What is the music for?
If you listen to the music composed by Carl Stalling for Warner Bros, you could be forgiven for thinking that music is for comedy, punctuation and sound effects. Stalling’s scores were full of comic references to popular tunes, or classical music. Their stock-in-trade was strange comic sounds, and sudden, almost shocking, changes of melody, mood and tempo. Stalling is often criticised for an overuse of musical puns. If Sylvester swallows a bar of soap, you will hear the tune, “I’m forever blowing bubbles”. If he dresses as an angel, we hear “An Angel in Disguise”.
Warner Bros, of course, owned its own music catalogue, and Stalling was required to use as many Warner Bros tunes as possible. Most of these punning references are lost on the modern audience, but that doesn’t stop us enjoying the music for what it is, and rarely do we feel that it is out of place.
Then, as now, especially with slapstick, the music doubles as sound effect. Pizzicato strings will accompany a character on tip-toes. A harp, or bell-tree will point up a moment of magic. An arpeggio on a bass clarinet might follow a bubble rising in an underwater sequence.
These have become almost clichés, and a clever composer can have a lot of fun turning them on their head to shock or tickle our sense of humour. If you put loud, brass chords over somebody on tiptoes, you are exploiting our knowledge of musical conventions, to subvert our expectations. This can be great fun, but is probably not advisable when writing for young children, who are only just beginning to familiarise themselves with musical vocabulary.
Whereas there is a place for music as punctuation, or to add comedy, I don’t believe that this is its primary function in any film or television show, animated or not.
Nor should it be merely background. Many composers of music for animated series write continuous music throughout every episode. They are aware that animation series are sold all over the world and that the potential earnings from performing rights can be enormous. Since these are calculated by the second, their default position is wall to wall music. This creates scores that are not only monotonous, but irritating. Any jazz musician will tell you that the silences in a solo improvisation are as important as what you play. Breaks in the music are vital if it is to have any impact.
Nor should the music be too intrusive. Of course, music will ultimately form part of a broader soundscape, and, at times, may disappear behind dialogue, atmospherics, or sound effects. This is not only natural, but desirable (though it tends to upset composers, when their music disappears behind a gust of wind). When music is working properly, the viewer should scarcely be aware of it. Its effect should be subconscious, a pull on the emotions.
Music is there to tell us what we should be feeling.
Next: Talking to composers about emotion.