Using unusual sounds to create music

Lots of composers are at it! Taking the audio files of unusual sounds and manipulating and processing them (using computer software) to produce new and distinctively different-sounding music.

I first became aware of this as a digital composing technique in the songs of Imogen Heap (in her album ‘Sparks’). For example, in the track ‘Telemiscommunications‘, we hear a series of pops, pings and clicks which are structured by some beautiful piano chords and evolving drones. In ‘The Listening Chair‘, all the sounds come from her voice, from which she creates rhythms, pitch slides, reversed sounds and echo effects. In the track ‘Lifeline‘ she invited fans to send her audio clips to incorporate, and includes the heartbeat of a baby in the womb and a slinky going down some stairs.

Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir created the entire score for the HBO mini-series ‘Chernobyl’ [1] by using the sounds she and her team recorded in a power plant in Lithuania. In it we hear highly processed sounds that contain both rhythm and pitch.

‘Planet Earth II’ composers Jasha Klebe and Jacob Shea had access to the natural sounds that the directors had been recording in the wild, incorporating them into the score in a way that ‘blurred the lines between what were natural sounds and what was music’ [2]. Wind sounds from the tops of mountain were shaped into pitches and incorporated into the score for the ‘Mountains’ episode, rustling grass from was turned into a percussion instrument for the ‘Grasslands’, and the sound of swarming locusts made it into the score for ‘Deserts’.

Christian Henson shows how to process the sound of rain to create pitched, fantastic ethereal sounds. [3]

I wanted a go: so I took, as my source audio, the clacketty sound you get when slamming fingers down on the flute (without blowing).

I then copied it twice, to create three tracks, and put different effects on each track: such as EQ, compression, pitch shift, tremolo, stereo delay, and distortion (guitar amp), later adding reversed celesta, with tremolo and high pass filter to capture the ticking sound (I’m using Logic Pro X).

Digital Audio Workstations – fun toys to play with!

Musical story-telling in Racer Snakes vs Iguanas (Part 2)

iguana

Photograph: Charles J Sharp

As mentioned in part one, the music for Racer Snakes vs Iguanas falls into five sections, each section consisting of tension music followed by sudden action music. In part one, a hatchling emerged, was chased by racer snakes, but ultimately achieved safety on top of the rock by the sea.

The next four sections tell more stories. Starting with tension, (a low B drone at 22 mins 15), the scene is set for the next baby iguana to attempt the journey. But first, a tiny metallic sound cuts through the musical mix as we see a dead creature on the sand, leading us to feel horror at the thought of death by snakes. We are reminded that, although the snakes missed their chance to capture the first hatchling, sometimes they are successful; the softer low string note that follows is warmer and more expressive as our eye is drawn to the next iguana, suggesting a sense of compassion for the baby that is facing such a harsh life.

For a group of snakes waiting, motionless but alert (22 mins 22), the B bass note drops away and a strange, faint alternating pair of tones cuts through, like a very distant siren; an alarm. It gives a sense of being suspended in mid air, as if we are holding our breath. More associations follow: the music now has a passing resemblance to the John Williams’s score for the famous snakes scene in ‘Indiana Jones’: both feature faint rattling sounds (perhaps suggesting rattle snakes?), notes sliding upwards in pitch, atonality (no steady tonality), and no pulse. The sound of instruments sliding upwards, traditionally a glissando on violins, is the stuff of cinematic horror. We all associate this with previously heard tension soundtracks, but may also recognise in the music, perhaps subliminally, what growing panic feels like: as our body physically prepares for attack, with adrenaline causing our hairs to stand up on end (like the upwards pitch bend) and the sense of insecurity (no tonality) and time slowing down (no pulse).

As the hatchling pauses to look round and a snake immediately freezes, the music also pauses. The music is inviting us to become emotionally invested in every movement, every tense wait, and every sudden spring into action. This time, the action music has a tonality (before it was just percussive), firmly established in Ab minor (or G# minor…I haven’t seen the notation!).

Here are the conventions of cinematic action music; over pounding percussion, a tune in a strongly minor tonality (Ab minor) is played in fast pairs of notes played by violins and violas using a bowing technique called spiccato (in which the high-speed bow appears to bounce off the string).Screen Shot 2019-06-12 at 17.01.18

Erupting from silence, the effect is one of heightened excitement and energy. This hatchling reaches the rocks, but the music informs us it is still in danger. The pounding music momentarily changes to tremolando string notes (where the bow moves backwards and forwards incredibly fast) producing a sound reminiscent of the physical sensation of trembling. The bass note is a D, a tritone away from the Ab tonality, a pairing of notes that are the least stable tonally. This time the iguana is caught by snakes, but instead of pausing with tense music, the action music resumes, another hatchling races forward, is caught, and then another tries. As the music presses onwards through each of these captures, we feel the breathless pace of these attempts, edited to occur one after another. We sense that maybe even the camera operator was surprised by the second capture, having visually tracked further to the left after the attack happened.

It’s when the next iguana is caught that the music draws back onto a new drone, on Eb, (23 mins 18) with a single deep ‘thump’ similar to those we often hear in movie trailers. This is the feeling of our heart ‘missing a beat’. When the bass lowers to a C for an extended stretch of tension music (the third section), there is a brassy edge to the note, suggestive of the ‘Braaam’ sound which, since the film ‘Inception‘, has become the ubiquitous sound of the Hollywood dystopian nightmare. This tension section is longer than the others and has a stillness to the low note, and little narration. We, the audience, now know what might happen. We have been invited to watch the images of murderous writhing snakes through the eyes of an emerging hatchling. The wait heightens the tension further (although I notice the music in the TV album soundtrack is cut by approximately 14 seconds at this point).

For the next chase, the action music is now in F minor (23 mins 59), lower than before. As the iguana fails to make it to the rocks, the music also fails to resolve from a rising phrase (24 mins 09). The final F is missing, but slowly emerges as another held drone note.

Screen Shot 2019-06-14 at 18.37.08

The tension/waiting sequence that follows features an extraordinary shot of five snakes simultaneously straining forward (24 mins 12). The musical drone that marks this moment includes an almost ‘slurping sound’ mixed in (suggesting death by squashing?), as well as a menacing gong with a long reverb, and the beginning of a slow bass note descent from Ab to G to C.Screen Shot 2019-06-12 at 18.59.47The effect is dark and full of foreboding. Anyone who is a fan of Rachmaninoff will recognise in these notes (when transposed up a semitone) the long slow opening of the C# minor Prelude, with a similar feeling of darkness and creeping danger. A stillness comes over this bass note, C. The iguana must hold its nerve keeping still.

A crescendo leads into, not action music, but a moment of silence, as it breaks into a run (we hear just the sound of its feet on the gravel). These touches of withholding hearing what we’re expecting keep our attention finely tuned for any eventuality – there is not a predictable moment in the whole sequence. Instead of action music, three slow strikes on the drum, as new snakes slither out of a hole in the rock, like the sounding of a death toll. Again, the sound of horror: string sounds sliding upwards, a brassy sound sinking downwards in pitch. Here, we are invited not to feel the exhilaration of a chase, but a horror of the pursuers. (The iguana now appears to be being chased by eight snakes.) Director Liz White describes how the music for the whole iguana/snake sequence was the one the composers ‘really, really had to work on to get it just right’, and that they did a fantastic job of getting ‘the right amount of tension’. [1]

When the music finally reverts to the chase action theme, it is now in F# minor, a semitone higher than before, subliminally giving it a feel of increased energy. Just as the iguana’s run is interrupted by a sudden capture, so the action music is halted abruptly, and a tense D minor drone creeps in, with rising strings notes representing the snakes. However, this morphs into D major, a more hopeful-sounding tonality, as the iguana, amazingly, escapes their grip.

It is in the fifth and final action sequence that the truly epic nature of this cinematic music is revealed. I would like to describe its story-telling power in part 3.

 

Musical story-telling in Racer Snakes vs Iguanas (Part 1)

iguana

Photograph: Charles J Sharp

 

Analysing the music of Racer Snakes vs Iguanas: how is it telling the story? (Part 1)

We all know the sequence of racer snakes chasing iguanas from the BBC’s Planet Earth 2 is breath-taking (if you haven’t seen it yet, check it out!). It won the ‘Must-see Moment’ BAFTA award in 2017.
But what part is the music playing in this emotional roller-coaster? The director, Liz White, admitted that ‘If you watch it without the music, it hasn’t got anywhere near as much impact,’ [1] (a comment reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s claim that Hitchcock only finished his films to 60%, but that his music had ‘to finish it for him’) [2].
The composers are Jacob Shea and Jasha Klebe (with the main title music by Hans Zimmer), and both have a background in writing for Hollywood cinema. Yet for Jasha Klebe, the iguana scene, with its ‘phenomenal editing’, was ‘a chase scene that beats any Hollywood movie out there’ [3] and for Jacob Shea, this moment was ‘a harrowing, post-apocalyptic chase scene like no other’.[4]

This article is not an exhaustive analysis. Rather, it presents a selection of some of the musical techniques that these composers have used to tell the story of this incredibly exciting and engaging sequence.

With our first glimpse of an emerging hatchling iguana (20 mins 58 seconds into the episode ‘Islands’), David Attenborough is explaining that these hatchlings are ‘vulnerable’. This is accompanied by two long chords – D minor followed by B minor (also the beginning of the TV soundtrack album version).

Dm:Bm

D minor                            B minor

Several musical techniques support this word ‘vulnerable’.

– We hear no pulse – there is a sense of waiting, we don’t know what’s going to happen.
– The instrumentation is muted strings, lacking warmth and expression, giving the impression of frailty and tentativeness.
– There is no low bass instrument underpinning these chords, which leaves us feeling unsupported. – The first chord, D minor, is scored in ‘second inversion’ (D/A): instead of having the solid feel of the D as the lowest note, we feel suspended by having the A as the lowest note, giving the impression of being emotionally ungrounded.
– These two chords do not traditionally belong together in the same key. Chord VI in the key of D minor would normally be Bb major, but by choosing B minor the composers introduce a chromatic shift in the top note from F natural to F#, and this leaves us unsure about the overall tonality (what key we’re actually in). The first chord has an air of sadness, but the unsual shift of tonality introduces an element of suspense and impending threat.

The story begins – we are introduced to our ‘vulnerable’ main characters, and the music perfectly paints this scene.

Following the word ‘dangerous’, a low drone begins on the notes D and A (21 mins 17). Why do low drones sound so ominous? Perhaps we have a visceral reaction to low sounds because we associate them with threats such as thunder, or a growl, or earthquakes? John Williams exploits this effect with his shark theme in the film ‘Jaws’. This drone is not static, it is full of evolving sounds; sounds gently moving up and down in loudness and harmonic frequencies, a random throbbing effect that gives the impression of lurking danger, rather than death and desolation.

And then a hit point occurs – almost imperceptible (at 21 mins 30). At the split second the head of a racer snake appears far right of the screen, a quiet mid-range note (A ) enters. A second dissonant note above it (Bb) joins it, followed by another snake. Then a third note (C) is added, along with a third snake. Harsher, clashing notes begin, getting louder, as the snakes are getting closer and closer to the iguana. The story paints these snakes (who no doubt also have to eat) as the terrifying villains.

A sudden deep strike on a bass drum (at 21 mins 45) ushers in the first (of four) ‘action’ sequences, like a jump scare, as the iguana erupts into a sudden run for its life, chased by the snakes. The high-speed ticking sound in high percussion appears to match the speed of the iguana’s footsteps. Our emotional reaction is no doubt based on more associations: this is the classic sound of Hollywood action sequences, even down to the 1,2,3,1,2,3,1,2 pounding rhythms. But there are other associations based on physical human reactions; the fast pulse resembles our own speeding heart-rate during fight or flight; the accented percussion crashes feel random and unpredictable, therefore frightening because we cannot control them.

This unpredictability is enhanced by what feels like an additional two beats inserted after four bars of four beats of this ‘action’ rhythm. This results in a strong downbeat occurring precisely with a new close-up shot (21 mins 53), which also sounds slightly louder, as if we ourselves are simultaneously closer. Closely synchronising music with the images gives a sense of immediacy that the composers wanted, by making the audience feel they are right there with the characters, as they fight about life and death.[5]

The action music pauses as the first iguana reaches safety. But, interestingly, the music tells us that it isn’t reaching the rocks that signifies safety, but gettting his foot down firmly at the top. The pounding rhythms stop not when the iguana first jumps up onto the rocks, but in a slowing sequence marking each steady step to the top.

The iguanas and snakes story is told in five musical sections, each section consisting of tension music followed by sudden action music. (The music just described here was the first section of five). In the next part of this blog, I’ll look at the other sections.


[1] https://www.vulture.com/2017/02/planet-earth-ii-iguana-snakes-scene-story.html

[2] Royal S. Brown ‘Overtones and Undertones’, page 148.

[3] Interview – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zwO3uRfrzAQ

[4] Interview – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pC-yUSAAiJM

[5] Interview – https://www.spin.com/2017/02/planet-earth-ii-composers-talk-music-david-attenboroughs-voice-interview/