Friday, April 9, 2010

Shoe-horned, Slammed, or Slid- Music in Audio Drama

Music in Audio Drama is a delicate fit.
Some feel music is a requirement or a necessity. But the wrong kind of music is worse than having no music at all.
Music must fit the theme of the story. Of all the elements of drama production, music is the most typified.
Do not consider telling an epic mythic story with a single squeeze box organ. Also, do not consider a cyber-punk science fiction tale with a wood flute. The use of instrument, the genre, and the placement all make a huge difference in an audio theater performance.
Instruments- Consider a couple of elements here. The instruments that are used will bring out various moods. Blaring trumpets rarely signify sad stories. Single violins rarely signify joy. In combination with an orchistra however they compliment each other quite well. Full orchistra productions are usually the most coveted musical scores and are often the most costly. They present entire kingdoms of sound. When looking as to what instruments are helpful, have an ear for what has been done in movies and television. There's a reason why so many early family sitcoms have sung themes- they produce a kind of familiarity that people attribute to the families they invite into their living room each week. The classic All in the Family theme introduced the mood of the characters and their reluctance to be involved in the changing times. Where as Growing Pains "Show me that smile" was a catch phrase much like Family Ties' "What would we do Baby, without us?" were both there to remind people how families stick together through all kinds of hardship. And of course the iconic theme from Firefly continues the frontier western tone while the lyrics talk about "take the sky from me". Whether its lyrics and the human instrument, electronic compilations or quintets, the intruments matter.
Genre- While instruments alone help identify genre, they don't isolate the genre entirely. The instrumentation from Kingdom of Heaven and that of Star Wars are nearly identical and yet as adventure tales they couldn't be more different. Rent a fistful of popular horror movies, science fiction action adventures, dramatic period pieces, and sophomoric comedies. You'll discover themes that seem to run through each genre. Listen to them and get an idea of what works. If you open a comedy up with a horror theme, you set your listeners up for a parody. They will expect it coming. If you do the reverse, you're setting your listening audience for at best a black comedy or comedy-horror. Genre music sets your characters into the mood of a play far more effectively than a title, or even a well composed introductory narration.
Placement- Perhaps the greatest of sins in music beyond poor choice, is poor placement of a choice. Old time movies by modern standards come across as melo-dramas even if that was not their intent because the music scores are so intrusive. They drown out the story in a torrent of flowery theme. Recognizable themes of music should seep in like a leaky house so that the listeners are not quite aware of the music initially, but become wedded to reoccuring phrases with characters and moments first on a subconscious level. Most people could not tell you when the Vader March enters in Star Wars, but know that it heralds the approach of the dark Lord of the Sith. The romantic themes are similarly not memorized but are recognized in the scenes when they appear. When played outside of the movie itself, they present memories of the characters themselves more so than the scenes in which they represent.

Finally, the use of music has really three main purposes: Themes, Stings, Mood and Arias. Each has their own purpose. Themes help tie a tone to a play or series and create a fingerprint sound for listeners. They can, as the Firefly theme become an anthem for the fans. Stings help punctuate and differentiate between scene changes. They can be more effective than fading the noise of a scene or dropping in seconds of silence, because they keep the plot moving. Mood music is the hardest to properly pull off because it is the least intrusive. Mood music works best as very simplified tones, usually one or two notes, or slight underscored music pieces without melodies that would draw attention away from the scene. The best mood music creates an emotional moment without drawing attention to itself. Arias (or Arie) is my term for those songs that appear in the middle of a scene. Used really effectively in visual mediums and poorly in audio dramas, the job of an aria is to give depth to a scene through a parallel musical message. In movies this is done while showing some kind of montage.

I added Aria to the list because I've heard far too many of those in audio drama recently. While there are exceptions, an aria in an audio drama is a clue that the author/producers do not understand the medium. They are trying to shoe-horn in music where it doesn't belong. Worse still are those audio dramas that have little or no story in an attempt to slam music in instead. Those are signifiers that the author/producers would rather be making music videos instead of audio drama.

Contrary to some popular opinion, Audio Drama does not need music. Good audio drama can be made better with the right application of music, but great audio drama can be made trash by the wrong application of music. Considering the danger of making mistakes, be certain you know how, where and when to put music into your show before you do.

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