Creative Unoriginality–Two Videos on Film Music

Two recent videos on film music make nice companion pieces and cry out for more commentary.

1) Tony Zhou (Every Frame a Painting) recently put up a video about bleh music in blockbuster films. The video is ostensibly about Marvel Universe music, but Zhou really means big budget action movies from the past decade or so.

2) Dan Golding has responded. He extends his thoughts to film music in general.

I’ll address each of these and see if they can be reconciled.

We remember music from Star Wars and Harry Potter. Why not Marvel movies? Take Zhou’s example from an Iron Man scene. For Zhou, it fails to be emotional, memorable, or even relevant. We just tune it out like an air conditioner. In fact, he thinks the scene works just as well without it. But that’s not quite right, and ultimately I think Zhou agrees. We only ignore the music the way we ignore retail store music. Companies like Mood Media (owner of Muzak) make a lot of money producing branded soundscapes that function much the same way. It does matter if the music is taken out of the Iron Man scene. Its pulsing low frequencies match the camera’s constant creep around Tony Stark. And the audio-visual pattern as a whole is hypnotic and slightly suspenseful in its lead-up to the moment where Stark tests an unstable rocket booster. I see it as a less exaggerated (read: less obtrusive) version of Michael Bay’s signature style. The music does its work without drawing attention to itself. But is that a good thing?

Zhou eventually asks that same question. Music does matter in a Marvel film, he explains. But it’s not supposed to be noticed. In the event the music has a tune or arc of its own – say, a patriotic horn melody – then something like narration steps in to distract our attention away from it. Otherwise the musical mood parallels the mood of the scene as literally as possible. For a funny or sad or scary scene, composers use generic signifiers of funny (bouncing pizzicato strings), sad (a single high note on violins), or scary (a dramatic percussion hit announcing sustained low strings plus some high-pitch distortion). Zhou sums it up: “the music just tells you the same thing as the picture.”

Zhou pins the blame, in part, on temp tracks. Directors and editors use preexisting music while working on the film, and when composers finally step in at the end of the process, they have to compete with expectations established by constant repetition. Danny Elfman calls temp tracks “the bane of my existence.” Modern editing tools make temp music even easier to toss in and reuse again and again. As Lexandre Desplat puts it, “at some point the music sticks to the picture.” That brings us to Dan Golding’s response.

Temp music is nothing new. Golding reminds us that Hollywood composers have always been recycling. Star Wars, the hero of Zhou’s video, was itself heavily temp tracked with music from late Romantic composers, Stravinsky, Williams’s own jazz background, and of course other movies. (Another example: The Shining‘s use of Bartok quickly turned into a temp track cliché.) Film composers also crib from their own earlier selves. Golding points to James Horner’s recurring “danger” motif, originally from Rachmaninoff. The important thing, we are wisely told, is to accept “rampant unoriginality” and find new ways to talk about it. Film music is all about “working creatively with unoriginal pieces.”

All of this rings true, but it also sidesteps Zhou’s larger point. Zhou mentions temp tracks, but he is mainly worried that the goal of most blockbuster film music is to stay safe, meaning to blend in with the action rather than have a dramatically potent effect. Here we’ve got to take care not to mix up memorable music with the resonant use of music. (Another video response completely conflates memorable music with editing, claiming it all comes down to repetition from one movie to another. Obviously repetition in general makes something more memorable, but people hum John Williams and Danny Elfman tunes with or without sequels…) Zhou for his own part wavers a bit between these two things. He says Marvel music “is not bad music; it’s just bland and inoffensive.” The Marvel Universe would benefit from “bold, original music.” That almost sounds like he is talking about the soundtrack itself, and things can get interesting if we go in that direction, but his actual arguments focus on editing.

Zhou already observed that blockbuster film music is supposed to go unnoticed. He has given a couple reasons. One is to have a subtle hypnotic influence, and the other is to reinforce the immediate emotion of the picture. Overall, these amount to the same issue, and that’s the use of music to rhetorically sell the movie. Neutral branding sells the overall experience of the film, like adding sugar to lemon water, while Mickey Mousing the drama adds lemon peel to the lemonade.

Following Zhou’s insight, Golding offers a second major explanation for the invisibility of blockbuster film music: Its repertory of influences has shrunk. The music disappears partly because of heavy reliance on temp tracks from other recent blockbusters. When audiences hear the same kind of thing over and over again, they’re less likely to pay attention to it. And that’s only a good thing if you are dogmatically opposed to foregrounding music in film.

Golding immediately pivots to another factor. (He treats it like an explanation for the shrinking set of temp tracks, which I don’t get.) Digital technology, led by Hans Zimmer, has made it possible to score a soundtrack quickly and cheaply and with more directorial oversight. Furthermore, the early limitations of digital music technology seem to have shaped some particular musical expectations for these digital soundscapes. For example, as recently as ten years ago, quick staccato bursts, drums, and homogeneous groups of instruments were easier to make convincing when simulated or sampled on a computer than lilting melodies on solo strings. More generally, digital music technology has pivoted composers toward patterns of texture, rhythm, and timbre (“a landscape of sound rather than melodies and harmonies”). That’s why even “good” movie music is not always easy to hum. How do you sing along without a tune? Film music has become a sound design job.

Really, then, Golding thinks two things have helped to institute the modern genre of blockbuster film music: (1) an increasingly limited set of references, and (2) the Hans Zimmer-led trend toward digital music technology.

Golding claims that temp tracks and endless mirrors of imitation are the norm. Film music trades in “creative unoriginality.” That sounds right, but the same thing can be said about all of the other arts. We are taken right back to Zhou, who tries to explain not just what Marvel music does, but what it does wrong. I think the best way to reconcile these two videos is to avoid where they overreach. So let’s briefly imagine a world where every movie soundtrack is made out of temp tracks. What are the key factors that have led to the blockbuster action sound of the Marvel Universe?

(1) Mood music. Hypnotic backgrounds and obvious Mickey Moused emotions are supposed to sell the visual and dramatic content without drawing our attention away from the visuals or complicating the meaning of the scene. Or as film school hipsters might put it: movies are a visual meeedium, maaan.

(2) Technology. Digital tools give directors and producers more musical input, and they pull the music toward texture and sound design.

(3) Shrinking library of references. My conspiracy theory is that this has less to do with the limited imaginations of directors, and more to do with the structural turn toward expensive high-risk products. Zack Snyder’s use of pop music seems groundbreaking by comparison.

To me, the most “ethical” factor is the last one. It seems downright false for filmmakers to use only recent success to define future success in cinema, and equally false to assume that the music will mean the same thing when recycled. The most “aesthetic” factor is the first, speaking to the individual decisions that directors, editors, and composers make about their music cues. The middle technological factor seems to be a reciprocal mediator for the other two. It can spiral into a loop of self-reference, or not, or it can enable branded sound design over recognizable melodies, or not.

So what are Marvel films doing wrong? In one of Zhou’s examples, he replaces a humorous Marvel cue in Thor with a more sentimental cue from the same movie. Zhou’s choice is immeasurably better. Beneath the silly surface of Thor’s friends waving at the window is their honorable answer to a challenge of loyalty. Just by confronting that first factor (the immediate mood of the scene), he has improved things. But if someone asked you to whistle the music, would that make it any easier?

As I mentioned before, I think Zhou is really talking about two things. One is the appropriate use of music, and the other is its easy-to-hum tunefulness. I’ll side with Golding here. A music score without tunes can work great if it’s done artfully. Many people say they love Zimmer’s un-hummable Inception soundtrack, for instance, and that endlessly repeated “honk” motif has clearly influenced our culture. That said, there is no good reason to only use recent cues. Doing so reflects the confused assumption that if you repeat a musical choice from a similar film, it will work the same way. An important aspect of a good music cue is its specificity for that one dramatic moment at that one point in film history, along with its potential to add something new to the scene, like the surprise of a metaphor.

So the lessons:

(1) Sell it with dramatic precision. This is the right sense of “appropriate” music. With occasional transformation, surprise, and irony, the music slips in and out of the foreground just like the actors. One way to do that, of course, is with a memorable theme now and again.

(2) Technology: I don’t have much to say here. This is both an independent and subtle factor in a lot of ways, and I think the influence of technology depends a lot on #1 and #3 (e.g., Hollywood’s current economic model).

(3) Reference Library: Avoid some preordained taxonomy of successful and unsuccessful temp track options. Or better yet, come up with a unique and limited set of references early on. That’s the Kubrick rule. In other words, direct your energy toward being interesting, rather than repeating recent successes as closely as possible.

One last thought. Neither of these videos really address the musical content – they concentrate on the editing and technology side of things. All I’ll say about the music itself is that there seems to be something in the spirit of our film and TV culture that affects it. High class TV shows are supposed to have eight-hour plus plots and homogeneous atmospheres. A lot of people love the films of Shane Carruth (Primer, Upstream Color), and at the very least he seems to have mastered the narcotic, mesmeric style of filmmaking that couldn’t really work with “memorable” tunes. So maybe as superhero movies have turned legit, filmmakers have gotten more insecure about reminding their viewers of the genre’s pulp origins, and for inspiration they might have turned to that modern TV pretense toward weighty ambiance.


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