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Movie Sound(tracks)

With our course wrapping up this week, I noticed that one aspect of sound that we did not focus on much is movie scores. It surprises me that this topic has never come up, because movie soundtracks (to me, at least) hold the power to elicit audience emotional responses during a film. I think people too often marginalize the importance of the soundtrack to a movie.

I took a film study class the last term of my senior year, and three of the films we studied are great examples of soundtrack-driven movies: “The Third Man” (1949), “Almost Famous” (2000), and “The Great Gatsby” (2013). Each of these films showcase a soundtrack functioning in a different way.

For instance, “The Third Man” is a 1949 film noir drama starring Orson Welles. Its soundtrack is almost exclusively comprised of “The Third Man Theme,” a two minute song composed for the film, which is played repeatedly throughout the movie. Interestingly enough, the song was recorded on a zither, a stringed instrument which produces a light, twangy sound. I am posting a copy of the song below, which I found began to drive me crazy before the film was half over (It started to remind me of the background music from Spongebob.) I also found it very strange that this serious movie had such a light and nonchalant soundtrack playing almost constantly (Play it about fifty times and you will get the idea more clearly.)

The second movie that has, in my opinion, an amazing soundtrack, is “Almost Famous.” This movie is about a young journalist who goes on the road with a band during the 1970’s, and its 70’s-filled soundtrack won a Grammy in 2001. This tour bus scene (which I am posting below) in which Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” plays remains one of my favorite musical movie scenes of all time. The music finds a way to capture the experience and nostalgia of the film in a way that ordinary dialogue could never do (the scene makes more sense in the context of the movie.) This film serves as a great example of the importance of movie soundtracks, which serve as an element to supplement other movie sounds.

The final soundtrack I would like to talk about is that from Baz Luhrmann’s recent remake of “The Great Gatsby.” This soundtrack was a controversial one, because Luhrmann chose to set a 1920’s movie to 2010’s music. I was initially unsure of how I felt about this decision, until I saw the movie and an interview in which Luhrmann discussed the reasoning behind his musical choices. In the interview, he explained that the music was chosen so that today’s audiences might experience the same emotions that the characters at the time would have. For instance, instead of playing a 1920’s party song, which would not inspire much excitement from the audience, Luhrmann selected an upbeat, modern song, which would help us relate to what partygoers in the 1920s would have felt. A great example of this is Gatsby’s huge party scene, in which Fergie’s “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody” serves as background music. I am also posting a link to the scene with Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” because it is one of my favorite scenes in the film and I think it perfectly embodies the movie’s theme of Gatsby’s eternal love for Daisy, which is not necessarily reciprocated to him.


I think these films and their soundtracks help to show that the sounds that can affect an audience the most are not necessarily written into a movie’s script; rather, movies use the power of sound in music to evoke emotion from the audience and convey important themes of the films.


Seeing Sound

In class, we have spent a fair amount of time discussing the relationship between sight and sound. Which sense is more important: seeing or hearing? And which sense is society most reliant upon? These questions led me to think about the visual components of sound, which we had not really discussed yet. I remembered from a Physics class I took in high school that sound waves can be represented visually, much like light waves. Sound visualizers can demonstrate this idea, a concept which brought me to the Rubens’ Tube.

For those of you unfamiliar, a Rubens’ Tube is a device which provides a visualization of standing sound waves. It was invented by Heinrich Rubens, a German physicist, in 1905. The basic construction of a Rubens’ Tube involves a piece of pipe with a line of holes drilled through the top and two closed sides. As propane is pumped through the tube, a lighter is used to ignite the gas exiting the holes in the top of the pipe. This results in a series of small flames, which then change shape based upon the sound generated next to the pipe. Since the concept is a little hard to describe (and my Physics knowledge is seriously lacking), I posted a video explaining the setup of a Rubens’ Tube below:

As the video shows, varying noises can make for really interesting visualizations on the Rubens’ Tube. Although dubstep is not my favorite music, I think it worked well in the visualization, showing the varying sound wave. I also find this to be an interesting way to think about sound that we did not necessarily discuss in class. I found a second Rubens’ Tube video in which different songs are played next to the tube and posted it below:

In this video, the Rubens’ Tube is used to play “Any Way You Want It” by Journey, “Fur Elise” by Beethoven, and “The Phantom of the Opera” by the Munich Symphony Orchestra. I was surprised that “Fur Elise” and “The Phantom of the Opera” seemed to make the most interesting standing wave and sound visualizations.

Anyway, I thought that the Rubens’ Tube provided a unique way of looking at sound that we have not necessarily seen from our more ethnographic approach. Research on the Rubens’ Tube led me to another interesting study of sound called Cymatic music. Cymatics is “the study of visible sound co vibration.” An example of Cymatics that I am sure some of you are familiar with is the placement of liquid on speakers to observe the sound waves of whatever noise is playing. Different sound frequencies create different patterns wherever the sound is “seen.” I posted some examples below (“Colour Sound” and a short TED talk), which I think contribute to the idea that a sound can be more than just what we hear initially. Although I cannot explain completely what is going on (from a physics viewpoint) it is worth watching if only to see sound in a new, unconventional way.

No Instruments, No Problem

Recent years have seen a skyrocketing of interest in acapella music, or music “without instrumental accompaniment.” Notorious groups like Pentatonix and Straight No Chaser perform contemporary music using only their voices, and they maintain popularity through unique renditions of well-known songs. The entire premise of the 2012 hit movie “Pitch Perfect” is based upon college acapella groups, and a sequel is being released into theaters this May. Even Davidson has multiple acapella groups on campus, showing the popularity of acapella music among current college students and within mainstream media.

One acapella performer that I recently discovered online is Mike Tompkins. Mike Tompkins is an acapella musician and producer who garnered fame from his highly-successful Youtube song covers. Tompkins does covers of popular songs using his body as the only instrument. He is able to record himself multiple times, and later edit the sound to form a complete song. I think his videos are amazing, and I had to remind myself while listening to them that no instruments were actually being played. Below I am posting two of his covers- the first is a mash up of One Republic’s “Feel Again” and Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days are Over” and the other is a recent cover of “Uptown Funk” featuring Mark Ronson and Max Schneider. Even though “Uptown Funk” is overplayed at this point and you are all probably tired of it, I think this specific cover is worth the listen as I could not believe that there were no instruments used in the recording of the song.

This third video shows how Tompkin made the “Feel Again/Dog Days” cover, and I found it interesting. His director for the video explains that many TV screens playing the various song parts had to sync together in order to record the video. To me, this would be a painstaking process as the video shows that all the parts must sync perfectly, and only then can Tompkin record the singing live on top of the other parts.

I think Tompkin’s videos underscore the “sound studio fetish” that we discussed in class. Up until watching these videos, I did not really understand this so-called “fetish,” but the final products of Tompkin’s recording sessions have helped me to better grasp this concept. The studio must possess a special quality if one man can use it to imitate fifteen instruments, sing, and then piece these all together as a song. To me, it seems there is a very high level of skill and talent required to operate such sound studio machinery properly and proficiently.

I believe it is also worth noting the dichotomy between Tompkin’s recordings and more traditional music. It seems his dismissal of musical instruments is compensated for by his use of sound studio editing, whereas other music uses more instruments and (somewhat) less editing. Perhaps this shift in musical medium (instrument to sound editing) is inevitable with society’s continuation of technological progress, or maybe it speaks to the emergence of a more mainstream sound studio “fetish.” Perhaps this is just acapella’s fifteen minutes of mainstream fame. Regardless, this music successfully demonstrates musical talent and the capabilities of sound studio editing.

The Cost of Recording

Two Fridays ago, I was lucky enough to receive one of Davidson’s free tickets to the Ingrid Michaelson concert at The Fillmore in Charlotte. The venue was small (capacity around 2000) but I was impressed by the artist’s vocals and level of crowd interaction. For those of you unfamiliar with Ingrid Michaelson, she is an indie-pop singer who released her first album in 2005, and her newest album, “Lights Out,” was released in 2014. Her songs get a fair amount of radio play, and the concert was a welcome mix of old and new material.

While re-watching some of the videos I recorded at the concert, my mind wandered to our recent discussion in class regarding the quality of MP3 compressed tracks versus uncompressed recordings of songs. I find it interesting that we can essentially miss parts of the song that become compressed, and wonder what other elements recorded music takes away from live performance. I noticed during the concert that Ingrid Michaelson’s voice sounded better (to me) than it does on her recordings. This could just be personal opinion, but I sensed an element of passion in her music live that I do not think is always conveyed through recordings. Is this due to the artificiality of the recording studio, serving to compress not only audio but also unquantifiable emotion? Am I just being a picky listener? Possibly both.

The most prominent example of this idea of recorded music being of lesser quality (during the concert) was when Ingrid Michaelson performed “Afterlife,” a song off of her new album. The way she introduced and sung the song conveyed a multitude of emotions to the audience, and I was curious as to the song’s origins. After doing some research online, I found out that she wrote the song as a tribute to her mother, who recently lost a battle with cancer. Although the music video, which consists of Ingrid helping various fans get over their fears, is feel-good, to me it does not validate the depth of the song that I perceived when hearing it performed live. I am posting both videos so others can judge for themselves.

Now clearly going to a concert will provide a different auditory experience than listening to the same artist on Rhapsody or Spotify would, but I am curious as to the effects of a sound studio on the creation of a song and an artist’s connection to it. I think this is something we will discuss in more detail next week, but I wonder to what extent a recording studio artificializes the organic, fundamental properties of music.

Furthermore, I found an article from the Oxford Journal in which the effects of live music versus recorded music on cancer patients were observed. The abstract of the paper states, “Results indicate the particular effectiveness of using live music to assist in relieving tension and promoting vigor. The human element inherent in live music is believed to be important.” I find this study in music therapy intriguing, and am curious as to how this “human element inherent in live music” changes from a live performance to a recording studio. Is there an element of music which cannot be conveyed through audio equipment that is present in the music performed for the cancer patients and Ingrid Michaelson’s performance? Although I have jumped around a bit here regarding organic versus artificial music, I look forward to discussing these topics in more detail in class this upcoming week.

Afterlife- Ingrid Michaelson (right click and save link to view video)

The “Sweet Caroline” Effect

When I think of summer, I think of “Sweet Caroline.” Throughout my childhood my family and friends escaped each May to a nearby lake, where shoes were flung off, Coppertone was lathered on, and Neil Diamond was placed on repeat. Lazy boating days and lasting summer nights were markers of this season of my childhood, embodying the escapism it represented on a yearly basis. Music was a critical element throughout these summers, a uniting force which provided a common thread through many years by mirroring human movement and emotion.

The “Sweet Caroline Effect,” as I have dubbed it, came into existence the summer that my parents had a momentary lapse in judgment and purchased our family a karaoke machine. This machine unlocked a world of retro songs that we pre-teens had no idea even existed. After each long afternoon of boating, the parents fired up the grill while the kids fired up the karaoke machine. Soon, our repertoires were filled with Billy Joel, Duran Duran, Elton John, Bon Jovi, and Tears for Fears. But our favorite song was always when Neil Diamond launched into the intro of “Sweet Caroline.” Lyrics were memorized, dances were choreographed, and karaoke machine purchases were regretted.

The parents eventually learned to appreciate the art of karaoke, and as the season continued, they began to enjoy “Sweet Caroline” as much as we did. Late summer nights became marked by our parents singing the songs they grew up to, which turned out to be the songs we were growing up to as well.

As my friends and I trudged through secondary education, “Sweet Caroline” welcomed us back each summer to simpler times. Now, Neil Diamond hums in the background as we sit in Adirondack chairs by our campfire pit near the lakeshore. Fireflies twinkle, stories are shared, and a concerning amount of s’mores are consumed. Schools and jobs have changed, but the people and music have always been constant. And every time I hear Neil Diamond start to sing, “Where it began,” it is like these memories and relationships are reinforced and strengthened.

In this way, music can be a powerful tool that unites both people and time. Something about the unique qualities of music allows it to harbor memories and emotions not written into the sheet music. This is a phenomenon that I have experienced with various other songs, and one which I’m sure others have experienced as well. Not only can a song transport you to a different time, but it can also resynthesize lost emotions.

This idea of music soliciting emotion prompted me to research this idea more online. I was able to find the following video to aid in the development of my ideas on this topic. This video (link below) suggests that we “might read emotion in music the same way we read emotion in human movement.” This means that, much like the information garnered about emotion from body language, people subconsciously gather intel about the emotional make-up of music.

Therefore, this quality of musical emotion mirroring that of human movement allows certain songs to harbor emotions and re-elicit them at a later time. In these ways, music not only provides a common link to connect people and time, but also stores emotions to facilitate these links. This speaks to the universality of music, and the power it holds to generate connections and sentiments.


Are all popular songs the same?

Today’s class discussion regarding the control that record labels exert over artists and the particular songs that they release piqued my interest and prompted further research into this concept.
In the process I discovered this video, which demonstrates that many popular songs have the exact same chord progressions. (more…)