NO SPOILERS, BUT I WARN YOU: AFTER READING THIS BLOG YOU WILL (ACTUALLY) NEVER SEE THE OPENING IN THE SAME WAY AGAIN!
I didn’t feel that last episode of STAR TREK: DISCOVERY was especially worthy of a blog, so I’m leaving this week (sorry) to concentrate on the aspect of the series that I wanted to emphasize: the background music. It’s going to be an exploration blog of a different kind, so much so that I won’t even call it a review. But I think you’ll find this. Charming!
In an episode of TOS Trouble with Tribbles, captain Kirk Uhura Too, lieutenant, says that even love isn’t necessarily a good thing. Does this also apply to music? Then Discovery is definitely a background music trio!
What for? Well, listen to every recent episode. Try to find a scene without background music. Except for a few seconds here and there, the background music is almost unchanged.
So the question is (with all due respect to Captain Kirk) There’s not too much background music – can’t it be good?
Let’s start by talking a little about background music in movies and television as a general concept. I first noticed the power of the background music in 2003, when I saw the film Lost in Translation with BILL MURRY and Scarlett Johansson. The reason I noticed the music is that director SOPHIA KOPOLA made a conscious choice, almost without background music in the whole film! Actually, I have to qualify that statement. There were scenes in which the stereo played, or they sang karaoke, or in the bar there was music on the piano as in this scene…
But when it comes to the typical Hollywood instrumental music that is usually inserted during the scenes, there was almost nothing in the entire film. And for me, it made the movie boring and trivial. Despite the rave reviews from critics and even the audience, I left the theatre almost without feeling a thing.
And indeed, this lack of communication is exactly what background music should prevent. The music added underneath the stage can help the audience to understand the emotions they need to feel when the scene is ambiguous. In addition, music can really help to improve the emotional experience of the viewer/listener. Look at this video that will open your eyes (and ears)…
One of the reasons why background music can be such a powerful instrument is that it is processed in another part of the brain than the spoken language (right temporal lobe or left temporal lobe). In this way, music and dialogue can exist on stage and work together at the same time, without competing or disabling each other. Music can evoke emotions in the amygdala and the limbic system, while the visual and vocal centres of the brain can still process what is seen with words.
But how much music is too much?
This question is almost as old as cinematography, in which silent cinema has almost always had a continuous musical composition. So I have to say old as the hills.
Sometimes a long and continuous musical title can cause tension, especially when the composer is John Williams.
And try to imagine how CHEMPER BOGART INGRID BERGMAN says she would have to come to the planet without this epic music score?
So you can see how powerful music can be! But then the obvious question arises: When and why should music not be recorded in the scene? Because if it is such an extraordinary tool to add emotion and guide the viewer through the scene, why not use it everywhere?
As I said before, this has been the subject of debate in Hollywood for almost a century. And while my own experience with Lost in Translation opened my eyes to the fact that there can hardly be any background music in a film, I also understand that it’s not an all-or-nothing solution. Sometimes the stage can benefit from less music, but only at certain key moments. Look at this very famous sequence (I hope you at least know it!) and listen to where the music is and where it is not……
When a director (and/or filmmaker) decides to set up music, it is usually done to bring the viewer into a certain state of mind, so that certain aspects of the scene can be conveyed better. And that’s usually good. Otherwise it can make a tasteless scene much more impressive and place the spectacular scene in the stratosphere of emotions.
But the music also captures the viewer emotionally. There is no other feeling than what the music in the amygdala and the limbic system brings about. If the music is scary, you can feel the fear. If the music is sad, you might feel a lump in your throat or a tear in your eye. Cheerful and triumphant music can make you smile, etc.
So why not use music everywhere, because every scene has to make a difference, right? Well, not really. Sometimes the scene is better suited to the audience and remains ambiguous. Let’s say, for example, that the hero’s best friend is actually the villain who will betray her in the end. Playing sinister or suspicious music too early can reveal an unexpected twist in the plot. Or even worse, if you use the music of a happy friendship, you can inadvertently reinforce a positive impression of the villain, so that the audience feels sorry for him and does not engage in betrayal. It is best to keep the music refined or even leave it alone.
Or sometimes the stage just needs to breathe. …or maybe the audience needs an emotional break. There’s such a thing as too much emotional intensity for too long. Remember the attack on the Death Star in Star Wars? Let’s see the full 14-minute sequence (you know what you want!).
You will notice that the sequence (after the departure of the rebel squadron) begins with very exciting and intense music. But at 5:46 the music stops for almost four whole minutes! It stops because Luke’s attention is focused on the first two trenches where the other pilots go. In fact, you hardly see Luke for those four minutes without music. Come back and look (and listen) again.
Removing the music from these sequences gives the audience a short pause to simply marvel at the stunning visual effects and watch these brave X and Y wing pilots die without much emotional effort. But at 9:42 a.m., when the last of the veteran pilots falls into the flames of glory, the music begins to sound again when the scene returns to Luke Skywalker. And for the next four minutes, when our young hero is in the spotlight, the music continues until the Death Star explodes and Obi-Wan tells Luke: The Force will be with you… …always.
In other words: Not having music is often as powerful an instrument as having music. By not having music in some places, those who do have music can distinguish themselves and have their own identity. But if you have music non-stop, you lose this important instrument.
And here we are finally back at Discovery…
On the other side of the Lost in Translation range, the creators of Star Trek: The discoverers seem to have made a conscious choice to use music everywhere and in every scene, from beginning to end. Of course there are places here and there where there is no music – or there is a very deep note that has remained almost invisible for a long time – but for the most part the music is almost ubiquitous, from beginning to end, throughout the entire episode.
To test it yourself, you have to watch all the episodes and focus on the music… which, believe me, is not an easy task. But as an example, I took most of the first act of the fifth episode of the third season of Discovery – The Attempt to Die. Due to the limitations of the WordPress size, I have to divide the operation into two parts
(If you want more, you can subscribe to CBS All Access)
Anyway, that’s a lot of music. And there is not necessarily something inherently wrong with this creative decision. To be honest, after 104 minutes Lost in Translation (sorry, I didn’t like that movie), I’d rather have too much music than no music at all. But there are some side effects when listening to music from wall to wall in a movie or TV show, and one of the most visible is that watching the damn thing can be tiring!
This happens to me a lot when I look at Discovery. It’s almost on a subconscious level, but I feel emotionally confused when I’m done with most of the episodes. Sometimes it’s the right way, sometimes it’s not. In fact, the music pulls me on a leash like a dog through every episode… Only I’m not allowed to stop to sniff the grass or lift my leg out of a tree or a fire hydrant. So when I watch a background session (which is what I’m trying to do), I end the 50 or 1 minute episodes with a rather emotional warm-up!
You may be wondering if this has always been the case with Discovery. The answer is yes… …and no. Although Discovery has always had a lot of background music – even since the first episode of the volcanic greeting – it wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is today. After watching a whole series of episodes of the first and second season (believe it or not, they’re actually better when you go back), I can estimate that the first season was on average about 70% of the background music, and that the second season increased that percentage to about 80-85%. The third season so far sounds like 90-95% music.
Another interesting question: Is this a trend? Do other contemporary shows, especially fantastic ones, increase their background music? Of course I’m not looking at EVERYTHING, but let’s take a look at two examples of recent fantastic and innovative projects – Mandalorian and The Expanse – and feel how much music is there.
First we do a 9-minute segment of the last episode of Mandalore chant (again divided into two parts) .
In the first movement the background music is usually uninterrupted. But the second part starts with a whole minute without background music, then the music comes back with a few moments here and there without. On average, The Mandalorian has about 85% of the background music in most episodes, which is pretty close to Discovery’s second season and represents just under a third.
Maybe almost uninterrupted music is the new norm? Not so fast!
Let’s look at an equally long segment of last season’s Expanse…
As you can see (uh, hear), there’s still a lot of background music in The Expanse, but I estimate the percentage to be almost 65%. Tense spatial scenes have continuous music (if they are exciting), but silent dialogues often start without music and only add it at the end of the scene to create a drama. If you go back to the second Mandalorian clip above, you’ll see that it also starts with one of those silent dialogue scenes. And like The Expanse, this mandalorian scene subtly introduces music as the scene develops to show the seriousness of the discussion. In fact, much of what you see on television and in movies follows this pattern.
But the discovery didn’t happen. It used to be so, but since the third season almost all dialogue scenes are not so quiet anymore. Music is almost ubiquitous. Sometimes, especially at the beginning and the end of the scene, it can be a bit more refined, but the background music is somehow almost always present.
And if you’re curious and don’t want to rewind all the Picardy and Lower decks, it was pretty clear, because I missed both episodes, that there’s less background music in each one than in Discovery. The Picard has much more than the lower decks – perhaps similar to the Mandalorian – but neither is impressed by Discovery’s almost constant presence of background music.
So, uh… I complain there’s too much music at Discovery? No, not really. If I want to criticize Discovery, I won’t beat around the bush. The worst thing I can say on the almost continuous music track of the show is that I often find it emotionally exhausting. But, as I said before, it’s not good or bad by nature. It’s just one thing.
No, I’m not complaining. I just want to show something interesting and unique in this show. The amount of background music in Star Trek: The discovery lies, at least for now, at the same distance as the total absence of background music in Lost in Translation. These are two courageous decisions. But in Discovery’s case, she may be brave enough to lead the others. Like I said, other shows like The Mandalorian have as much music as NEARLY. Maybe it really is a wave of the future for television and film.
Or maybe it’s just Kirk’s old saying that too much… isn’t necessarily good.
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