Chris Turner Sounds Off: Fundamentals of Music
Humans are finely tuned machines. Aside from the occasional slap at birth to clear our airways, we run like biological clockwork. Our hearts typically beat over three billion times in our lives without interruption, we are biological metronomes, a finely tuned orchestra of blood, organs and muscles.
Perhaps this is why music is so fundamental to our existence – and contributes massively to our feeling of wellbeing. Hearing music you like or which suits your current emotional state perfectly will amplify this. Imagine you’ve been dating the partner of your dreams and tonight it’s dinner at yours. I don’t want to scare you but the music you choose to put on is going to strongly influence how the evening progresses. It’ll subconsciously say rather a lot about you and it will have a positive or negative effect on the future of your relationship. Your choice of music will not just reveal your taste, but it will also reveal your feelings and your motivations. It will even affect how good or bad that expensive bottle of wine tastes, how salty or sweet the food is...
Everyone is innately musical, and anyone who can speak can definitely sing. Music doesn’t require a stage, a microphone or speakers - Music is in our DNA, our brains find the illusion of music in everything, from our footsteps to a dripping tap to the windscreen wipers on our cars.
However, many people say they aren’t musical - maybe it’s because they’ve never learned to play a musical instrument or because someone once told them they couldn’t sing. I find it sad to live in a culture where unless we excel in something we don’t really participate. Can you imagine visiting a tribe, where music plays an integral role for ceremonial purposes, recreation, expression and healing and saying, “I’m going to sit this one out, I’m not very musical”?
When you were young you were taught the Alphabet song, and I’d like to bet you’ve always had an issue with the letter Z - Should I say ‘Zed’ or ‘Zee’? Well, the answer to that question really depends on whether you want to feel happy after singing all 26 letters or if you’d have preferred to have stopped at P. If you sing ‘Zed’ you’re going to feel miserable, and you’re going to feel miserable because you’ve ruined the cadence, the sense of resolution to the rhyme.
You didn’t learn this. As I’ve said, music is innate, it doesn’t require any teaching - our brains are always looking for patterns and they’re always trying to anticipate what comes next. By playing with expectation in music, you can create tension and resolution, and we find music rewarding because every time we predict correctly our brains reward us with a hit of dopamine.
Now, I rarely like cover versions of songs, and as I write this, I can hear Louis Walsh enthusing, “You made it your own, you made it your own!’ By all means make it your own - change the tempo, the key, the instrumentation, hey even better, don’t mimic the Canadian singer whose song it is if you’re actually from Bolton. But, for me, what you must never do is change the timing, the space between the notes. If you mess with that then there’s no dopamine for me.
Music is actually pretty simple - just sounds that occur in an organised way – and the things our brains are listening out for are Rhythm, Pitch, Volume, Melody and Tone. Volume relates to energy, how loud or quiet a sound is, Rhythm is a strong regular repeated pattern of sound, Pitch relates to how high or low the frequency of a sound is, Melody is a combination of the Pitch and Rhythm, and Tone relates to the overall sound, different instruments playing the same note will produce a different tone. But it’s the way these elements are combined and used to reinforce other elements which they accompany that makes music such a powerful tool for advertisers. I’d even go as far to say it’s critical - we’ve all seen how two different pieces of music change the entire emotion of a film.
As a sound designer I find that all too often, music is a footnote on the script that says ‘music plays throughout’, and many times I’ve been asked by the Creative team to brief their composer for them because they don’t know how to describe what it is they want. Ironically this always happens just after they’ve perfectly explained it to me.
Music has evolved a language so technical that it has become a barrier for many people. But that should never put you off describing what you want in other, very translatable ways. Try this: upbeat, builds throughout, makes you feel good, anthemic, no saxophone, plenty of strings, dips for this section of the film, big ending.
Ok, so I’ll be honest, the hard bit comes when you get the composition back, and something doesn’t click. But don’t get weighed down by all the jargon. Instead talk about feelings, emotions or even colours. Ask questions like “What’s that instrument? could we change it? Why does that note sound wrong?” Getting the music right is so important.
So this is where the description, ‘music plays throughout’, needs a little more consideration.
Unfortunately there are many times when advertising budgets limit the choice of music you can use. Luckily there are still options that can save the day. Library music covers every genre, and with a little online searching you’re sure to find something (although not bespoke), that works well.
There are hundreds of music libraries, composers have hard drives full of unsuccessful pitches and record labels have back catalogues that they’re keen to sync, a conversation with any or all of these people would surely reap huge rewards for the success of your film, hopefully without blowing the budget.
But this brings me to a major problem. Over the last few years I’ve always been pointed to the same library, as they’re the cheapest. Three years ago that wasn’t really an issue, but now I'm starting to hear the same music being used over and over again – and that diminishes its power and effectiveness - because the brain has already subconsciously associated that particular piece with another brand/ product/ TV show.
So be warned - because humans are so good at remembering music and highly competent at beat recognition if you use the same tired music as everyone else, they’ll very quickly know to skip your ad - so they can get back to making their perfect dinner date playlist.