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.
Note March 20, 2024: the content of this post can also be found in a file published on the Texas ScholarWorks platform: Film Music: Some Posts from Blogs

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.)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Victor Herbert's The Only Girl in Lady Windermere's Fan

This is a postscript to yesterday's post, in which we made some comments on music in the third scene of act 1 in Lady Windermere's Fan (1925), with the historically informed performance of Martin Marks in the Treasures series. (The film provides the main case study in Chapter 4 of Hearing the Movies (second edition), 127-35.)

In a clever title-allusion, Marks quotes the march that closes the overture for Victor Herbert's The Only Girl, which was produced in New York in 1914 and might possibly have been familiar to some cinema-goers in 1925.

Very near the beginning of the film, Marks quotes the opening of the overture as well (see HtM, Table 4-4): a bright, up-tempo waltz that is a close imitation of the familiar Viennese waltzes of Johann Strauss, jr.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Lady Windermere's Fan

Lady Windermere's Fan (1925), with the historically informed performance of Martin Marks in the Treasures series, provides the main case study in Chapter 4 of Hearing the Movies (second edition), 127-35.

The esteemed film scholar David Bordwell analyzes one of the scenes we discuss in detail: see his blog post (after the introductory paragraphs). The race-track scene (HtM, 132-33) is the third of four scenes in the film's first act. After some preliminaries, Mrs. Erlynne appears (at about 17:25) and is immediately the center of attention. The film's director, Ernst Lubitsch, uses an extended series of point-of-view shots in what Bordwell calls "a sequence built entirely around crisscrossed character looks."

To mimic musically the visual narration that puts all the attention on Mrs. Erlynne, Marks brings in a title-allusion: a quote from the overture to Victor Herbert's operetta, The Only Girl. As we note in Table 4-6 (HtM, 133), he plays the march that closes the movement.

Marks follows up with one of the film's important associative themes, Madeleine, which had been introduced in the previous scene. (See the melody in HtM, Figure 4-21). Madeleine is tied to Mrs. Erlynne, and specifically to her somewhat precarious position in society.

Shortly before 19:00, Marks switches to one of several gavottes he employs for "wit" or elegant comedy. The gavotte is an old-fashioned dance that gently mocks the upperclass characters throughout the first act. Bordwell shows details of the POV shots and angles for this sequence, during which three older women spy on Mrs. Erlynne and one of them observes a gray hair—at which moment, Marks of course changes to a piece called Le Secret (music in HtM, Figure 4-23).

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Silent Film Sound and Music archive; cue sheets

According to a message from its director, Kendra Leonard, the  Silent Film Sound and Music Archive has received funding for a pianist to record 25 pieces from the repertoire of early ("silent") film. These are promised for September. Students without music reading (or sight-reading) skills will likely find these recordings helpful for a better understanding of the musical resources for early film. We will add an update to this post and an announcement when the audio becomes available.

The Archive overall is small but growing and already has several downloadable documents, including instruction books, sheet music, and a few cue sheets that are not available from other sources.

For more extensive and in-depth information on cue sheets and instructions from the era on how to use them, check our blog posts with the tag "cue sheet".

Hearing the Movies (2d edition) has an example of an early text-only cue list (p. 102) and one with musical incipits, typical of the 1920s (p. 117). The latter—in a series of "Thematic Music Cue Sheets"—were produced mainly for use in second-run independent theaters (that is, theaters that were not owned by a studio and that showed films after their initial presentation in the studio's own theaters; often these were the only movie theaters in small towns). A complete example, with its cover page, appears in this blog post from a "silent movie night" in Kittanning, PA, in 2011. The post itself is interesting and worth reading. We have reproduced just the graphics for the cue sheet below.

If you want to explore the topic of "photoplay music" further, an excellent, very accessible scholarly article is in a recent issue of the American Music Research Center Journal: Rodney Sauer, "Photoplay Music."