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Your Music on Film (the eBook for aspiring film composers) - New Music (recent compositions mixing the acoustic with the electronic) Lecturer at the NFTS - BBC Composer 1973 to 1998 - Early Compositions (Music for Collectors) - Still to Come (the writing)

March 18, 2012

Is The Rest Just Noise?

When does sound become music in a film soundtrack?

Way back in the last century, but really not that many years ago, the thought of a composer
dirtying his hands with anything other than pure sound was the stuff of nightmares. Like
high priests of some divine order we handled the most perfect of waveforms emenating
from the most perfect of constructions, the musical instrument. The perfecting of the body of a guitar required the touch of a master craftsman, and the flow of pure music from it, bestowed a sort of
exclusive excellence on player and maker alike. I remember a classical muiscian coming into
my studio in the seventies and staring irritatedly at an electric guitar propped up in the

“Hundreds of years went into removing the impurities from the sound of a classical guitar,” he said. “Now all they do is work out ways of distorting it again.”

When I first joined the BBC in 1971, even the altering of recorded music from its original form by passing it through a tone control was called ‘distortion’. The BBC was there as a mouthpiece for artists in the real world to reach a wider public, it was intended to be a transparent channel of communication, and the broadcasting of music was to be unadulterated and pure.

In short, there was music and the rest was just noise.

Of course these days the mixing of manipulated sounds and music is commonplace in contemporary genres of music such as electronica. Some very innovative work is in evidence on Soundcloud. I particularly like 'Pineptones', but there are many others. However this free expression is not so readily available to the film composer. After all, If the audience cannot determine whether a sound is part of the music or part of the effects, then they will lose his way. It blurs the soundstage for them and breaks the spell. Music operates on a more subliminal level than sound FX and the brain deals with it in a different way.

In some ways of course there is indeed just sound. Music is sound, is waveform, is a pulse down a wire, is a movement  of air, is sound. New technology has been a great leveller, it really couldn’t care a fig if it transmits the crunch of a gravel path or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Science has triumphed over art, by reducing it to zeroes and ones. But still the question remains, why do we need to tell the difference?

From a purely mercenary point of view, it is vital to be able to tell them apart. Music attracts royalties, sound doesn’t. There aren’t very many rich Sound Designers. But then even our perception of what is music and what is sound is constantly open to question.

There’s a hoary old example that I still use in lectures, when this question arises:

Scene One:
We are with a factory worker as he relentlessly drives rivets into a car on a production line. All around him is noise, the deafening pneumatic clatter of the tool he is using, the scream of the lifting machinery in the middle distance, the dull roar of the whole factory beyond. The klaxon goes, and it’s home time.

Scene Two:
He’s walking home, crossing a bridge, there is the soft water  sound from the river below, the cry of birds in the distance, but in his head he is still at the factory; a battery of noises assaults him, we feel some sympathy for him, he can’t leave his mindless work behind.

To me it highlights the difference between sound as effects and sound as music. The sounds in his head are different from the same sounds in Scene one, because they are not really happening. We are using them to inform the listener on a subliminal level, we are using them musically. To put it directly, if you had been there would you have heard these sounds? If yes, they are effects, if no, they are music.

In fact of course, other elements come into play. We tend to hear music when sounds play in a recognisable rhythm. Even sounds actually taking place in a scene, if delivered rhythmically would sound like music, but in that case, because we would perceive it as happening live, it would sound comical as if these real sounds were playing some sort of trick.
So, for the film composer, there are many strands of sound in play; the dialogue, atmospheres, spot sound FX and music, and for the audience, these layers of sound need to be delivered with some precision. In some ways, it's a pity that there can't be more free expression in the soundtrack. I have recently gone back to writing music for its own sake, rather than to feed into a film, and it has been a liberating experience. The interplay between sound and music is ever present, and the absence of the picture has given the creativity a shot of adrenalin.

Here's a burst from a sound/music piece based on the inventions of Thomas Edison. The spoken word content features extracts from his patents and moves gradually from sound used as music through to out and out jazz with a shot of gospel on the way...

Edison Clip 1 by Peter Howell Music