Noises off

by John Q on April 22, 2020

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.



Peter Sivey 04.22.20 at 4:34 am

Agree completely (and I’m only 38!). Related: I’m my department’s PhD student coordinator. Every year we enter students in the “three-minute thesis” competition. Students have to do a short presentation on their research – a great initiative, esp for econ PhDs who can be quite introverted and lack public speaking skills. However the university “training” for the three minute thesis encourages students to concentrate on presenting entirely superficial aspects of their research – in other words to do a purely marketing “speil”. With some nice pictures in their slides or silly thought-bubble or enlarged question marks. I would rather give them the opposite advice: present one key table of results, or at least a graph with some actual data. I like text and numbers! Unfortunately this is bad advice for actually doing well in the competition.


hix 04.22.20 at 6:58 am

Starting from the extreme: Star Wars is just fine with music as well as weapons noise in space. Documentaries: I don´t watch many, the ones i do stumble upon tend to have much bigger problems than just background music. They are more often than not driven by narrative over content and stupid cliffhangers about nothing. If i want that, i can watch well Star Wars for example.


DocAmazing 04.22.20 at 8:31 am

You’re just bugged because they didn’t get Ennio Morricone to score your video.


Pawan Ranta 04.22.20 at 8:37 am

Music sometimes complements narrative in the documentaries.


Matt 04.22.20 at 9:23 am

I might have to think about various documentaries I’ve watched (professional ones) to think if I can think of any where music helped, but I know when I see some sort of news or info piece on the web, and there’s music in it, I think it seems like a chintzy ploy to make the content look more important, dramatic, or…something than it would be on its own. I suppose some people must like it (though I would not want to count out the possibility of marketing people being mostly wrong) but I find it somewhere between annoying and infuriating.


Kit 04.22.20 at 9:45 am

Music might not convey information, but it does convey emotion, and as such is used extensively by filmmakers who lack the chops to otherwise elicit feelings in the viewer through dialog and images. Just like how every filmed street has been wet down, once you start noticing how music is used as a crutch, you can stop noticing it. This was the one proscription of Dogma 95 that really stuck with me.


Jim Buck 04.22.20 at 11:07 am

I like the faked audio on this; not everyone does.


Collin Street 04.22.20 at 11:11 am

Music, by contrast, conveys no information at all (except, I guess, “this is bad music”).

Eh, kinda.

Connotative meaning is still meaning. Attitude. I think a few languages explicitly mark for “and [I think] this is a {good|bad} thing”, grammatically/syntactically, the same way english marks for plural and tense or japanese [sometimes/kinda] marks for evidentiality. But english doesn’t, so you have to use workarounds. An orchestral score makes that all… not explicit, I guess. But openly stated.

I mean, it’s perfectly fine to have an aethetic preference for a more-reserved style that puts a bigger burden on the listener to reconstruct the creator’s response or to form their own, whether generally or for some sorts of texts. And a person might reasonably find certain connotative statements false or untrue; “the sad music playing when the swan got eaten” is as much a falsehood or even a lie as “swans have three legs and eat gerbils”. Or it could just be an inappropriate-style thing like using too many [==”any”, for most of us most of the time, I’d guess] exclamation marks.

[a person might still dislike background music as being bad style, like using too many [== any] exclamation marks, or by being whatever-the-connotative-equivalent-of-a-lie-is, “sad music plays when the shark eats the swan”. But it’s still conveying “information” in both cases.]


Tom Streeter 04.22.20 at 11:43 am

If the music distracts they did it wrong (“they’, in this case, not meant to be anyone in particular). Music isn’t always the answer. Sometimes it’s as simple as laying down some room tone. A lecture isn’t just someone talking; there’s an ambient difference between sitting in a living room and sitting in a classroom even if the words are identical. With the bounded visual frame and the lack of the entire z-axis, you gotta play mind games to shoehorn the mind into the moment. Sometimes a spotlight and a dark stage is the right choice. Other times you hire Industrial Light & Magic. It’s the same with sound design.


Bill Benzon 04.22.20 at 11:53 am

I agree with you about the music in the most recent Attenborough work. I find it really oppressive and finally gave up on them.


CP Norris 04.22.20 at 11:56 am

I think it’s gotten less bad in the last two decades. Recently I rewatched Malcolm X and Donnie Brasco and I couldn’t believe the sweeping score every time a character felt a feeling.


Nick Alcock 04.22.20 at 12:01 pm

For me, quiet background music does do a good job at the one thing it’s meant to do: evoking emotion. But often it is far too loud, when the only emotion it evokes is irritation. (Also, I’ve found with some things that the music is so good that I start listening to it and treating what’s actually being said as foreground irritation, which is surely also wrong!)

But then I would never go to a pub with smoke and strobe lights for a musical experience: all those give me is headaches…

Ironically, the Attenborough documentary I found to have the most annoying sound was the Life of Birds episode on birdsong, but this had nothing to do with the actual work: the problem was that the AV receiver I was using had real trouble working out whether birdsong was speech or not, so it kept on flipping it from surround to centre speakers and back once every second or so, taking Attenborough’s voice with it. Now that was annoying!


notGoodenough 04.22.20 at 12:15 pm

In support of the OP, I don’t think the point is music shouldn’t be used, but rather it should be used sparingly and sensibly. The trend of having to put music in all the time, rather than just allowing people to appreciate the moment, does annoy me – particularly when it isn’t appropriate. Having music in a grand movie epic might make sense and help develop the emotional themes, but when you are trying to listen to a discussion about economics it is just distracting (particularly for people like myself, who are hard of hearing).

In short, having sweeping orchestral music while seeing the earth from space for the first time might emphasise the importance of the moment, but having a tuba following you around while you are trying to shop for new socks is just irritating. Some restraint and context is often useful.


Cian O'Connor 04.22.20 at 12:30 pm

This is partly because the music is bad cliched rubbish. One of the most annoying things about modern Hollywood movies is the waves of terrible, orchestral, pap. And yes I would include the beloved John Williams in that.

My least favorite use is the way in which directors won’t trust you to have an emotion, or properly respond to the scene (because they’re incompetent), so they use the music to tell you what to feel.


oldster 04.22.20 at 12:32 pm

I’m delighted by the concision of Pawan Ranta’s rebuttal:
“On the other hand, not-p”.

Of course, it puts forward no counter argument or evidence. But somehow, by the very modesty of its claim, it comes to make the OP’s view look overblown and hyperbolic: music never complements narrative?

JQ, your accent in the linked video is nowhere near as thick as promised. I’m a mere American, and can understand you perfectly well.


reason 04.22.20 at 1:04 pm

We live in a world dominated by salesmen (some of whom are anomalously called managers). There is constant battle between the purveyors of surface images and those who understand the substance underlying those images. Unfortunately, in a world flooded with data (but not information) where attention is a chronically short resource the purveyors of superficiality are winning. I also find it distressing, but I’m not sure that I know the answer.


Tom 04.22.20 at 1:45 pm


I am almost 43 and I fully agree. It is often a pathetic, and cheap, way to elicit emotional reactions in the audience (a bit like clapping in sit-coms – something I have now unfortunately become used to).

I find this similar to the abuse of sugar in food (I live in the US). Just throw it in there, even if it does not belong and w/o concern for health, so as to give that burst of taste. You also realize the taste is quite artificial in the sense that you rarely get to taste the actual ingredients of the food as their flavors is swamped by sugar (maybe that’s the goal, I guess).

Coming back to music. I wonder when this started. I like e.g. Puccini but it is hard to listen to it w/o realizing that the way he uses music in some scenes is not that different – at least to my untrained ear – from the way background music is used in current films.


Heshel 04.22.20 at 3:20 pm

Yeah, the ominous music in movies just irritates and puts me in mind of that Eddie Izzard line, “Piss off, you cellists!”

Noises Off is, however, an excellent play and, fortunately, the only productions I’ve seen were un-scored.


Anarcissie 04.22.20 at 4:03 pm

Music (or more generally sound art) is actually the dominant form in most cinema. (I use the hoity-toity word because not all of it can be considered ‘movies’ — 15-second commercials, for example.) That is why aficionados of the silents feel that the advent of sound was a disaster — it overpowers the visual experience they are looking for. But the people demanded it, and before movies had sound tracks they had pianists, organists, sometimes even an orchestra. Cinema is art in time, so its fellows are opera, drama, dance (classical, modern, and popular), song, all of them organized musically, constructions of timing and rhythm. I don’t know about documentaries, though. Most of the ones I’ve seen appeared to be intentionally boring.

@reason — the substance underlying surfaces are simply other surfaces, are they not? We can’t see the Ding an sich — if there is one. If we could catch sight of it it would turn out to be another surface.


Alan White 04.22.20 at 7:47 pm

Thanks for the link and the lecture. I’d never seen video of you before and it’s nice to be able to attach a good mental image to your posts–which I always read and learn from.

I love Aussie accents. One day early in a class when I was teaching logic here in Wisconsin I complimented a student on having a “good eye” for solving a certain problem. I repeated “good eye” then in my best Bruce accent, realizing that it sounded identical to the familiar greeting. (Bruce BTW is a character I once played in a self-made cooking video for a segment of a fictional show I dubbed “Bachelor Fodder”.) I proceeded to teach the entire class in that accent, and the class played right along. Certainly one of my most memorable classes for form if not content.


DCA 04.22.20 at 8:48 pm

I’m with Anarcissie: music in cinema can provide additional emotional content that visuals sometimes cannot (try watching thrillers/horror with the sound off). But I would have thought that straight dialog in cinema rarely has much music behind it (unless it is sung dialog). Why it would be added to a lecture completely escapes me, especially since
the lecturer wasn’t (in this case) even involved in the selection.

Perhaps this is related to the near-ubiquity of music in restaurants?

Warning, though: I’m another Grumpy Old Guy, indeed one whose musical tastes are
completely classical.


TheSophist 04.22.20 at 10:47 pm

I once saw a documentary called “This is Spinal Tap.” I thought the music added a certain je ne sais quoi.


JanieM 04.23.20 at 12:00 am

I’m delighted by the concision of Pawan Ranta’s rebuttal:
“On the other hand, not-p”.

Of course, it puts forward no counter argument or evidence. But somehow, by the very modesty of its claim, it comes to make the OP’s view look overblown and hyperbolic: music never complements narrative?

It’s an ad. Follow the link. ;-)


Anthony 04.23.20 at 12:29 am

I was thinking that the only movie I remember with no music is “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.” But now I see that someone has credit for the music. Still, I don’t remember any, and it is a hospital tale for today.


J-D 04.23.20 at 1:12 am

… my accent, which is too strong even for some Aussies.

That surprises me.

I grew up around people who mostly (unsurprisingly) had accents like the one I have now, which is close to one end of the Australian accent spectrum, the end which is furthest from the broadest ‘ocker’ accents at the other end of the spectrum. Certainly your accent, which I’ve heard both recorded and live, is broader than mine, but it’s not nearly as broad as some I’ve encountered, and I’ve not so far encountered one that was so broad that it gave me difficulty understanding it.

When you say ‘too strong’, do you actually mean ‘so strong that it interferes with comprehension’? I’m curious about the backgrounds of any Australians who find that your accent is so strong it affects comprehension. (It’s a different matter if what you mean is ‘so strong that they deprecate it’.)


Bob Michaelson 04.23.20 at 1:29 am

John –
Are you offended by the background music in a documentary such as Night and Fog?

If so, perhaps the problem is with you?


LFC 04.23.20 at 1:51 am

Have only skimmed most of the comments, but I don’t think someone has yet mentioned political ads at least in the U.S., many if not all of which are now routinely accompanied by “music” that is hideous and obtrusive. Many of these ads wd probably be bad enough without the musical accompaniment but with it they are unlistenable (and unwatchable). Not necessary to have a working TV to be aware of this, as they can be found in a variety of media during election seasons.

As for movies/film, sometimes music works well, sometimes not. Worked in Star Wars (the John Williams score), probably worked in many Hitchcock movies, ditto so-called spaghetti Westerns (Ennio Morriconi was mentioned above), the score for Victory at Sea (R Rodgers and I forget who his collaborator was) etc. OTOH there are plenty of movies where it’s probably obtrusive and annoying. And I think it’s v overused in documentaries, though frankly it’s been a while since I watched one.

P.s. Sometimes the music is pretty essential, as in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. At least the scene where the camera tracks a car driving on an LA thruway with “California Dreaming” in the background.


nastywoman 04.23.20 at 5:22 am

watch this utmost awesome moment of ”noises on”:

and I know it’s a bit off topic as she doesn’t talk –
BUT – she is Australian!
AND from Kyle Buchanan:

”in our current moment of danger and despair, when we are searching for even the smallest comforts that can help see us through to the next day, I’ve found myself drawn to the Owareto.
Said out loud, the Owareto sounds like an exotic species of antelope, and if I capitalized this the way the New York Times style guide suggests — OWARETO, flush with intimidating capital letters — you might wonder whether it was the name of a virus or the acronym of a health agency racing to contain it.
Fortunately, this has nothing to do with any of that. The Owareto I’m referring to is an Oscar-Winning Actress Reacting Emotionally to Opera, and right now, she’s all I’ve got.

My first encounter with an Owareto was in 2004, with Jonathan Glazer’s audacious drama “Birth,” starring Nicole Kidman. The film was released during Kidman’s post-Oscar cool-down, when her résumé was dominated by bombs like “The Stepford Wives” and “Bewitched,” and I remember the theater was deserted. Audiences and critics had grown skeptical of the actress, and “Birth” had a logline so dicey — a 10-year-old boy insists he is the reincarnation of Kidman’s dead husband — that many simply stayed away.
What they missed was a virtuoso sequence nearly halfway through where Kidman, utterly rattled by the child’s eerie certainty, is spirited away for an opera date with her smug fiancé (played by Danny Huston). The couple races to their seats as Wagner’s “Die Walküre” begins, and in one long, unbroken shot, the camera pushes in on Kidman’s face as she lets herself begin to believe the impossible.
It’s an incredible emotional arc — over several minutes, without a single word of dialogue…


Bruce Baugh 04.23.20 at 9:12 am

I’m definitely starting up a petition to get music out of the documentaries of Godfrey Reggio.



reason 04.23.20 at 11:44 am

Anarcissie @19,
Well yes, but that doesn’t mean that one level of abstraction is as hood as any other, so I’m not reall sure I follow what your point is.


oldster 04.23.20 at 1:26 pm

Janie M @ 23 —

True, the name is linked to an Australian LED lighting distributor.

But people who work at LED lighting distributors are allowed to have opinions about music in documentaries, aren’t they?

The alternative, that this sentence was algorithmically generated by a robot of some sort, would be very intriguing in its own way.

To read JQ’s post and distill its thesis to such a clear statement — and then negate it — is a very impressive feat of AI.


John McGowan 04.23.20 at 2:44 pm

Melodrama quite literally means a drama accompanied by music. It drifted toward its more negative connotations because the music compels a certain emotional response to the depicted action–and often an over-simplistic response.

A pet peeve for this aging curmudgeon: music in restaurants which makes conversation close to impossible in some cases. A pub in London–the Lamb’s Conduit–advertised proudly that it had no music, which was music to our ears.


bianca steele 04.23.20 at 4:55 pm

I think we live in the age of the Gesamtkunstwerk. We want all art to attain the status of music, essentially: to provoke a mental-emotional attitude in the person who experiences (the verb is significant) that art. We judge rock concerts on their art and stage direction. We like fiction that evokes a scene with all the felt detail of an oil painting. That’s going to affect lectures too.

Personally, I seem almost never to notice music in films, unless it’s a piece I know well or it’s used the way it is in Star Wars (the scene LFC notes was memorable, maybe not actually good, but memorable, but I always watch the music credits and always wonder when 80% of them were used, even in Tarantino movies) but that’s on me. I’ve seen a number of nature documentaries recently, and the music does seem intrusive at first, but tends to drop away from my awareness. I can see the point, I guess, if there’s nothing to hear but a helicopter whirring. I don’t need music to tell me the aerial scene is neat but might find silence equally jarring.


John Quiggin 04.23.20 at 10:46 pm

Thanks for interesting discussion. I’m not uniformly opposed to music in films, or advocating doctrinaire realism. Obviously, films are illusions, and if something helps to make the illusion work (washed streets, white noise or whatever) that’s fine by me. And I love plenty of films with songs on the soundtrack (Oh Brother, Where Art Thou for example). I’m just struck by the fact that it’s such a universal convention, like having boys play all the female roles in Elizabethan drama (if that was indeed the case, and not just a factoid I picked up somewhere), and that no one even notices.

As for documentaries, I’m fine with unobtrusive music when there’s no other sound. It’s music over the narration that drives me demented.


paul 04.24.20 at 12:10 am


nastywoman 04.24.20 at 1:47 am

”It’s music over the narration that drives me demented”.

or the narration over the music – as in this case:


ozajh 04.24.20 at 6:34 am

TheSophist @ 22,

‘This is Spinal Tap’ was satire, there was no such group. Just saying.


Bryn Davies 04.24.20 at 9:52 am

I’m confused as to which of TheSophist @ 22 and ozajh @ 37 is being ironic. Without trying to precipitate a discussion about irony.


Lee A. Arnold 04.24.20 at 11:32 am

John, if I may, your accent is fine. 1. Narrow your dynamic range. Some of your syllables are so loud that there is sound distortion at the microphone hard limit, while other syllables are so quiet that I cannot hear them. Get moderate volume into all the syllables. Start by: Speaking slowly. Speaking from your diaphragm. Practice a little by imitating the lines from an Australian actor you admire (here in the US, I chose John Huston). Writing shorter sentences can help a lot. 2. Get an inexpensive USB mic for a warmer tone, like the Blue Snowball. 3. Make sure there is no wall close behind you, to eliminate echo.


DigitalRob 04.24.20 at 5:50 pm

I began my career at a respected West European broadcast network. The most bizarre practice at that otherwise sound operation was the use of background music in certain kinds of TV news pieces, usually to add a satirical or light-hearted touch to the report. I’d never want to be associated with anything like that again.


TheSophist 04.24.20 at 7:44 pm

Well, I thought about applying a sarc tag, but I guessed that that the CT commentariat was smart enough to recognize the bleedin’ obvious. Oh, well.


TheSophist 04.24.20 at 7:47 pm

Oh, dear. I have just realized that “I was being sarcastic” is exactly what DJT is saying right now. Folks, don’t drink or inject bleach, but do listen to/watch Spinal Tap, preferably turned up to 11 (because it’s one louder).


Adam Hammond 04.24.20 at 8:09 pm

Great comments. Seems like a “what is art” kind of discussion. If the creators’ purposes for the artifact include influencing people, then it is legitimate to include any medium, and take a risk of getting the choice wrong. Yesterday’s powerful choices become today’s tired, overused pablum. Or do you maintain that academic products are not art? Or perhaps the form is subject to more rigorous limits?

In academic publications in the natural sciences, computers led to a huge improvement in the quality of figures, which has now crept over the line into marketing in the worst cases. I do not look forward to electronic publications with mood music!
[I make the risky choice to include an exclamation point.]


Bartholomew 04.24.20 at 10:40 pm

There is something even worse – those documentaries about music or about a musician in which a song or piece starts, and then is straightaway turned down so that the interviewees can talk over it. That drives me demented. It pretends to be paying homage to the music or the musicians but then justs sh1ts all over them.


mrearl 04.25.20 at 12:29 am

Subtitles might help some of us, John. Of course, my Southern-accented American English could be just as difficult for you. “Yawl” and such may not translate well, even with subtitles.


John Salmond 04.26.20 at 7:07 am

music in movies is for directors who can’t direct


Lee A. Arnold 04.26.20 at 11:19 am

I finished the one below a couple of weeks ago. No music. Music can be used by artists to work positively in film drama (although some of the greatest eschew it, like Bresson and Ozu). I was just reading a Twitter feed by people who think Kubrick’s The Shining is a terrible boring movie. I don’t think it’s his best, but they miss the point that it is an anti-horror movie, e.g. all the lights are always turned on. The whole horror plot is like a red herring on a Kubrick a la carte, and Kubrick’s sly dig is at the audience that needs horror like they need fattening food, sugary treats, and continuous entertainment to overcome that bored, sleepy, withdrawn feeling. (And need music soundtracks under everything.) Of course Kubrick’s use of music in The Shining (Bartok, Ligeti, Penderecki) is exemplary. And 2001 would hardly work without the Strauss and especially the Ligeti. I think that in nonfiction, music is mostly distracting, although in feature-length documentaries it can carry the audience through interludes, over pertinent nonsound footage, and to express emotional counterpoint efficiently. There’s a sort of “feature-length audience emotionaal arc” you have to pay attention to, or none but the Zen will sit through it. But over short science and math videos it is distracting and silly, even worse when it has pop beats. And there is way too much of this. There is much ruin in a video nation! Anyway here I’m trying to combine science and art while masking to no avail my New Jersey strangled vowels:


Kiwanda 04.26.20 at 6:58 pm

I kinda like the Star Wars opening without music, although Rocky Feeling Strong Now, not so much. The Spielberg Face seems a bit less tiresomely manipulative without music. While I don’t like Vangelis much, I thought the score added a lot to Blade Runner, though I was surprised to notice that it was fortunately understated for Roy Batty’s monologue.


Jonathan Goldberg 04.27.20 at 3:36 am

In “Alexander Nevsky” Eisenstein sometimes changed the timing of scenes to fit Prokofiev’s music. In any event, it’s impossible for me to conceive of the movie without the score.

That’s the other extreme.


Bob 04.27.20 at 4:24 pm

I generally agree with the comments above. Music plays on the emotions, it attempts to persuade in ways that are not rational. For this reason I think most people would object to music being used for “straight” news stories and a lot of documentaries.

But I’ll add this, and I don’t know if anyone else has noticed it. Sometimes in subtitled films you will get descriptions of the music, such as “upbeat music” or “sad music.” And I have found that it is amazing how the word “kills.” There are scenes in dramas where the music seems perfectly suited to the action and contributes to it appropriately. But the moment it is described as “upbeat music” it seems like the artifice has been laid bare and you feel like a dupe.


novakant 04.27.20 at 10:10 pm

The real bete noire of the documentary community isn’t music, but the ubiquitous use of voice-over to help the story along.

Generally speaking, directors with ambition try to avoid it (it’s not always up to them).

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