A sound designer writing about music is taking a risk.  I sing a bit, but I’m not a professional musician, unless you define music in the broadest possible terms.  I fabricate and arrange sounds for a living.  I’m sometimes concerned with creating a certain rhythm for those sounds, a harmonic structure, a set of loudness and pitch dynamics; but not at all in the way that most composers are concerned with those things.  Many wonderful composers have scored films I’ve worked on, and I’ve collaborated with some of them by working together to figure out how the sound design and music can play nicely “in concert,” though not as often or as much as I would have liked.

Quite a few film composers would rather be writing symphonies than film scores.  Some of them do everything in their power to structure their film scores as if they were symphonies…  in several movements, hoping that as a whole the score will play as a journey when you listen to it while watching the movie.  Film score enthusiasts try to listen to scores that way; but nobody else does.  Sound design enthusiasts try to pay attention to the flow of sound effects in a movie, but nobody else does.

My theory is that film scores and film sound design say crucial things to us in short packets throughout the film rather than as a continuous stream.  They tell us something about a character in this moment, a place in another moment, they connect two widely spaced moments by repeating a theme or a variation on a theme.  Fifty years ago it was common for only about half of a film, or less, to have any music at all; and the same for all but minimal sound effects.  These days what is most common, at least in big budget films made in the USA, is more or less continuous music and continuous “sound design.”

The main reason I’m touching on these ideas in this blog is that I think the urge toward creating and maintaining a continuous “flow” of music and sound design in a film is mostly misguided.  It doesn’t make a track more powerful; it often makes it weaker.   How a piece of music or sound design begins and ends is an important statement, the potential for which is lost, or partially lost, when there are no beginnings and ends, just “flow.”  The film audience, in my opinion, is not aware of the flow, and is minimally affected by the flow.   They are affected by moments, by which I mean short sequences of sounds, and their relationship to other short sequences of sounds nearby or in other parts of the film.

You might wonder what difference this distinction makes.  Quite a big one actually.  The “flow” approach is very problematic because it means the “flow” of music or sound design should not be masked or interrupted.  That means one of them has to “win” and one has to “lose” in each moment, because if the flow of music is obscured by a bit of sound design then the music is “lost” for that moment, and visa versa.  If you believe in the “flow” approach then you set up a zero sum game between music, sound design, and dialog.  On the other hand, if your philosophy is that the flow is not particularly important then the fact that one sound element dominates in one moment and another in the next is exactly the way it should be.

I’m very interested in hearing from readers about these ideas, especially readers who come at it from a musical perspective.


8 thoughts

  1. I think this makes a lot of sense. The overall issue is one of contrasts. In composing music a composer should try to create contrasts: in tonality, timbre, dynamics, pacing. This is what gives the listener their “moments”; passages that become memorable. I have noted this issue with continuous music in films as well. It seems like the film score equivalent to the “loudness wars” where the lack of dynamics and differentiation creates a homogeneous sound. It seems that film producers lack courage in the same way record producers do; the inability to create aural space for the listener to understand, evaluate and appreciate what they are listening to instead of simply going with the “flow.”

  2. This is very interesting, I’ve thought about this with many big budget action movies. I begin to wonder how much collaboration/communication do the sound and music department have in these projects, because sometimes it does seem like big complex sound design and hot bombastic music are fighting each other in the mix. I’m not experienced in big budget films but I agree your point of view. If maybe sound and music supervisors sat together with the sound designer, mixer, and composer maybe there wouldn’t be this ‘flow issue’. Again, sound design and music should supplement each other and work off each other towards the final product.

  3. Thanks a lot for your insights Randy. It’s very inspiring and really a happy moment to see someone of your calibre share their ideas and philosophies on their own terms.

    It was very interesting to read this particular post because I was so intrigued by the Revenant and the Peanuts movie at the same time. I felt you did make space and time to get the look get flow in the Revenant compared to the amazing moments in the Peanuts movie. That brings me back to a question I always had in mind and have been trying to answer for a long time. How long is a moment?

    I have thought a lot about this and ultimately I think that though this is defined more by the story and edit pace I still think as a rerecording mixer or a sound designer one still can choose the length of the moment. The reason I feel so is also because the power to connect the dots is more in a flow. But I guess the flow without its ups and downs and the moments would be static and still!

    And I guess one really good example from your recent work on the Revenant where the sounds that lay the undertone that start on the title sequence and goes on for a very long time does have its ups and downs!

    Thanks for the blog!

  4. Thanks for the comments!
    Yes, definitely, a “moment” can be a second or two, or it can be thirty seconds, but my gut tells me that almost always it is less than thirty seconds.

  5. I get frustrated with the idea of flow also because it often seems to serve itself rather than the story.

    I, also like to work in moments. I have noticed many features lately are wall to wall music and I feel that this wallpapers over the performances. As an audience member, I want to be manipulated into emotion rather than have it telegraphed to me.

    In complex scenes, I’m always searching for little moments to accent things, often I’m poking out either music against the FX or FX against the music or dialog against both. For me the dance of all these elements is much more effective than allowing one to shove others aside.

  6. Hi Randy , thank you very much for sharing your experience.
    It is very inspiring !
    I think that all this refers to the story and the writing of this story.
    This is really common in story telling to use short “moments” to make the public paying attention on something important for the story.
    So I believe that our craft follow that idea.
    We need punctuation or “moments” In the flow of the story. And this can be very short moment and details. we can help with sound and music but this needs to happen in relevant moments. So the listener will uncousciously pay attention. Because during the flow of the story this is something that the listener never heard before, because this sound pops out in the entire sound track or because there is no sound at all and then the listener unconsciously notice it. But this needs to be relevant with the story, the expression of the character etc..And with too much of this moment the public can get lost in the story.
    It is all about expression ! The life around us is full of contrast and expression this is what give us emotion and ups and downs in our life.
    We are naturally use to that. So I really believe that this can trigger emotion in the unconscious of people and immerse them in your story.

    Showing off our craft isn’t important on itself. Our craft is important in a context.
    I think learning the basics of writing which exist since much longer than movies is relevant.
    And we should go further with thinking about writing not only with picture but with sound as well.

    I hope to read more blog post from you.
    I really respect and appreciate professional like you who transfer their knowledge.
    Thank you very much Randy!


    Alexis Marzin

  7. (I apologize if this is posted twice. I don’t have a wordpress account, so I re-posted through Twitter)

    I’m not a sound designer. I dabble in music (guitar and some songwriting) as a hobby. I recently read a comment about musical performance that I feel may be applicable here. Trumpeter Randy Sandke wrote about jazz musician “Bix” Beiderbecke’s “Jazz Me Blues: “The overall impression we get from this solo, as in all of Bix at his best,.. is that every note is spontaneous yet inevitable.” In my mind, as in a musical performance, sound design shouldn’t sound/feel designed, i.e., a ‘sound’ and following sounds – OR silences – is appropriate for the moment and would ‘feel’ obvious in its exclusion. I often tell people when they listen to music that it’s important to ‘listen’ to the silences between the notes. When a song is played with ‘feeling’, the notes (and the silences between them) voice themselves ‘when’ they should – “…spontaneous yet inevitable.” and not according to a musical mathematical formula. – Otherwise it sounds ‘mechanical’artificial – devoid of feeling.

    Great blog Randy! Looking forward to more!

    “Spaces/silences are important – “Between any two points in Space and Time are an infinite number of points. The real mysteries lies in the spaces between…” bILL cAMPBELL

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