Children of Shanghai premiere tomorrow!

I was really excited to work on the one-hour documentary Childen of Shanghai, and I’m especially excited now because it premieres on Sky Documentaries tomorrow (International Children’s Day) at 7pm.

Working on this film was a challenge for all sorts of reasons — the short timeframe, the need to create a unique sound-world, dealing with background noise in interviews — but it has been one of the most rewarding projects I’ve ever worked on.

Read more about Children of Shanghai.

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 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!

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


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 10), 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 25), 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)


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).


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.


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

[3] Interview –

[4] Interview –

[5] Interview –