Music and sound shorthand in movies

Discussion in 'The Moving Picture' started by Inkstainedwretch, Apr 18, 2016.

  1. Inkstainedwretch

    Inkstainedwretch One Too Many

    United States
    I've noticed that in period films a musical shorthand is used to establish the time. If it's set in the 40s/WWII you'll always hear Big Band music playing over the opening shot. It's usually Glenn Miller, and it will always be one of 4 or 5 famous Miller tunes: "Moonlight Serenade," "Take the A Train", "String of Pearls", "Ïn the Mood,"and maybe 1 or 2 others. If it's a vocal group it's always the Andrews Sisters and it's a similarly limited range of familiar songs: "Boogie-woogie Bugle Boy,""Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree," "Bei Mir Bist Du Schon," and a few others.

    It's the same with westerns. When someone goes into a saloon a rinky-tink player piano is always tinkling, usually out of sight. Those pianos had huge paper rolls with hundreds of tunes on them. They could play for days without repeating one. But in the movies they only play "Öh, Susanna," "Camptown Races,""Buffalo Gals" and "She'll be Coming Around the Mountain,"all of them actually Gold Rush - era songs. 19th century hymnals contained hundreds of hymns, but only two are heard in westerns. When there is a church service or a funeral, they always sing "Bringing in the Sheaves"or "Gather at the River."

    It's the same with sound effects. Whenever the scene shifts from civilization to the wilderness you always hear that high-pitched eagle screech. You can wander around forever in the wilderness and never hear that sound, but it always shows up right on cue in the movies. Likewise, you know the scene has shifted to the Vietnam war because you immediately hear that helicopter whoppa-whoppa sound. If the scene flashes back to the '60s counterculture scene, the first thing you hear is a descending sitar rill.

    Can anybody name other sound or music cues?
  2. In movies, TV shows and documentaries about the '50s you almost always hear I Wonder Why by Dion and the Belmonts.

  3. MisterCairo

    MisterCairo I'll Lock Up

    Gads Hill, Ontario
    Anything to do with "the sixties" will have an obligatory psychedelic tune, even though that was an end of decade sound and far from dominant. It "sets the mood, man...".
  4. You forgot Amazing Grace.
  5. Haversack

    Haversack One Too Many

    Clipperton Island
    Flanders and Swann noted that in any period set between 1300 and 1715 the incidental music called for is Greensleeves. Here they are explaining how this came about.

  6. MikeKardec

    MikeKardec One Too Many

    Los Angeles
    It's true the music/sound effects have become a trope. One of my first experiences in professional film making (1970s) I got a chance to sit with the post production supervisor to a mini series while they were mixing. We were talking about the choice of sound effects and in this scene there were a lot of bird sounds yet the scene had been shot high in the mountains, way above timberline. I mentioned that you really didn't hear birds much that high in the mountains and the sound guy said, "It's morning. There's always birds in the morning."

    That's how you know it's morning.

    The issue is exaggerated in older films (before the 1980s) by the relatively limited number of sound effects available, especially in lower budget or TV movies. Certain effects were used over and over for decades. The gunshot from Winchester '73, for instance, or (bizarrely) the dog from Hart to Hart. I conformed* a lot of tracks for TV shows for a while and that effect showed up a lot. It truly was a really good dog bark but it was always labeled "Freeway" because that was the dog's name on the show. That name caused no end of confusion because when you're working quickly and you're not that familiar with the show you think it's ... well, a freeway.

    More recently sound effects got artier, thanks to many of the collaborators of Spielberg, Lucas and Coppola, most particularly the great Walter Murch. In the early days of celebrity sound effects people many of the individual tracks were destroyed once a film was finished so that they would always be specific to that film. More recently effects have saved and archived on various professional websites. has the vast majority of all the professionally produced effects for sale. They even have some of mine!

    Certain pieces of music was used because the rights were in the public domain or more easily available to that studio (many studios and networks have connections to record companies). I've had actors sing Amazing Grace because it's a classic, a trope (tells you where you are instantly) and because it's old enough to be free.

    *"conforming tracks," I'm pretty sure that's what it was called, it was a lifetime ago, was when a assistant editor, like I was at the time, would disassemble the tightly packed tracks of effects they assembled during picture editing and turned them into between 8 and 48 tracks with blank "leader" between the effects. Spreading the effects out onto dozens of tracks allowed the mixer to have time to adjust that track's level before the next effect on the track came up. You got to the point where you could do splices in your sleep. The only real challenge was to keep everything in sync if you had to add an entirely new track to the mix.

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