David Poore

News and Comment: simply a place for me to share a few thoughts.

The Volume of Incidental Music on TV

I’ve been reading the recent Guardian blog article about the level of the music on the BBC series ‘Wonders of the Universe’. The article included the following…

“Some viewers complained that the show’s background music was so loud and intrusive that it drowned out [Prof. Brian] Cox entirely. In response, the BBC is promising to re-edit the rest of the series to lower the volume of Sheridan Tongue’s bombastic score. That is surely a triumph for viewers and those who have long complained about the volume of background music. But not everyone is happy with the outcome. Cox himself weighed into the debate on Radio 4’s Start The Week, saying that the decision to turn down the volume of his series was wrong. “We can sometimes be too responsive to the minority of people that complain,” he said. “It should be a cinematic experience – it’s a piece of film on television, not a lecture.”  In general, however, music in TV programmes does seem to be increasingly invasive. It’s not always connected to volume. In the film world the accepted view is that if you have noticed the soundtrack then it hasn’t done its job – which is to drive you through a movie rather than distract you from it. In television it sometimes seems that the primary objective of the music is to hold your attention.

The blog article does go on to cite a few examples where the music is ‘used sparingly’ and even ‘enhances’ the production. Then finishes with…

“The increase of loud background music has long been a bugbear for TV viewers with hearing problems, and according to BBC1 controller Danny Cohen, the BBC has researched the issue in great depth. In the case of Wonders of the Universe a minor battle appears to have been won – perhaps it won’t be long before broadcasters such as the BBC use their extra platforms to screen alternative versions of their programmes. But which would you watch? Would you prefer TV shows to come without background music or do you think it’s a vital element of your viewing pleasure?”

This type of article (as is pointed out by Prof Cox above) is actually only the view of a small minority of the television audience who in the most part would in all probability like to have music-free television programming.  While I do understand the need for careful directing of music I can’t agree that a blanket reduction of music is what is needed.

An issue that occurs time and time again when mixing music into film and television is that some frequencies of the instruments used can conflict with the frequencies of the dialogue spoken, and it is the job of three key members of the production to make sure this doesn’t happen.  First and foremost the director should give all the information he or she can to the composer with regard to both the on-screen dialogue and also the intended placement of any narration in a given scene (if the music is to be completed before this has been recorded) and that the music should be written around the words as much as possible, though in some cases lines of narration can be re-positioned to allow sections of the music to feature more prominently if needed.  Secondly it is the job of the composer to ensure they don’t use (or use very carefully) any instrument in the arrangement that imposes its resonance, rhythm or even harmonics onto the same frequencies as the dialogue.  There’s no need for any hi-tech frequency monitoring devices for this process other than the human ear, although it is useful to listen to music mixed with the dialogue through a selection of different speakers and audio devices where possible, and also in mono as this can serve to give a clearer indication of the relationship between the soundtrack elements.  Thirdly, the dubbing mixer has the final opportunity to ensure that the music and dialogues co-exist empathetically, so they should check all final mixes on sound systems that closely match what the majority of viewers will be watching/listening on at home, this is common practice in most of today’s post production facilities when viewing the final mix.

This discussion of mix levels is as old as sound mixing itself, but the increased usage of music in today’s film making has heightened the debate that it is becoming more intrusive. It is true that some directors do employ the use of more active, ‘featured’ music to drive the story forward, or to intensify the mood of a scene, this can be done very effectively as long as the three stages mentioned above are consciously effected.  It is simple common sense that all television programmes and films should be treated individually and no single rule should apply to all.  Where dynamic music may be highly effective in one instance there may well be a necessity for a far gentler approach in another. There are many different reasons for choosing to have music during a sequence, sometimes it is purely for subtle and intentionally unnoticable enhancement of mood or pace, alternatively the score will have been written very much to be consciously listened to as a piece of featured music. There are of course any number of variations of intent between these two. If the argument is going to extend to the demand for alternative ‘music-free’ broadcasts then those viewers are doing the filmmakers a real injustice as these films have been crafted and presented as a complete audio/visual experience, and are not there merely as a seminar.

On the point of the score for “The Wonders of the Universe” however, I disagree with contributor of the Guardian blog article in that I watched the entire series with interest and though Sheridan Tongue’s superb score was featured at the fore-front of the mix in a number of sequences it never once got in the way of the Professor Cox’s dialogue and served only to increase the intensity and fascination of the abundance of mind blowing facts the series had to impart.

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