Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Have Robots Emerged Victorious? The Rough Marriage of Musicians and Motion Pictures

When the American Film Institute released it's 100 Years of Film Scores it became common public knowledge that the scoring of film is an integral aspect of the overall sound design of a project. Films that add music to increase or release tension, compound dramatic effect, or provide an ambiance of emotionalism to a scene such as Star Wars, Jaws, Psycho, and Chinatown have been applauded by viewers around the world and are still used and studied today as the foundations for successful scoring. The marriage of music and motion pictures was not a relationship that developed without turmoil, but it has reaped some benefits and offers up a potentially fascinating discussion.

Historically, the use of synchronized sound was generally welcomed in 1927 with the Vitaphone film The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson. With Jolson's first synchronized spoken words audiences were captivated and erupted in applause. However, the film was not universally accepted as groundbreaking...especially by musicians. They described it as stagnant at best. They perceived it as a threat. Music in movies prior to the release of The Jazz Singer was performed by paid musicians in a theater environment, a tradition that rooted in nickelodeon's with a single organ or piano player accompanying silent films. As noted in a fascinating article posted on The Smithsonian website, artists and critics saw sound as robotic replacements for the performance of live talent. The cost of show's utilizing Vitaphone was vastly cheaper than the theater performances with an average difference in price of $2.25 - $3.00 in difference (astronomical for the times). 

Economic times and the onset of the Great Depression urged musicians to be cognizant of any threat to employment. In 1930, after setting a minimum wage demanding high payment for the recording of synchronized music (a difficult endeavor at the time), the American Federation of Musicians banded together to form the Music Defense League to address the displacement of orchestras in the motion picture theaters. They fought adamantly against what they referred to as "canned music" encouraging citizens to support live performance, a sentiment that is echoed in the music industry today with the advent of social media and "free music" services that limit earning potential for artistic endeavors. The AFM spent an unheard of $500,000 on an advertising campaign attempting to smear the recording industry.

The advertisements depicted robots as synchronized sound nurturing children, physically hurting musicians, or seducing weak female characters meant to personify movie audiences. A general concern about numbing the public to the power of artistic performance existed within the music community. Concern over profits and the decreasing number of employed musicians in the film arena were main concerns as well. Predictions, often dire in nature, were made regarding the public perception of the love affair between film and live music some of which ring true today albeit with a certain element of mediocrity.

TODAY THE DEBATE SHIFTS and I encourage you to share your comments. What contrasts do you see that exist today that make this a relevant discussion? Although a very small number of musicians are dedicated to film scoring today, I believe that technology has enabled the sharing of music to thrive. In regards to recording, the advent of digital technology has enabled musicians to soar creatively in addition to creating new genres of powerful and meaningful music. Sound designers have embraced technology and now incorporate thematic elements of music within the design of the entire body of the creative envelope. The performance of live music has once again become a staple in profiteering for musicians. The evidence abounds in the monetary successes of music festivals, concert tours, and live theater nationwide.  Even individuals and small businesses have been moved to create multimedia portfolios that are used to display their digital artwork, business products, or still image photography with the accompaniment of sound.

Although we may look back and laugh at this as we shuffle our iPods, blast our Blu-Ray home theater surround systems, and tune in to Spotify, this parallels several debates that exist today that generations after us may "LMAO" at [insert potential issue here]!! A successful marriage between technology and live performance is necessary to garner respect as both a musician and a sound engineer these days. 

In essence, it offers up a potential brainstorm session as to how the movie industry, sound designers, and musicians can develop a wonderful harmony or marriage to introduce live performance into the arena again. Show production technology, future advances in sound systems, and a willingness to explore artistic endeavors may be the ring(s) that unite us in the cause. Comments are encouraged and welcomed! Thanks for reading!


  1. The evolution of musical instruments has been based on taking our most intimate for of expression, touch, and using it to express our feelings with a string, a mouth piece, or a stick. There is something in that can be translated into vibrations that move across distance and, with recording, across time and touch another human how can then feel those emotions. Samples can contain some of the broad strokes of those emotions but Yo-Yo Ma can hold one note and express enough emotion in that performance to bring an involuntary tear to your eye. I do not believe that tactile interface that enables human interaction can be synthesized. this is not to say electronic generated sound are not effective but the profound work is done with the "touch" of an artist.

  2. The term musical instrument is subjective to some it's a grand piano to others it could be a trash dumster. The item of creativity of the human spirit to express itself comes in infinite ways. But no performance from any type of instrument can be done without the one who gives the sound life. Even a robot has to be programed by the composer what ever their medium the expression of those ideas comes from the creator. How we are affected by that sound is our willingness to accept or reject it. While one composer finds beautiful sound in a car fender or a Stadivarious in the end it is the judgement of the listener if to them it is good or bad. As for myself I have found joy from the work of a child expressing their ideas on a toy piano and mesmerized by a group of performers banging on trash can lids to being speechless by a total digital composition. The medium being a robot or tree log is the tool for expression but it is that human Spirit that gives it life. Good or bad creating is what we do no matter what we use to express that creativity. Stay Creative!

  3. Thank you for your article. Big issue.

    Instruments themselves are a form of technology and have evolved and development as with all forms of technology. Sound engineering has certainly closed the gap of live verses recorded music. Personally, it is all storytelling. I love witnessing live performance, as well as a well made film - multi-media at its best.

    The personal issue for me is in allowing people to experience live and pre-recorded music. Todays audience most likely hear their first orchestra during a film. But perhaps that may lead to them buying the soundtrack and a further search for different styles of music.

    I don't mind whether music is live or electronic but more what the motivation & effect/affect is - it is all composition.

  4. David AbercrombieMarch 19, 2012 at 3:31 PM

    I feel that music, much like language, is a living, breathing entity which exists simultaneously as both a cause, and a result of the human condition. The way in which music is utilized and experienced is directly linked to the constantly evolving, (or de-evolving), state of the singular mind and the technologies it creates. A steam-punk-myriad of old and new, proper and slang, complex and pedestrian, polished and shoddy is increasingly becoming the normal state of all forms of expression. The fact that music currently exists as both a momentary live experience of a classical composition in a concert hall involving a single pianist, as well as an infinitely downloadable digital arrangement of rhythmical sounds capable of being experienced over and over does not negate the validity of either one. It simply reflects the options available to us. As for the soul that breathes life into music, it can always be found… there's just more to rummage through.


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