Noises off

A couple of weeks ago, I recorded a video presentation about the likely employment effects in Australia, as part of my university’s response to the pandemic. The sound quality wasn’t great, what with reliance on my computer microphone, a spotty Internet connection and my accent, which is too strong even for some Aussies.

The communications people at the Uni got back to me and said it might have to have subtitles, but they could improve things by lowering the volume of the background music. My immediate reaction was unprintable, and while I managed to calm down, I wrote back to say that under no circumstances would I accept any kind of musical accompaniment. They cut out the music and managed to get it done with closed captions (the kind that are turned off my default).

But, obviously, I’m in an aging and shrinking minority here. David Attenborough’s documentaries, which I used to love, are now unwatchable (or rather unlistenable), with lush orchestral music crashing over his narration. If it’s not that, it’s an annoying metronomic repetition of the same five notes over and over. When people complain, the answer is “this isn’t a lecture”. But that’s exactly what I want from a documentary – a lecture with high-quality video combining to convey more information than either alone. Music, by contrast, conveys no information at all (except, I guess, “this is bad music”). If I wanted a content-free audiovisual experience, I’d far prefer a live band at the pub, with smoke and strobe lights, to someone’s musical interpretation of animal behavior overlaid on some barely audible talk.

Thinking about this brings up the more general issue of background music in films. It’s such an established convention you barely notice it most of the time. But I’ve quite often had the experience of hearing vaguely dissonant music as a character enters a room, and not knowing if this is part of the film, supposed to be audible to the character, or just part of the soundtrack. It’s just as artificial in its way as the characters in a musical bursting into song at the drop of a hat, and yet it’s a standard part of what is supposed to be realistic drama.

That’s it from my Grumpy Old Guy persona. Does anyone share my grumpiness, or want to persuade me out of it.

30 thoughts on “Noises off

  1. Agree 100%. Also bloody background music drowning out the dialog of characters in movies is just plain annoying. At home I turn on subtitles and teletext a lot of the time. And your accent is perfectly understandable. If they thought they needed subtitles then it was because their music was drowning you out. Sorry I cannot join the team to persuade you out of your grumpiness.

  2. I watch various YouTube channels of people making things, and I’m always irritated when the title music, or music added for sequences with no voiceover, is much louder than the voiceover audio. You have the volume set so that the speaker is audible, and suddenly your TV is blaring much more loudly than necessary!

  3. Hmm. I can agree about background music being a distraction on documentaries and definitely lectures.

    It’s worth investing in a good microphone in this era. I’m a devotee of audiobooks and a good narrator is a joy to listen to and definitely no background music is needed.

    As for fiction, sometimes if you notice the background music, it’s not doing it’s job. On the other hand some great music has outlived whatever it was written to accompany – that will probably be the case for much of John Williams’ music – the Star Wars franchise isn’t ageing well. It’s hard to imagine a Wes Anderson film or a Hayao Miyazaki film without music – it’s a part of the story experience.

  4. Dear Prof, Quiggin,

    I must admit that the sound quality combined with your accent made it hard to follow the lecture (I am not Australian). I would suggest using a headset with microphone nest time – my experience with those is very good.

    Background music? That’s a big no-no.

  5. I think background music would be an unnecessary distraction in your videos. I watch lots of you tube videos to learn about various things and I find background music distracting when it is used.

    On the other hand, I enjoy a well chosen music in infotainment like nature documentaries and also in films, provided it is used sparingly.

  6. Got to admit: As a non native speaker I do have a hard time to understand what you say in the video presentations linked here. Think Its partly the accent but for the most part the audio quality. Even if it´t no, thats fnie aswell. It´s just a matter of a couple of hours to adapt to minor dialect in my experience, sure no nead to tailor everything to an audience that want´s everything to be spoken like American news.

  7. Friendly advice from a mumbler: it’s not just the accent but your delivery. Slow down to the 110 wpm of the BBC World Service. Articulate to an extent you subjectively feel exaggerated. Wear a bow tie like the BBC guy in “The King’s Speech”.

  8. Agree with everything you say, J.Q. I hate background music in documentaries. As you say, the idea-conveying information content of documentary orchestral and and electronic music is zero.

    Do I detect a fellow-hater of musicals? On the other hand, I can enjoy the right music in the right movie.

  9. Since these broadcasts are offical UQ, can’t they get the engineering faculty to set you up with some professional equipment?

  10. Record yourself reading some classic oratory, say Mark Antony’s funeral speech in “Julius Caesar” or Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Calculate your speed of delivery. You naturally slow down, to let the complex content do its work. But the principle holds for writing that isn’t genius.

    I ask my Spanish friends to speak to foreigners like me as if delivering a funeral oration for the King. “El Rey [ pause] fue sempre al servicio [short pause at the top of the rising inflection] del pueblo español [pause]. Nunca [pause], nunca fallò a su deber ..” Etc. Your lecture is more valuable than this vapid twaddle; treat it as such.

  11. I will not listen to a radio “news” bulletin if it has a background beat.
    On the other hand, I find modern movies often have more restrained & appropriate music than their 20th Century equivalents (for examples: compare Saving Private Ryan with The Longest Day, and the two versions of True Grit).

  12. I found the audio to be clear enough. And the analysis also! And I am more optimistic now about the economy. From a fellow South Aussie, if you identify as such.

  13. Hi John,
    I make my living doing videos, mostly business. Anyway here’s a few thoughts. First, yep that video was very ordinary from a technical point of view. The main problem is the very bad internet connection which garbled the audio, often happens with apps like skipe. Why was this video done this way. It appears that it did not need to be a “live’ recording as it was edited later. Maybe you should talk to the Uni and come up with a better way of doing this. Maybe you could consider using a smart phone such as a iPhone to record your videos which is a much better quality approach and then upload the files to the UNI if thats feasible.Yes you MUST have an external mic, six to eight inches away from your mouth. Lapel mics would work well. Other thoughts. Get rid of that backdrop, does you no favours at all. A library of books behind you (although a cliche) would be more natural. Yep, No music, if the audio is clean there is no need and will detract from what you are saying. If the smart phone approach is OK then get a Video app called filmicpro, will improve the output greatly, costs $30.

  14. Hey the original True Grit was great in every respect.
    Background music for lectures seems weird for me. Maybe if executed with great finesse, to turn the whole thing into a performance.

  15. My brother used to work in acoustic engineering and he was involved with the re-development of the RMIT owned Capitol Theater in Melbourne. There is a lot of noise in the buildings (if you are the only person on a sixth floor then you will understand where the noise comes from), hence movies have soundtracks to mask the building noise. Some of the documentaries were/are made for cinemas but shown on television – way back in the day you could always catch a documentary at the cinemas and apparently the Nova still does show them occasionally.
    As to whether the background music makes something unwatchable, well that fits into the category of movies with execrable dialog or wooden acting. A bad choice is a bad choice. I tend to think that 90% violin music is unlistenable and ruins everything but that is a personal taste.

  16. I tried to listen to your presentation and noted to friends that folks from OZtralia don’t speak Murikan.

  17. Three cheers for non-diegetic music in (non-documentary) film, when used appropriately as by e.g. the Coen brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson, Mike Leigh.. The score for No Country for Old Men is so minimal as to be practically unnoticeable, yet is an essential part of the film.

    Various comedies make a gag out of the convention of non-diegetic music: you think the music is just part of the score, then the camera pans or cuts to show the musician(s) playing it as part of the diegesis. IIRC, this happens in one of the Austin Powers movies (with Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach?), Paddington, one or more episodes of Community…

    And +1 to James Wimberley’s advice; I tell the teachers I train that they should go as slow as they possibly can, and then go slower than that

  18. Even leaving music aside, modern, gritty British detective series on television are difficult for an American to understand without titles. The accents are “realistically” regional or lower-class, the dialogue is confusingly fast, and the background is compounded of traffic, irrelevant conversations, and other noise. Verismo is overrated.

  19. John, despite the poor sound quality you sound fine to me. But then I is educated in Queensland.

    I suppose Jame’s advice about speaking slowly is correct even though I hate that. Ah’m not Ahmerican, ah can listen fahster than molahsses. (That last sentence should be read in an atrocious fake American accent.) I think everyone on video should talk faster. Much faster! (And no, I’m not addicted to meth.) Fortunately, I’ve discovered it is possible to speed up youtube videos. It’s now over two years in this Australian capital that I’ve had internet fast enough to play video. Who’s Slow-vakia now? Oh wait, we still are…

  20. There is music and then there is muzak. Most of what plays in the background of youtube videos and the like seems like muzak to me and adds nothing. But the point of music, carefully added, is that it allows you to take control what your audience is feeling. Do you want to control what they feel? If not, then don’t add music.

  21. “the point of music, carefully added, is that it allows you to take control what your audience is feeling. Do you want to control what they feel?”
    In a movie maybe. In a lecture you want to control what they THINK.

  22. Akarog,
    Scientists have to accpet a lot of blame for humanities current perdicament. One speaker in this link says that if we do not act now temps will reach a rise of 1.5° sometime between 2040 and 2050. That was an extrememly irresponsible statement. Temps hve already increased 1.5° since pre industrial times. They have officially reached one degree. But there has been a problem with moving the goal posts. At some point humanity started using the 20th century average as our target rather than the pre industrial average which was .5° lower. I guess the justification was that we have more complete records using 20th century data. Some sites even use a satalight era set of data which makes creating a sense of urgency even harder to do.
    So saying that humanity is in danger of expiriencing a 1.5° temp. increase by 2040 is a not even a good faith statement. That speaker has to know, unless he is only a mindless hologram of the simulation, that the polar ice cap will be melted at least part of the year by the time 2040 arrives. What does he think that the conseunces for humanity of that are going to be? Does he think that will cause an increase in the earth’s carrying capacity?
    The message that people take away from these appeals to change is that if we change drastically SOON we can still avoid the worse. So there is still hope! That message is horse shit!! I have to seriously wonder if the people saying it really believe it.
    There is still a bit of hope. But drastic change is no longer sufficient to keep that hope alive. Drastic change is now only a prerequisite for keeping hope alive. Now we need drastic change and incredible luck. We need drastic change immediately to give humanity the time to achieve technological breakthroughs, most importantly working deployable nuclear fussion technology.
    Humanity’s leaders put us on the road to extinction. What humanity has the power to do to at this point,with out the need of luck, is to make sure that those who put us on this road are the first to go extinct.
    To achíeve that takes determination. But this determination can not be shared equally. Some people have way more leverage than others.

  23. I don’t think the speed of delivery is a problem. But the poor sound gives the illusion that you’re talking fast. To put it another way, you would have to talk unnaturally slowly and clearly to overcome the effect of the poor sound.

  24. Another example of good practice is that of air traffic controllers, pilots, and their counterparts in space exploration. They have to work with poor sound quality, and occasional situations of high stress. They are carefully trained to speak slowly, clearly and calmly, whatever happens.

  25. akarog,

    Your Attenborough post reminds me that a lot of background music in contemporary movies and documentaries is based on simple “sawing” motifs. By “sawing” motifs i mean two note figures that just go up-and-down, up-and-down repetitively like a man rapidly sawing wood. I’d say the composers lack imagination and talent and have resorted to the most simple and repetitive figures possible to add suggested drama to the footage.

    I was tempted to use the phrase “fugue-like” sawing motifs but I am not trained in music or music theory. Maybe a musician can tell us what these composers are doing, repetitively, programmatically and with little creativity to create their scores. It could be that they are using true fugue techniques albeit in a musically impoverished manner or that they are using “fuguing tune” techniques from choral and popular music put back on (electronic) strings and upped in tempo. Or maybe they are just using two-note allegro figures. Whatever they are doing it is highly annoying and mechanical. In aesthetic terms, it’s the modern cine-drama, cine-doco equivalent of elevator music.

  26. Agree, the Attenborough documentary on the GBReef was impossible to watch, the lush music compounded the lack of content. Undermined the message of climate change trouble.

  27. Curt Kastens: Your off-topic comment includes this remarkable assertion:
    “Temps have already increased 1.5° since pre industrial times.”
    IPCC special report, summary for policymakers, para A1 https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/:
    “Human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels, with a likely range of 0.8°C to 1.2°C.”
    Goodness, who to believe? The consensus position of a global panel of climate experts, drawing on all the published literature? Or the unsupported opinion of a random blog commenter giving no sources and displaying no pertinent qualifications? Bleach or antivirals, that’s a head-scratcher.

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