Background music as enhancement

Of the 70 videos considered for this study, just over half (38) used music in a way that we considered to be primarily background enhancements for a story, argument, or experience that the student composer wanted to express visually and textually. By "background enhancement" we mean that the music and/or lyrics did not shape or direct the video's argument, narrative, or story, but instead helped create or re-enforce a mood. Students could have found any old song and plopped it into PowerPoint, then illustrated that song closely or loosely, without having to think much about the relationship between the music, lyrics, and what they were producing visually.  But in conducting our interviews, we found that students who used what we are calling background music had well-considered, thoughtful reasons for why they chose the music they did, and what its role would be as background music.  They showed strong instincts for what it means to compose with sound, and how to compose with background music.  Note, all PowerPoint video shows must be downloaded rather than clicking on the following links.

Kellie Aldrich knew that she wanted to develop a video on the power of "The Human Spirit," and then she went looking and listening for a song to support her concept.  She found "Concerto for Two Violins in A-minor" by J.S. Bach in one of the public domain sites we recommended.  "I wanted something that was upbeat and lively--kind of with a punch.  I was trying to show the positive aspect of the human spirit.  You know, the liveliness of it.  And the power of life and what people can do."  Each slide in the video illustrates a different power: the power of motivation illustrated with athletes and students graduating; the power of courage illustrated with Rosa Parks and images of exploration; the power of dreams illustrated by Martin Luther King Jr., a moon walk, and what appears to be a Mount Everest climbing team, etc. Because the music functions as a background enhancement, Aldrich did not have to match up images or themes with lyrics, drawing instead on its tempo and, we would add, its cultural capital as classical music. The technical execution of such an approach may not be as demanding as some of the literal illustrations or associative applications, but the careful musical selection and thoughtful project as a whole results in a strong composition.  Bach plays in the background, a lively piece of music that expresses the power of creativity and the human spirit in its own right, enhancing the visual and textual messages Aldrich has assembled.  

Erich Wilkerson, who said in the interview that he listens to classical music while doing homework, spliced six pieces of classical music, including the theme to "2001: A Space Odyssey" to create clear sections or epochs throughout his ambitious video, "History of the World." When asked how important it was to him, using a scale of 1 to 10 (not important to very important), Wilkerson said "10, because I had nice images . . . okay, that tells a nice story, but if I add music to it I feel that it makes the audience feel what you're trying to convey a lot better." He went on to say that working with the music was the most challenging aspect of the assignment for him "because you have to find the right music for the right image and the right mood you want to set up to tell the point or the idea you are trying to confer." Wilkerson, who identified himself as a PowerPoint expert, also commented on the technical difficulty of working with sound: "The only thing that caused me trouble was doing the timing for the music because the slide timings were a little bit off. Then when I attached the music to it I had to splice each part to one big thing instead of attaching it to each slide because then it would start off, so that was one of the more difficult things." Wilkerson's project and reflections show us that a student composer's use of background music can involve careful selection, arrangement, and co-ordination of sound with images and text, and that the technical demands of such composing can provide an appropriate challenge even for a student with advanced software skills.

A less ambitious approach to background music can be seen and heard in Krista Gullickson's video, "Free Falling," about the day she went skydiving, set to the chorus of Tom Petty's "Free Falling." This use of background music enhances the central theme of the video, but because the chorus is limited in its lyrical content, because it simply repeats, and because it is pulled from a song that is about bad boys breaking good girls' hearts, the effect seems adequate, but not as interesting as the choices Aldrich and Wilkerson made.  Gullickson looped the chorus to stay within fair use guidelines and to extract the meaning she wanted from the song "I'm free, free falling," but she did not explore other musical options that might have supported her narrative throughout. For example, "Free Falling" enhances the actual skydiving slides, but other songs and lyrics might have helped her tell the story of getting ready, and might have expressed the exhilaration she undoubtedly felt after the dive.  We were not able to arrange an interview with Krista, but in her pre- and post-assignment surveys she was clear about the fact that she would be using "Free Falling" only as a "backdrop" to complement the slides. 

Destinee Zamzow made a video to illustrate a school trip to Costa Rica, and unlike Beky Morgan's associative application of American pop songs to events on her trip to France (discussed in the associative applications section of this webtext), Zamzow told us that she chose "songs from artists that were big there:" three songs by Sean Paul and one song by Shakira, all with strong Latin American sounds and beat.  Not having to closely match lyrics and images, and not having to build a particular theme or point within the video, did allow for Zamzow to produce a fully developed, nicely executed video.  But perhaps because the assignment didn't provide her with much challenge, she also gave the assignment a luke-warm evaluation.  Zamzow said "I wasn't really challenged intellectually or technically by the assignment; . . . I don't know if I really learned anything from this assignment."  Some uses of music as background probably offers the path of least resistance for this assignment, but background music, carefully chosen, and especially when spliced, can be an integral and sophisticated part of composing with sound.

While Wilkerson demonstrated one of the most elaborate and sophisticated uses of music from among the 70 participants, Aldrich, Gullickson, and Zamzow made less interesting, but still appropriate choices for their subject matter.  Aldrich's musical selection of Bach supports her celebration of the human spirit video, but the use of a single mp3 file does simplify the assignment and turns more of the composition's control over to the musical artist, rather than asserting control through splicing. Gullickson and Zamzow both had strong narratives to tell of a single day's adventure and an extended trip.  Gullickson's loop re-iterates the theme of the skydiving adventure, although the use of a single loop removed from the context of the song itself adds less to the video than Zamzow's four spliced musical choices that work on what Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin would call the "logic of immediacy" (21-31). Zamzow's musical choices help re-create the trip within the limitations of the medium and genre, while Gullickson's loop just emphasizes the central theme of her video, and had no other connection to the event.

The use of background music in this music video assignment, and other multimodal compositions, seems initially to present minimal challenge and perhaps even less careful listening than a close, literal illustration of a song's lyrics. What we found, however, was a range of approaches, from the simple single loop to the elaborate multi-song splice, and in our interviews we heard our students articulate clear and thoughtful reasons for why they chose their background music. Other students have reported similar, careful consideration. In the "Scholarly Context" section of this webtext, we summarized the use of music in three videos produced by Anthony's Ellertson's student. Cheryl Ball's student, Hillary Cook, who is featured in "Reading the Text: Remediating the Text," describes her careful selection of the Enya song "Storms in Africa:" "[it] kept the melancholic tone in the beginning but got to a climax right as the word 'hope' appeared at the end [of her video poem]. I tried to time it this way on purpose, to emphasize that though we all encounter rough times, we can't lose hope for the future." Although Ball initially tried to dissuade Cook from using Enya, Ball comes to see and hear that "Storms of Africa" is indeed a "strong addition to the movement and feel—and purpose—of the text." Students in various courses working on various multimodal compositions, consistently articulate specific reasons for why they make the compositional choices they do. The more we teacher-researchers can learn from our students and describe their choices, the greater the range of options we will be able to suggest to future students, and the more informed their future choices will be.