How to pick the wrong music for soundtracks: choose by the lyrics.

A very common trend in many recent soundtracks: to choose its music tracks according to song lyrics – which, by axiom, requires the use of songs. That, unbeknownst to many, are not the only musical form (interesting, isn’t it? Because “song” is commonly used, since more or less a century ago, as standard definition for music piece. A topic probably worth another post).

One example, amongst the many (that I’ll keep anonymous, out of bon ton – albeit series aficionados might be able to spot it): I’ve recently watched a TV series with an episode containing a very important scene with the death of a woman, whose soundtrack was the well known song “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone” – even though (and this is the main problem), emotionally speaking, it didn’t connect with the scene. At all. Because, here’s the problem: lyrics are not music. Lyrics are words – another, completely autonomous, reality. So autonomous that you can make art just out of lyrics: it’s called poetry.

Music has an emotional content on its own, indipendent from lyrics.

Lyrics might have words matching the context shown. But music, the actual sounds that compose it, are not granted to do the same.

This is the very same reason because you don’t have to learn to listen to music: you just do it. You can listen to music never heard before, with instruments you’ve never seen, and done by people you’ve never met, and like it – something that, for those who want to, happens on a daily basis. Same cannot be said of lyrics: you have to know the language and sociological context. Share grammar, syntax, glossary, culture… There has to be lot of shared common grounds, so to make verbal communication possible. Because, again: language is abstract symbols, that receive meaning only when you share enough cultural context to understand what they refer to. Music is not: music is an experience – like watching a sunset or the smell of freshly baked bread. You don’t need somebody to explain what it is: you just feel it.

The problem is rooted in how those who choose the music in these occasions don’t have music knowledge – and by “music knowledge” I don’t mean being updated about who’s at the top of the latest Spotify chart or trending on Google searches: I mean, given paper, pen and piano, being able to write a symphony. Or a Hard Rock piece, or a Reggae one – able to make music.

Google at the resque.

So, in the moment they were given the task to choose which music to have, they were disarmed: where to look for? Because, to pick something from a colossal topic such as music, to make an informed choice, you have to understand how it works. A bit like when your car suddenly stops, you open the hood, and all you see is a grovel of mechanical things: chaos. You have no idea what’s what, and how to figure out a solution – whereas, when your car repairer does that, he knows what he is looking at. And how to make sense of it, and fix it – he knows how to make order out of chaos (a treat for all of you Jungians out there).

So, back again to music: should I use violins? Maybe better plucked strings – a guitar? Maybe an electric one? How many strings…6? 7? 8? What tuning? Or maybe better synthesizers – analog? Analog modular? Digital? Digitally stabilized analog? Maybe virtual? …virtual analog, or software ROMplers (can we truly call them synthesizers, by the way?)? And so forth – and I could go on for a very long time, with all the infinite possibilities. A very simple task for someone who understands orchestration, composition, instrumental practice and all that makes music – but for someone who doesn’t? Hieroglyphics. Uncharted territory.

So, how to hack it? Simple: lyrics.

This project is an epic movie with medieval-like imagery mixed with futuristic science fiction, with strong references to Norse mythology

Ah, simple: let’s Google what songs have lyrics about Norse mythology – there it is! Led Zeppelin!

Even though: does Led Zeppelin’s music style matches well with epicness, futuristic science fiction or medieval imagery…? Not at all. (This is another example, by the way)

This also opens to another very interesting topic: why are not musicians chiming in to help? It’s not that the world doesn’t like music anymore: everyone likes music – even those who don’t know yet they do. They just need to show up and say: “This is what I do for a living: let me help you!”.

In conclusion

Whenever you have to choose music for a soundtrack, choose, first of all, music. Lyrics are a nice optional.

If you don’t do so, there’s no amount of apologies or rationalizations that are gonna fix what you’ve broken: your brain is the one who likes music – whether you’d want it, or not. Reason because I’ve made an example about sunsets and fresh bread smell: those are direct neural inputs, that give you back feelings – they bypass entirely your cognitive side. Just like music does. Reason because brains are surprisingly good at picking good music – until we decide to mess with them, of course (which is, more or less, same principle I’ve spoken about in this other article of mine: ).

The need to destroy beauty

How many times have you heard these phrases below?

The sequel sucks: don’t go beyond the first one!

It was perfect already: why did they have to ruin it like this?

Which, indeed, are curious ones – for the simple reason that talent doesn’t go away: it’s there for a lifetime. For a great artist, being great is just who he is: even if they wanted to, he can’t stop being good at it.

So: let’s investigate a bit about what’s the mechanisms beneath these peculiar situations.

The main culprits

The next scenarios are the most probable situations that brought destruction of the former glory – be it a beautiful movie, a great logo, a great company, and so forth…

Use your common sense to understand, in each particular scenario, which one(-s: can also be more than one…! Society is complex) is the most likely case.

1 – Social climbers

Success attracts, first of all, social climbers.

Social climbers do not have productive skills: all they do is charm management into hiring and promoting them. Which, unfortunately, due to the intrinsic nature of mankind, is a successful tactic with lots of people. Think of them as some sort of “business lampreys”.

One of their first priorities will be to lower quality standards of whatever are they involved in, so to make sure their incompetence won’t be glaring. The second, will be to hamper anyone around them – so that it’ll be harder, or flatout impossible, to have competitors to their position.

So, if your ideas work, unless your recruitment countermeasures are on point, your activity will be very soon flooded by useless hacks on the lookout for a trendy status symbol to pin on their chests. And, of course: they’re gonna destroy your creation, with all their power plays and malevolence.

2 – Activists

If you ever studied Antonio Gramsci, or anyway Marxism, you might be confident with the concept of “cultural hegemony” – in case you’re not, there it is:

Long story short: these people are like social climbers in their interest for fame, but they differ in its ultimate purpose for they want to use it as catalyst for their ideologies. They want to corrupt* your project so as to convert it into a propaganda** weapon. With which broadcast their idologies*** in an attempt to convince people to adopt them.

So, not only your initial project is going to be a mockery of its former self: it’s even gonna be turned into a propaganda weapon. Double the fun!

*corruption is whenever your betray the intrinsic, or promised, purpose. The typical “I was here to do X: why, instead, Y is happening?!?“.

**propaganda is whenever you sell your ideas in a subliminal way and in situations not supposed for it. For further info, here’s a good read about it:

***ideologies are, basically, dogmas: a world view (or, more precisely: framework) you take as it is, no questions asked. And, when you do, the world becomes split in 2: those who believe (allies), and those who don’t (enemies). The desire itself of questioning authority is sign of being part of the enemy: those “who don’t”.

3 – Inferiority complexes

Certain people have a very interesting mix of lack of both willpower and psychological equilibrium (as in: the ability to enjoy life). It’s a particularly nasty mix, because lack of psychological equilibrium brings great suffering to those without a high social standing – which, usually, is achieved through great competence. But, lacking willpower, these people won’t have the means to achieve such excellence.

So, here’s the conundrum: they’re not the best, nor do they have the tools to become it.

…what solution is left?

The infamous “Easiest way to have the tallest tower” riddle: destroy the tallest ones! So that yours, the only one left standing, is gonna be the tallest.

In this case: destroy the previous standards of excellence. Craft new corrupt ones, in which you win and, most importantly: they lose. This system pays them back in 3 ways:

  1. You’re now the winner
  2. …even though you’re not
  3. The satisfaction of usurping those who, time ago, made you feel envious – a bit like dumping a garbage truck on your neighbor’s car, after years and years of envy for it.

Further reading

Why Duchamp as banner?

Because it’s a perfect example of the 3rd situation.

The purpose of art is beauty. And it takes training and exercise, to perfect our ability to create it. It’s stunningly similar to learning another language: you learn to both the practical ability to articulate your thoughts into reality, and the mental capacity to think in this new way.

You can somewhat easily spot good art*: when appreciated the right way**, it makes you feel better.

There’s only 2 kind of people who would feel the push to flip an urinal and call it art:

  1. People with a profound hate of life. That, when given liberty of expression, seek to create misery and destruction – because that is what they have inside.
  2. Pranksters – like, for instance, John Cage (albeit them too need a good amount of nihilism in them: a truly positive person wouldn’t have wasted that much effort for sarcasm).

*every genuine artistic expression is art. Not all of them, of course, are of the same quality. For instance: kids are genuinely artists (because they’re too young to have developed all the Machiavellian attitudes of older people) – but, obviously, their artistic refinement level is just about nonexistent.

**for instance: those possessed by ideologies cannot appreciate art. Because, for them, there’s no “beauty”: their idea of “beauty” is “conform to my ideology”. The world they see is “allies” and “enemies”. “With me” and “Against me”.

Not all modern art is bad

Pretty, isn’t it?

And, in music, how about this: