director and composer's goals and methods.

(Note from DN: Jim Buhler actually wrote the new sections on action and war films in chapters 10, 12, and 14.)