One of the reasons I started this blog was to celebrate and promote the use of music in nonfiction multimedia projects. So I was delighted to see this video from the Nieman Journalism Lab of New York Times multimedia producer Amy O’Leary explaining just how she used music in a groundbreaking election project.
O’Leary, one of journalism’s brightest multimedia lights, clearly explains why customized music so often can add just the right touch to multimedia work. In the election piece, she says, she searched in vain for appropriate music in the Times’ library of canned clips. Unable to find what she needed, she decided to create the soundtrack herself:
So using Apple Loops and GarageBand and Soundtrack Pro, I would develop a baseline score — so sort of a feel for a couple of the chapters. There were slightly different feels for the intro and the middle chapter and the later chapters. And then, after the piece was fully done, at the last minute, I would go back in and tweak the score. So I would make sure that a certain, you know, a cello hit would happen right when the photo was appearing and really adjust the score so that every moment was weighted, and that it was pulling out at the right moments and coming in at moments that were interesting. And trying to really — you know, it’s the difference between an off-the-rack suit and a custom tailored suit. It fits much better when you give it that level of detail and attention.
If you watch the Neiman video, you’ll see that O’Leary’s larger point involves the use of music in general. The Times, like many other traditional paper-based news organizations, is conservative in its use of music, fearing that improper or unskilled use of music could manipulate viewers’ emotions. O’Leary carefully explains how she insisted that original music was not only appropriate, but even necessary for her piece to reach its full potential.
It’s not surprising that so many journalists fear using music in multimedia storytelling - a fear expressed in this blog recently by Poyter’s legendary writing coach Roy Peter Clark. After all, most of us come from the traditional, conservative, high-minded world of newspapers. We are by nature suspicious of new storytelling tools — especially those used by radio or — gasp! — television.
But the very attraction of multimedia is that is has the power to engage all the senses. Why would we rob viewers of the power of music? Think, after all, about the great documentarians like Ken Burns, who used original music so effectively to help tell the story of the Civil War.
Can bad music distract viewers? Can overwrought music manipulate listeners’ emotions? Of course – just as bad words or images can distract or manipulate viewers.
The answer isn’t to eschew music. We should embrace music – that is, music used with skill and restraint. As we fight tooth and nail for viewers and readers, I believe it’s a tool we can’t afford to do without.