Watch: What Makes a Soundtrack Memorable?
This video essay warns that Marvel Entertainment might show us what not to do.
There are only a handful of movie soundtracks we'll remember in a lifetime. Soundtracks make their impressions on us for different reasons and in different ways. In his latest installment of Every Frame a Painting, prolific videographer Tony Zhou looks—quite piercingly—at why we remember certain soundtracks and might forget certain others, most notably the soundtracks of Marvel Entertainment films.
One key, according to Zhou, is the misuse of temp music, or the filler music supplied by directors to composers as an indication of the sort of sound they'd like for a given scene, or even for an entire film. In fact, prolific composer Mark Korven (The Witch) just warned against this practice at a TIFF masterclass. It's one thing to show up at the barber shop with a photo indicating how you'd like your head to look; it's quite another to ask a composer, "Can you write me something like this?" All too often, as Zhou points out here, the results can be what more or less amounts to inadvertent plagiarism, in which the composer creates something which sounds uncomfortably like the model offered, and in so doing, doesn't sound like much at all.
Zhou's piece is a well-reasoned indictment of the unoriginality and soullessness of most Marvel Entertainment soundtracks. He begins by asking strangers to sing parts of the Star Wars soundtrack, for instance, with broad, if roughly sung, success; when the questions move to Marvel soundtracks, the answer is silence. Shrugs. Wrinkled brows. This points to another cornerstone of Zhou's approach: Because these films are striving less for originality than for the sustainment of a product line, in Zhou's view, their elements are less distinctive, and, subsequently, no one can remember them.
Avoid temp music like the plague. Don't listen to it.
The piece demonstrates that, in Marvel films, the soundtrack is in fact a negligible part of the audience experience, and could be removed without significant result—possibly even improving the film. Zhou shows the pointlessness of these audio tracks in a couple of ways: by actually removing the audio track in one instance, and by playing it alone in another. These pieces of music are minimal, dulled, hollow—almost an auditory version of the line, "There is no there there." And in so being, they reveal quite a bit about the works they serve, and about the process behind those works.
The lesson here is a fairly simple one: do as Danny Elfman reportedly does, and stay away from temp music. Avoid it like the plague. Don't listen to it. Work with your composer to create something truly original instead. Why? Think about posterity. If someone were to ask a stranger to hum a theme from one of your films, would you want them to immediately start humming it (even if off-key), or would you want to hear silence, broken only by the sound of a head being scratched?