Music in nonfiction: crutch or crucial?

I  was talking to a colleague not long ago about potentially adding music to a journalistic photo slideshow.

“I think music is too often used as a crutch,” he said, suggesting that perhaps a recent video about a juggler might have been a more appropriate project for background music.

Is he right? Is music just a crutch in most journalistic and other nonfiction uses? Worse, is it manipulative or misleading?

Well music certainly can be all those things, if it’s used incorrectly. But I submit that music — with its unique ability to connect emotionally with the listener — can and should be a part of many nonfiction uses, journalism included.

Think for a moment of the haunting and beautiful theme to Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary. The piece, called “Ashokan Farewell,” is a plaintive lament, perfectly capturing the tragic glory of the Civil War years. Ane yet it’s not a period piece – it was written in 1982 by Jay Ungar, a frequent contributor to PBS productions. Somehow it feels right at home amid stories of that terrible war.

If music can be used to help tell the story of the Civil War, can it be used for contemporary nonfiction work?

The answer, of course, is yes. But how does a non-fiction storyteller use music to its best effect?

Certainly different platforms — documentary video, photo slideshows, interactive projects — require different things. But I’d like to suggest a few guidelines that cover multiple story forms:

1. First, this is not about the music. It’s about the story you’re trying to tell. The music MUST fit within the tone established for the story (unlike, say, a music video, where the images serve the music).

2. Don’t try to create illusion that the music you’re adding is part of the scene you’re documenting (unless of course, it is). That’s like using Photoshop to add something to a news photo. This can be  a fine line, and might seem to conflict with No. 1. If you’re in doubt as to whether you’re misleading the audience by choosing a piece of music, always leave it out. Go with something else. Risking your credibility isn’t worth it.

3. Don’t steal someone else’s music. This seems obvious, but in the cut-and-paste age, the temptation is there. Don’t yield to it. Do some research – know the law when it comes to fair use, trademarks and the like.

 So where do you find just the right music for your project?

 There are scads of people selling pre-recorded music online (search “royalty-free music” for an idea.) If you’re looking for something in particular, find someone who can create it for you. MySpace is full of bands and composers who are looking to distribute their music; perhaps you can find someone whose music you like who will allow you to use it for free, in exchange for the exposure. Just make sure you get the agreement in writing.

You can also try your hand at creating your own music. With tools like Garage Band and Acid, plus the plethora of free and low-cost loops out there, this might be easier than you think, especially if you have some time and the inclination to play around.

And there are few things in life more fun than playing around with music.

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10 Responses to “Music in nonfiction: crutch or crucial?”

  1. kgreenbaum Says:

    Great music evokes emotion. It would be too strong to say that it manipulates the listener, but I assume we have to take care that the music doesn’t do what would be more important for the facts to do. I think often about the Ashokan Farewell theme and Burns’ excellent use of that piece throughout his Civil War documentary. We’ve had generations of time to reflect and report on that chapter in American history. Would I want I want music to evoke emotion on a slideshow about the “Miracle on the Hudson”? I don’t think so.

  2. Christopher Ave Says:

    That’s right – music just isn’t appropriate for every interactive journalistic project. But if you were going to do a documentary piece on the pilot – trying to find out what experiences in his life prepared him for the moment in which he would either save those 150 people or not – I think you would be needlessly robbing yourself of a tool if you did not at least consider it.

  3. Greg Jonsson Says:

    Nothing significant to add other than that I love Ashoken Fairwell (I’m such a dork that the soundtrack to “The Civil War” was probably among the first 10 CDs I ever purchased).
    Congrats and good luck with your blog.

  4. Greg Jonsson Says:

    Ashoken Farewell! doh.

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