Saturday, July 19, 2008

Sound Effects Vs Music



For past six months, I have been listening to the complete recording music CD’s of Lord of the Rings Trilogy. The attached booklet that comes with this pack, analyze each piece in connection with the scenes in which it is used. And when I was reading the booklet of the score for ‘Return of the King’, I saw the lines that you can see in the below picture.



The Palantir – The Score



The Palantir – In the movie



The electronic sound effect does emphasize on something which the score doesn’t, it is the pull of the Palantir, it is the force with which the Palantir pulls the people who looks into it, close to evil’s eyes. So, who is the winner here - Sound effects or Music? Sound design is an art in itself and though it is widely known that it is not done by the background score composers, still there is some confusion about where exactly the line is drawn between sound effect and a background music score.

Recently I stumbled upon this interview of Satyajit Ray in which he speaks elaborately on Background music in films. He says,

In general, let's just say that whether you are going to use music or sound effects depends on the mood of a scene. If a specific sound effect is crucial, I don't even think of using music in its place. And when you are trying to control time, to maintain real or chronological time, I would say the less music there is, the better, though sound effects can help a lot in this instance. When time is broken up, by contrast, music helps to preserve a linear flow.


As Satyajit Ray is both a film director and a music composer, I don’t know under which hat he uttered those words. It sounded as if the composer is the one who chooses between sound effects and music for a scene. I think he must have told that sitting on a director’s seat as the director is the one who has control over all other departments and has the final say in anything and everything in the process of making the movie.

But when I think of sound effect as background score, a scene from ‘Mozhi’ came to my mind. In ‘Mozhi’ (one of those rare scenes in Indian Cinema in which they show composers doing background score for a movie), the character Viji, the keyboardist who plays in film recordings, says to his composer that he has special tone (not produced by any real musical instrument) to use in the scene exactly when the flower falls on the beggar’s plate. So, does a background score composer add little sound effects here and there like these in place of a background score? Is that what Satyajit Ray meant by Sound effects? Is sound effect is adding a sound byte in place of a background music which may not be actually an ambient sound needed in the scene?

While I was chewing this thought, I watched few movies in past few weeks which raised more questions on this topic.

‘Music as sound design’ – That is how Jim Emerson called the background score by Carter Burwell for ‘No Country for Old Men’. I initially got puzzled by reading this phrase in this review in Jim Emerson’s scanners blog, as I hadn't seen the movie. Much later I saw the movie on DVD and that phrase was not in my mind, and fortunately I had forgotten about it. As I was watching the movie, I was spellbound by the intriguing sequences coming one after the other – I was totally engrossed into the movie and not for a micro second I became aware of the absence of a musical background score. It is only when the music started to play in the end credits of the movie, I realised that the movie had no identifiable background score. And that brings me back to Satyajit Ray’s words from the same interview, he says

My belief is that, yes, a film should be able to dispense with music. But half the time we are using music because we are not confident that certain changes of mood will be understood by the audience — so we underline these changes with mood music. I would like to do without music if such a thing was possible, but I don't think I'll ever be able to do it. I will say that I have used very little music in my contemporary films and as much natural sound as possible.


So does it mean that Coen brother’s were so confident about their script and its execution, that made them to instruct Carter Burwell to not to use any music? Do they have achieved what Satyajit Ray thought as ‘if such a thing was possible’?

Carter Burwell says that he composed 15 minutes of music for background score of the movie, and he explains further about how they decided go for such an ambient score without any real music instruments or recognizable melody, here. (I think Carter Burwell should alteast have got an Oscar nomination in ‘Background Score’ category for achieving this rare-feet of giving no-music yet effective background score for ‘No Country for Old Men’. Infact, to everyone’s amazement, Gustavo Santa Olalla had won it for ‘Brokeback Mountain’ for his 15 minute score. But it is comparatively a more solid score with moody guitar strains sprinkled throughout the movie.)

No Country for Old Men – End Credits



No Country for Old Men – Jackpot



Back to Satyajit Ray’s words

Initially, I did feel that film needed music partly because long stretches of silence tend to bore the audience: It's as simple as that. With music, the scene becomes "shorter" automatically. And in certain types of films, music is a must unless you have a very rich natural soundtrack.


“A very rich natural soundtrack” and that brings me to Majid Majidi’s ‘Children of Heaven’. In this movie, though there is no score for most part, dramatic music score has been used for some of the key moments in the movie. Just as Satyajit Ray puts, the music score does break the long stretches of silence in this movie.

One of the most unforgettable scenes in the movie is the marathon running race in the climax. Ali runs in the race to come third in the race to win a new pair of shoes, which he can give to his little sister Zahra, whose shoes Ali feels guilty of having lost.

The marathon running race starts and for first few minutes, there are various shots of hundreds of boys running and shots of Ali slowly and steadily speeding up to the front. And at one point, suddenly when Ali looks forward, there is no one running beyond him and then he slows down and lets two boys to run ahead, so that he can be in the third position, but suddenly another boy who is so close, hits him and Ali falls down.

From now on, we don’t hear any music or other ambient sounds except for the panting of Ali and that is one of the most effective background score I heard in a movie. As the shots turns to slow motion, so does his panting sound. Then slowly the music starts to develop as we see that the four boys running closely to win over each other and nearing the winning post. Even after the music starts to play, the panting sound dominates like the main melody of the score.

Children of Heaven - Race



Is this sound design or background score? Is this what Satyajit Ray calls ‘A very rich natural soundtrack’? Whom should I give the credit for using the panting of Ali as dominant sound in that scene? Is it the music composer or the sound designer or the director?

10 comments:

Vinith said...

Hey suresh,

You watched Children of Heaven movie?

I got the movie just two days back...

OMG, what a movie it is.... Unparalled... i am planniing to write a review on this movie soon... wow experience it was...

The re-recording during the race was amazing.... a masterpiece... the panting sound of Ali has been recorded very crisply... Have no words to explain...

The flash (Zhara running) that often comes during the race was heart-throbbing scene...

Bharath V said...

You should watch the extended DVD of LOTR to see how these kind of decisions were made during the sound design process. I tend to include background score as part of sound design and not something separate. There are few Hollywood movies (like POTC) where heart beat provides the texture for a scene rather than a jarring orchestral brass section. The other piece that comes to my mind is from LOTR where Pippin sings with the running horses provides the rhythm texture and later orchestra joins in mildly.

Suresh Kumar said...

Bharath - Yes, it is agreed that film making a highly collaborative effort. As you said, just the sound of a heart beat could be most effective for some scenes, but who makes this decision, whom should we credit for the effectiveness of this sound? Is a sound designer allowed to make such decisions? I was in a opinion that sound designer's job is only to add atmospheric sounds to the scene to make the scene sound as real as possible?

Vijay Kumar said...

Suresh,
I am not sure if you've already seen this movie but I would recommend a vintage Hitchcock movie - 'Birds' - in the context of background score. Well, there is no background score in that movie. Another of Hitchcock's gems. I would assume that in this level of concept oriented sound design the director is the chief sound designer. It is all atmosphere in this case.
The standard disclaimer is that it changes from film maker to film maker and from movie to movie.

Suresh Kumar said...

Vijay - Haven't seen 'Birds' yet... But when I checked Wiki, it says Bernard Hermann, Oskar sala and Remi Gassmann are the composers of the score... Anyway will check out the movie and then decide

Bharath V said...

I was just about to say "Birds". The score was entirely done using an instrument called trautonium. Oskar Sala was its inventor. It doesn't have traditional orchestral score. Going back to our original discussion, sound designer is very much a creative position. One of my acquaintances working on these kind of films says that everybody pitches their idea and director chooses which he feels tells the story better. Sound designer seems to have a different meaning for different directors in different parts of the world. But when I say I am an aspiring sound designer, I do mean all elements/forms of sound we can use for telling a story :)

Suresh Kumar said...

Bharath - Thats new to me.

So, Can I put it this way?

"Sound design or Effects is as creative as writing a background music. Sound effects or background music or both can be used to effectively communicate a film makers vision."

Suresh Kumar said...

Hi Bharath and Vijay - I found an interesting article on Music in Hitchcock's movies. You may like it

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=7268315

Vinith said...

Satyajit Ray's words are true indeed.
Have you watched Pather Panchali?
I watched it recently, the movie has very little music, that too not when characters speak. Music has been used only when some scene of nature comes on the screen. Thats really great.
If you have not watched the movie yet, please do watch it. All that you need is patience to sit for 2hrs. But am sure passionate music lovers like us would enjoy the movie.

Suresh Kumar said...

Vinith - I have seen Pather Panchali. Sitar and Flute pieces (Pandit Ravi Shankar is the composer) are unforgettable...