Announcing – Dungeons and Decibels!

I play Dungeons and Dragons! I’m a Level 7 cleric and have been on some awesome campaigns over the years.

So, when I had the opportunity to contribute music for Billy Coldwell’s new Dungeons and Decibels app (just launched in the App store), I leapt at it.

My brief was three 3 minute loops for ‘Exploration – Exciting’ which required music for ‘General exploration underscore, needs to have a bit more energy, like on the edge of discovering something wondrous or surprising.’ So I created some ambient textures, with a few sound design features, and built it as if from a tool kit, placing the features in like a collage.

But then, just at the last minute, I flung in a quick combat battle track. Writing it was tricky – the music had to have relentless energy and big orchestration for at least 4 minutes before looping. I actually found it exhausting to write, every bar had to be just packed with rhythm and drive.

Screen Shot 2020-02-14 at 17.29.54.png

Feeling proud that my track was used for its promotional video, which begins with the pitfalls of using the wrong music, followed by a re-run if the new Dungeons and Decibels app had been to hand!

Meeting a Cameraman for Iguana vs Racer Snakes

IMG_20191019_183341At a recent zoology conference I attended (TetZooCon), one of the guest speakers was wildlife cinematographer Paul Stewart.

Now, I am someone who has watched the Racer Snakes vs Iguana sequence from Planet Earth 2 multiple times, analysed how the music fits the visuals, blogged about it three times (part 1, part 2, part 3), marvelled at the editing, and wondered about the awesome camera work. So, it was a very exciting moment when I realised that Paul was one of the actual cameramen (camera operators? cinematographers?) for the footage, working alongside cameraman Richard Wollocombe.

I actually felt a bit like a fangirl, requesting that he pose with me for a photo, and asking questions about how certain bits of the sequence were filmed. In particular, I was keen to know about the section where, to me, it had seemed the camera person had overshot slightly while tracking a running iguana, because it had been caught by snakes very unexpectedly, and had to swing back slightly to catch the action. Paul confirmed it had been very sudden, that particular moment lasting only about 4 seconds.

I also got a bit of an insight into the lives of people involved in filming it. Teams visited the Galapagos across two years, clocking up about 400 hours of field time, sometimes staying on the island itself in inhospitable and dangerous conditions, for a sequence edited down to less than 9 minutes. (Admittedly it did win a BAFTA).


Scoring a fly playing marimba!

This summer, I spent a lot of time watching and filming insects in my garden. (A short excerpt is below, followed by the full film, ‘Insects’).

The part I enjoyed most was scoring the 15 second sequence of a fly on a flower, playing marimba. First it is approached by another fly (ominous French horns over a pedal bass). It raises its wings defensively (tremolando violins), fends off an attack (timpani roll), wipes its feet (hands?) together gleefully (violin pizzicato), then resumes its marimba playing while also continuing wiping its hands of its attacker.

Perhaps a little too much anthropomorphism?

Scoring a dancing leaf video

A few years ago, I was searching YouTube for a video to practise scoring music to. In particular, I was looking for expressive visual movements that could translate into music, a little bit like a dancer might move spontaneously to music, but the other way round.

This connection across the modes is at the heart of how non-verbal interactions between a mother (or primary care-giver) and child might occur, for example, in the way a baby’s excited arm waving might be matched in the mother’s excited tone of voice. These sorts of connections move me, it feels very human, recognising expressive connections across the modes.

The video I eventually found was called ‘Dancing leaf in the autumn forest’ and was posted back in 2014. And there’s a story behind it being filmed….but first the video.

It has a perfect set of random and natural movements; sometimes the leaf is gently swaying in the breeze, suspended presumably on a strand of spider’s web. Sometimes the breeze causes the leaf to appear to dance, sometimes the twirling and spinning speeds up, then it slows down again and starts gently rocking.

From an emotional point of view, it also carries a certain sadness to it: the leaf looks fragile, it’s a brown, dead, autumn leaf, in a damp looking forest, caught on a strand of spider’s silk….dancing alone.

I scored the music by watching it a few times, then improvising at the piano, in one take, as I watched it on screen, and responded to what I saw. Then I added some strings and woodwind (I’m a flute-player). The resulting music received, for me, the highest accolade I can get – a group of professional and student composers (on the ThinkSpace course in Chichester) said it made them want to cry. (Yes! This is my life’s ambition – to make people cry).

But the fact is, it’s a gorgeous video. Beautifully framed, filmed by someone who obviously has an an eye for the artistry of what they were witnessing. Which is why it came as no surprise that when I approached “GullwingPhoto” (who posted this video) to ask for permission to post it here, I discovered that he is a professional photographer who specialises in photographing musicians!

Guy Carpenter, the photographer, remembers filming it, saying “I…just shot with my phone while out on a run in the woods, years ago! It was rather a beautiful sight though, spinning away”.

Thank you, Guy. So inspiring!

Matching the Melodic Theme with the Contour of the Desert in Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Maurice Jarre’s main musical theme for Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is coupled with a stunning and iconic image of a vast desert scene. [See 0:38 onwards]. This grand statement of the main melody occurs during the first epic shot of desert: a grand panoramic view, in wide-screen, of the undulating contours of dunes and lasting on screen for more than 30 seconds. (For the first 10 seconds, absolutely nothing happens. Then we see two specks appear in the distance as men slowly approach for 20 seconds).

This theme, with its series of rising and falling musical contours, is clearly intended to be linked with the visual grandeur of this desert shot.

We know that before writing the score, Jarre spent a week watching 40 hours of pre-cut footage to get a feel for the film [1]. Is it too speculative to suggest an influence, albeit subliminal, between the contour of the opening shot of dunes and Jarre’s theme?


If we trace the contour of the dunes in this shot, it appears to be linked with the theme, especially if the falling triplet in bar 4 follows the lower contour. This assumes the western cultural bias for movement of the eye going from left to right [2]. Director David Lean even admitting he had designed the direction of movement across desert shots this way. [3]



There’s certainly a precedent for this sort of visual matching. Ebert has noted Lawrence of Arabia’s similarity with epic films, such as Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938). [4]. In the “Battle on the Ice”, from Alexander Nevsky, Eisenstein explains how visual contour such as flags on a horizon is linked with individual notes in Prokofiev’s score, connections deliberately created through intense collaboration with the composer as the film was created. [5]

Recent studies into the psychology of music in film lend weight to Eisenstein’s much-debated theories. Where there is a strong match (‘congruence’) between audio and visual components, the brain is more attentive [6]. Certain shapes even yield a stronger perception of match – such as ‘ramps’ (when musical pitch, loudness, or texture increases or decreases) and ‘arches’ (movement which is up then down) correlating with ascending or descending visuals [7].

Where congruence is perceived most strongly, a film is judged ‘more impressive’ [8], lending weight to the idea that the brain is aware of the fit between the contours of a melody and the visual contours on screen.

[1] Jarre describes this in ‘The Film Music Foundation: Interviews’ in conversation with Jon Burlingame. [online]. Available at:

[2] Kendall, R. and Lipscomb, S. (2013). Experimental semiotics applied to visual, sound, and musical structures. In: S. Tan, A. Cohen, S. Lipscomb, and R. Kendall, (eds.), The Psychology of Music in Multimedia, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.48-65.

[3] Dirks, T. Filmsite Movie Review: Lawrence of Arabia (1962). [online]. Available at:


[5] Eisenstein, S. (1947). The Film Sense. Edited and translated by Leyda, J. New York: Meridian Books (1957).

[6] Cohen, A. (2013). Congruence-Association Model of music and multimedia: Origin and evolution. In: S. Tan, A. Cohen, S. Lipscomb, and R. Kendall (eds.), The Psychology of Music in Multimedia, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.17-47.

[7] Kendall, R. and Lipscomb, S. (2013). Ibid

[8] Iwamiya, S. (2013). Perceived congruence between auditory and visual elements in multimedia. In: S. Tan, A. Cohen, S. Lipscomb, and R. Kendall (eds.), The Psychology of Music in Multimedia, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.141-164.

Musical story-telling in Racer Snakes vs Iguanas (Part 3)


Photograph: Charles J Sharp

This blog post is about 25 seconds of music, (beginning at 24 mins 45 seconds of the BBC Planet Earth 2, ‘Islands’ episode) [1] and features the climactic ‘near miraculous escape’ of an iguana from racer snakes. The music tells this story with breathless clarity.

Because of the story so far (see part 1 and part 2), we are now rooting for the iguana with heightened emotional involvement. Director Liz White described it as ‘a big, emotional piece where people are going to feel like they’re rooting for a character’. [2] The melody rises, the iguana ascends the rocks, our hope rises. We are drawn into the growing possibility that the miraculous escape may actually happen: we are now emotionally engaged in the outcome.

Firstly, the tempo has changed: the composers have increased the speed of this (and the previous action sequence) by about 12 beats per minute, from around 138 bpm in the first three action sequences, now up to 150 bpm. The emotional message is increased energy, like our heart-beat stepping up to meet additional extreme tension.

The percussive action rhythms and string paired spiccato repeating notes are now joined by the epic sound of French horns. Brass is the sound of the action hero, the fanfare is the sound of celebrating victory; our iguana is a brave little soul, battling against the odds for survival.

The harmonies have gone from being the somewhat static sound of pedal notes and drones, to the moving and developing chords of noble endeavour. We move between F# major and F# minor and alternate between two alternative chord sixes, D# major and D major (I’m spelling it as Eb for ease of reading); this tells us the outcome is not yet certain and yet the heroic sounding brass is positive – we are gaining hope.

Screen Shot 2019-06-27 at 06.49.59              F# minor                    Eb (or D#) major       F# major                      F# minor

Screen Shot 2019-06-27 at 06.50.09                D major                                            F# minor

We hear a similar spirit in the opening brass chords of Sibelius’s Finlandia (written to express heroic patriotism and protest) which also includes the changes from major to its minor chord, and the use of two alternative chord sixes (natural and raised).

The sense of growing hope is reinforced through the rising melody, played in soaring strings. Each time the melody moves upwards through a passing note, it uses a raised fourth note from the scale, (from the Lydian mode), a sound which is thoroughly associated with wonder, mystery and the miraculous. Add to this the human touch: admittedly low in the mix, the Hollywood-style chorus of voices is now supporting the rising string melody. This epic struggle is now about us, as humans. We fight to achieve, to overcome, to survive.

And then the best moment (for me) of all: the climax of this rising melody is not a blazing triumphant chord to announce the arrival of the iguana to safety, but a drop-out of music to an eerie-sounding gong, lots of reverb and a faint hint of a final drone, (the tonic F# – neither major nor minor). This dropping out of music instead of a climax was foreshadowed when the iguana failed to make it to the rocks (24 mins 09) at which point the composers gave us a rising phrase that failed to resolve. It is therefore not an unsatisfying surprise to have no triumphant arrival in the music, but a reinforcement of the story that the life of these creatures is harsh. One miraculous moment of survival, yes, but a life-time of danger still to come.




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!