A sound designer writing about music is taking a risk. I sing a bit, but I’m not a professional musician, unless you define music in the broadest possible terms. I fabricate and arrange sounds for a living. I’m sometimes concerned with creating a certain rhythm for those sounds, a harmonic structure, a set of loudness and pitch dynamics; but not at all in the way that most composers are concerned with those things. Many wonderful composers have scored films I’ve worked on, and I’ve collaborated with some of them by working together to figure out how the sound design and music can play nicely “in concert,” though not as often or as much as I would have liked.
Quite a few film composers would rather be writing symphonies than film scores. Some of them do everything in their power to structure their film scores as if they were symphonies… in several movements, hoping that as a whole the score will play as a journey when you listen to it while watching the movie. Film score enthusiasts try to listen to scores that way; but nobody else does. Sound design enthusiasts try to pay attention to the flow of sound effects in a movie, but nobody else does.
My theory is that film scores and film sound design say crucial things to us in short packets throughout the film rather than as a continuous stream. They tell us something about a character in this moment, a place in another moment, they connect two widely spaced moments by repeating a theme or a variation on a theme. Fifty years ago it was common for only about half of a film, or less, to have any music at all; and the same for all but minimal sound effects. These days what is most common, at least in big budget films made in the USA, is more or less continuous music and continuous “sound design.”
The main reason I’m touching on these ideas in this blog is that I think the urge toward creating and maintaining a continuous “flow” of music and sound design in a film is mostly misguided. It doesn’t make a track more powerful; it often makes it weaker. How a piece of music or sound design begins and ends is an important statement, the potential for which is lost, or partially lost, when there are no beginnings and ends, just “flow.” The film audience, in my opinion, is not aware of the flow, and is minimally affected by the flow. They are affected by moments, by which I mean short sequences of sounds, and their relationship to other short sequences of sounds nearby or in other parts of the film.
You might wonder what difference this distinction makes. Quite a big one actually. The “flow” approach is very problematic because it means the “flow” of music or sound design should not be masked or interrupted. That means one of them has to “win” and one has to “lose” in each moment, because if the flow of music is obscured by a bit of sound design then the music is “lost” for that moment, and visa versa. If you believe in the “flow” approach then you set up a zero sum game between music, sound design, and dialog. On the other hand, if your philosophy is that the flow is not particularly important then the fact that one sound element dominates in one moment and another in the next is exactly the way it should be.
I’m very interested in hearing from readers about these ideas, especially readers who come at it from a musical perspective.