Archive for September 8th, 2012

September 8, 2012


Does the name Bernard Herrmann ring a bell? If you’ve watched the classic Hitchcock movies “Psycho,” “Vertigo” or “North by Northwest” or the TV series “The Twilight Zone,” you’ll recognize his music.

I recently watched another film with a score by Bernard Herrmann, “Fahrenheit 451.” It was based on a best-selling novel by Ray Bradbury, about a society where all books are banned. In a special feature on the DVD, “The Music of Fahrenheit 451,” it was revealed that the director considered inserting a pop song into the final climactic scene, where people were overcome with emotion as they quoted aloud from their favorite books. It was shocking, to me, that anyone would consider ruining such a moment in the film with a song that would trivialize or distract from the importance of the scene.

But in my work as a composer, I’ve also run into situations where I had to argue with producers about the value of music that would represent or sustain the mood, as opposed to a pop song that not only wasn’t relevant at the time, but would date the piece of work later on. Would my “Civilization Revolution” soundtrack have been better if you heard “Hey-Ya” by Outkast when you win the game? Silly example and Sid Meier never asked me to do this, but you get my point.

An original score is written to perfectly match the mood and support the story being told. It provides a unique sound that can always be associated with that story. The director and/or producer have the freedom to develop the story line with complete control of the pacing. In great story telling, that pacing includes peaks and valleys of emotion. The music immerses you in the story being told and takes you to another place outside of your own life.

I’ve been asked to adjust the timing or mood of cues in many of my projects. This is often a very complex thing to do, not only from a musical standpoint, but these changes often come at the very last minute before deadline. Recreating the cue in my digital audio workstation is not that hard, if the same exact workstation is used. But even then, there are elements in the performance, mixing and mastering that can be problematic. If live session musicians were recorded for the cue, a whole new recording session would need to be done, which is a very costly proposition.

Pop songs are crafted in a very different way and have a very different effect on how we perceive the music. The typical three-minute pop song is written and produced to tell a story or simply to create a mood within the time allotted without any visual reference. The result is a musical experience that people relate to differently than a music score. When you hear an older pop song, it takes you back to a different time in your own life. That time may or may not have been good. If you were happy when the song was always playing on the radio, you probably like the song. If your life was not so good at that time, the song may bring back some painful emotions that you’d rather not think about.

Music videos are produced in the opposite way of film, television or game scores. The song is created first and has all of the positive attributes of the pop song format. It stands alone and does not need visual representation of the story being told. So, instead of the music supporting the visual story, the visuals are created to support the music. The phenomenal success of MTV is a testament to how well that idea has worked.

And yes, there are projects that combine visuals and pop music very successfully. Who can forget the countless Elvis movies where he would break out into song when there were no singers, musicians or instruments in sight?

I have been both a songwriter and a score composer in my career and I appreciate what each form has to offer. The decision to use pop music is one that will continue to be argued. Will the project benefit from licensing a pop tune or will it derail the immersion and story it’s trying to tell? Every project is different.