If I Knew the Answer…

A reader recently commented: “A friend of mine in ‘the business’ vented to me that as society cuts art and music from schools you see it being cut out of the budgets of film and television.”

I don’t know if there is a direct cause and effect going on here, but it’s an interesting notion. It raises the two-pronged question: “What is the value of an arts (i.e. music, theater, dance, etc.) education in today’s world?” and “Does the lack of such an education directly contribute to the ‘dumbing down’ of the scores we hear in films and on TV these days?”

Notice I said “the scores we hear” not “the scores that are composed”. What the audience finally gets to hear is at the discretion of people who often don’t have the most robust musical education or knowledge. This is one of the hardest lessons that new (i.e. young, inexperienced) film composers learn when they get started in the biz. Not only do they not own their finished product, their score often ends up being a musical camel (an animal thought to be a horse designed by committee) by the time it hits the big or small screen. The film editor and music editor’s temp score, the director and/or producer’s CD collection, the songs contributed by the music supervisor, the test audience’s comments all have a role in shaping the score. Add to this the fact that many decision-makers don’t know the difference between a flute and a bassoon (by sight or or by sound) and you start to wonder about the value of music as art rather than commodity.

OK, before I get too high up on my camel horse and do the lofty preaching thing, let me say that I came long ago to the realization that I work in show business. It always was and always will be about the bottom line. No studio head in history ever green-lit a movie because he/she thought that it would become a piece of cinematic history. From the studio’s perspective, movies and TV shows have one job function: earn more money than they cost to produce – period. Many movies and TV shows have gone on to stand the test of time and, viewed through the wrong end of the telescope looking back, can now be considered great art but that is a by-product, not the goal.

So, as long as the music supports the story and the emotion of a scene, does it really make any difference if it’s composed by a musical genius and played by an eighty-piece orchestra with human musicians or performed on a synth rig entirely controlled and programmed by someone with little-to-no formal music education but a great musical imagination? That all depends on who is in charge.

Steven Spielberg and Matt Groening both have a deep appreciation for orchestral music played by live musicians. Matt made it a stipulation that THE SIMPSONS needed orchestral music because he knew money and time constraints would mean that the animation wouldn’t be of the highest quality and felt strongly that the music would go a long way to spruce things up in the eyes and ears of the viewers. All of Spielberg’s blockbusters have an orchestral score with hummable themes composed by John Williams.

But for every Groening and Spielberg there are twenty others who aren’t as invested in the process, only the final result. In my 25 years as music editor I have witnessed many head-scratching encounters between producer/directors and composers (I will omit the names to protect the innocent … mainly myself).

One time, after a rousing, patriotic cue with brass blazing, the composer came into the booth to get the director’s reaction. The director lowered his eyes, shook his head and said, “I don’t know.” The composer responded, “OK, what?” The director grabbed his own crotch, like a baseball player adjusting his cup and said, “It just doesn’t get me right here.” The composer was speechless for a moment because it was a pretty stirring cue. But knowing that the director is always right asked, “What can I do to make it better?” The director answered, “I don’t know! If I knew the answer to that question then I’d be the composer!” The magic and the misery of music. Two people can hear the same piece of music and have polar-opposite emotional reactions to it. I don’t get Elvis Presley’s music. I don’t hate it, I just don’t get the overwhelming popularity of it. Millions and millions of people out there would think I’m just plain crazy. Anyway, not only did the director have a very different reaction to the cue than anyone else in the room, he had no vocabulary to express to the composer what to do about it.

Another time we were on the dubbing stage listening to a final playback. At the end the executive producer had only one question about the entire movie. He asked the composer if a particular cue in the movie as exactly the same as the cue the composer had auditioned for him a few days earlier. The composer answered “yes”.

Sidebar: If you’re not aware, one of the big changes in movie scoring over the past twenty or so years is the use of the “mockup” as an auditioning tool. In the days before the computer and synthesizer became mainstays in the studio, a composer would usually compose at a piano and if someone wanted to hear a sample of a cue, the composer would play as much of it as he/she could and would also hum some of the melody all the while shouting out “and the strings will take it here, now the french horns have the melody here” and so on. Now with “orchestra-in-a-box” programs a composer can is required to produce full mockups of the cues so the producer/director can hear (without relying on imagination) what it will “really” sound like when the cue is finished. On lower budget projects, the mockups become the final score but if there is enough money for a live orchestra the mockups serve as samples of what is to come.

After the composer said “yes” an interesting thing happened. The executive producer actually challenged the composer’s honesty, on the dub stage in front of everyone! The essence of the argument boiled down to the executive producer believing that the composer had made changes to the score after the mockup had been approved. The composer swore that not a single note had been changed. What I (and I’m sure the composer) was thinking at that moment was that, in fact, every note had been changed. Not their pitch, nor their rhythm, nor their tempo. But the mockup was all synthesizer and the final score was all live orchestra. As good as the instrument “samples” on synths have become they still don’t go all the way toward fully replacing an organic instrument played by a human. The argument became so churlish that the composer was called into the executive producer’s office after the dub for further discussion. The composer came armed with a CD that had recordings of the mockup and of the final cue to prove that the two cues were identical. The composer later confided to me that the exec finally dropped the matter but was never fully convinced that the exec believed him.

Will more funding of music education in schools help future directors be better musical communicators? Or help future executive producers have better ears to discern electronic from organic music? Or help future studio heads approve bigger music budgets so that more live orchestral music will be used in scores? If I knew the answers to those questions then I’d be the director … or executive producer … or studio head …

What do you think?

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9 thoughts on “If I Knew the Answer…

  1. I have always found it sad and just plain weird that music was elective when I was in school. And now that we all know about the studies that show that people who have music education in childhood are smarter, more well-rounded adults capable of higher levels of critical thinking than those who did not, yet there is still not a push for more music education. (I suppose it’s because administrators are concerned about standardized tests). Like other humanities, music is seen as entertainment or recreation instead of the serious academic subject it used to be.

    I guess this ambivalence towards music makes its way into other aspects of culture.

    (This reminds of me a book I bought recently, “Retromania”– the author argues that there is no actual NEW pop or rock music because pop culture is obsessed with its own past, and therefore keeps restyling the old. Very interesting idea).

    • I don’t mind music and art being elective in school, but don’t cut it out altogether.

      There is an old maxim that there are only seven basic plots in literature (some people say fewer, some say more). The premise is that ALL of literature springs from these basic plot devices and are all just variations on those themes. I guess that can apply to music, too, except that words need to be strung together in a particular order to make sense. In music, you can string together any notes in any sequence and still call it music. It may not be pleasant to everyone’s ears, but it’s still considered music.

  2. Hi Chris I just learned of your blog.

    One of the few places a person gets to sing out loud, in public, is in church. I enjoy singing in church and can sight-read the music, thanks to my childhood piano teacher who taught me how to read music. My singing voice is, at best, mediocre, but in a room full of others singing, I can blend in. Put me next to a GOOD soprano, and I reach the stunning heights of “not bad”.

    Your blog triggered a thought. If young people do not receive any kind of music education, how are they expected to experience the simple joy of singing in church, or any other place where sight-reading music is necessary? They would have to memorize the tune, somehow, then join in reading the words of the song and matching those words to the memorized tune.

    But, wait, it gets worse. One day I sat next to a visitor who was having a tough time following the hymn. She did not realize that the words of a song are not read like a book.

    Think for a minute how a song with three verses is presented in a song book. The first few bars of the first verse comes first, then directly under that are the first few bars of the second verse, then come the first few bars of the third verse. Next, further down the page, are the next few bars of the first verse, then the bars of the second verse, then the bars of the third verse. And so on.

    You sing the entire first verse, then go back to the beginning and sing the second verse, then the third.

    The woman next to me did not know to do that. She was reading and attempting to sing the text exactly as printed, in the order it was printed, just like reading a book. No wonder she got messed up!

    Because this woman had no musical education, she was completely unable to participate in congregational singing. A hymn book, song book or even sheet music was undecipherable.

    I am now thinking that it might be a good idea for a music director to invite people to a “Singing 101” class, which presumes NO musical education. The teacher would present the very basics of reading music so people could join in congregational singing with confidence. The concept of “verses” and how those verses are presented on the page would be the first topic, even before we got to notes, rests and other esoteric material.

    Thanks, Chris and David, you have triggered an idea.

    • Hi Carolyn. Thanks for finding the blog.

      Many studies have shown that there is a lot of value in a music education. Studying music stimulates both sides of the brain because music is abstract, but can be analyzed and dissected. Learning to read music is akin to learning a foreign language. If you learn to play an instrument you develop great hand-eye coordination. Playing in an orchestra or band teaches teamwork. Students who excel in music are also shown to excel in math. I’m all for music ed for its own sake, but it can also be a foundation for many other learning experiences in your life.

      And I can’t tell you how many times I have jumped to the wrong line of lyrics while singing hymns in church. D’oh!

  3. I was the one who originally made that comment. I will explain a little more what I meant by it. My friend had worked over the years (as I understand) in varying roles involving recording music.

    We got in a conversation where he explained how creativity was decreasing. Businessmen were making more creative decisions (and increasingly one’s they knew nothing about) and putting less money into the creative side of production and more money into those in suits who would say whether or not they liked your work. He observed that as funding for art and music was decreasing (he himself once made a decent living on his own going to elementary schools performing for kids) that eventually it was translating to a generation of kids not caring about art and music… not to mention a generation of artists that didn’t have control of their work and had to be told by someone who didn’t have a background in music whether or not they were any good.

    I tend to believe that. I’m 25 and even I can recognize it and see it in the youth today. And I believe more art and music in the classroom probably would help. Not in the short run. In the long run maybe. You start from the ground up. Start from a seedling to instill a certain awareness of culture and hope that when those kids are old enough they can make decisions which preserve the value of art and the value of music in our culture.

    Television has been dumbed down considerably since the 80’s and 90’s. Reality TV is king. Even the young hollywood stars and young musicians that are “hot” on the scene today can’t really compare to stars and musicians from the older days. I find it a rarity today to listen to someone singing on the radio who hasn’t had their voice altered by a computer in the recording studio.

    I think if society did put a greater emphasis on music especially, more people would pick up an instrument. More people would be open to art. And therefore as we get older more people would care about it and perhaps value it more.

    Business has it’s value. I have a background and degree in business. But there is a limit to where the suits should leave the creative decisions to those who are actually creative and guide them to make sure they are meeting whatever goals there are.

    At 25, I see fewer creative freedoms now than I remember when I was a kid. Those on top have more control than ever. Perhaps more education and appreciation would help… but it would certainly take more time. Sometimes it takes a new generation to come along and gradually replace the old thinking ways of another… to make progress.

    • I guess more or less in a nutshell… I think business has it’s value and business does rule – but at what cost? Funding for music and art is going out the window in schools, in communities, and even in some degrees in Hollywood. As funding goes away, you can argue that creativity is going down too as fewer decisions are being made by the artists themselves and more are made by the fat cats upstairs who may or may not have anything more than a subjective thought about what sounds good to them in the moment.

      Oh well – that’s my opinion. We all have one, don’t we? 🙂

  4. I’ve had similar experiences as an advertising art director. And no, I don’t think more education in the arts would help (much, anyway). 30-40 years ago there was music appreciation and art in school, but business trumps art.
    I can hardly believe I’m saying this, but this is probably as it should be. We artists would go off on some wild tangent and only accĂ­dently hit our target market without those business minds nixing our coolest ideas!

    • Thanks for your comment.

      You reminded me of something I wanted to include in the post, but forgot. It seems to me that art and commerce are inextricably linked. Yes, many of the great paintings and compositions of the Renaissance weren’t created for profit, but much of what we consider “art” of the last 200 years wouldn’t have existed or made its way into our consciousness without at least the need to feed a family driving its creation. I remember when the whole colorizing of black and white movies started some years ago and directors were incensed that “their art” was being tampered with. I believed, then and now, that they were being too righteous. They didn’t direct the movie for free. They didn’t have any of their own money at risk to create the movie. They wanted as many people as possible to see and experience the movie. Studies showed that younger audiences equated “black and white” with “old and boring”. Whether or not this was misguided thinking is all about how they were raised to appreciate cinema and storytelling and beside the point of this argument. “Old and boring” meant fewer people watching. If studios and networks could get more people to watch in color, then why not? Wasn’t that the goal in the first place?

      Since the invention of commercial movies and television, getting artistic work (i.e. script, acting, directing, composing, etc.) in front of a paying audience was totally at the mercy of someone else putting their belief and their money into the artist. No money, no art. But the Internet is changing all that. This blog is but one example. For the cost of a laptop computer and my monthly Internet subscription I’m writing a magazine of sorts focusing on a subject that interests me. I didn’t need anyone’s permission or funding to it. I didn’t have to “audition”. Some geniuses created a browser to let me get on the ‘net and even more geniuses created WordPress so that I could format my writing into a web-friendly experience for the reader AT NO ADDITIONAL COST TO ME! I’m not in this venture for profit, but many others are. Justin Beiber and Rebecca Black and The Gregory Brothers and Arianna Huffington and Matt Drudge and Perez Hilton have made lots of money and gained huge amounts of fame using free services on the Internet.

      Let me bring this back around to the original topic. The decision-makers are the people in charge of the purse strings. Most of them favored a business education over an arts education. If you want to be the captain of your own ship, there are more opportunities available to you than at any time in history to be creative and not be beholden to anybody. But if you still want to play with the big kids in the big sandbox, then you may have to trade some of your “freedom” and “creativity” in exchange for the big boost of cash that can help you get where you want to go.

      One of the best SIMPSONS stories isn’t from one of the scripts but happened in real life. Devotees of the show already know this, but I’ll share it again. Jim Brooks originally wanted Matt Groening to animate his weekly comic strip LIFE IN HELL for the short animated segments on THE TRACEY ULLMAN SHOW. When Matt met with the legal guys at FOX, they told him that if he signed the contract FOX would gain part ownership of the characters in the strip. Matt said thanks but no thanks and walked away from the deal. LIFE IN HELL was Matt’s baby and he didn’t want to share it with anyone. Jim really liked Matt’s work and thought his sense of humor fit in perfectly with the show so he told Matt to create something new and different that he would be willing to share. The legend goes that Matt took only 24 hours to scribble out the rough likenesses of the Simpson family. The rest is American pop culture history. But think about it one more time. Matt was discovered writing a comic strip that he didn’t do for free, FOX wanted part ownership (not free) of LIFE IN HELL but instead got full ownership of one of the most lucrative creations ever (also not free).

      Being great at art and great at business aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but each camp needs to embrace the other’s ideals in order to fulfill their deepest desires.

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