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Emotional fascism and using music in radio

Posted on 28 February 2014

“I worry when I put music into a radio piece…sometimes music is like emotional fascism, telling you how to feel.”


I recently received this piece of listener feedback on a story I produced for CBC:

“As I listened to your report recalling the murder in Prince George, I wondered why you decided to add background music to the piece? Is there insufficient drama to a person, a real person, being killed in the streets of Prince George? Does report of the kind really need a musical background for your listeners to grasp the idea that this is serious business?”

The specific piece was the opening segment of my “At Home in the Hood” series. I was revisiting a daytime murder that took place four years ago. After a couple of minutes of music-free interviews with children who saw the body, I added a musical bed underneath my narration that was contextualizing the murder within the wider scope of the neighbourhood. You can listen to it below, if you want to hear for yourself how it came together.

At Home in the Hood: Introduction

At Home in the Hood: Introduction”

I definitely understand the sentiments of the listener. We are, after all, talking about a murder. Shouldn’t that be enough?

My own answer to the question is “maybe.” As I replied in the email, I went back and forth on whether I wanted to use the music multiple times. And I deliberately held off on using it until the “story” part of the segment was over and we were moving into the “talking head narrator” part.  I felt the music was helpful to make the transition from one part of a story to another- from the personal drama of a dead body to a broader discussion about the statistics surrounding that death. The hope was to convey a mood, as well as continue to hold the listener’s attention for a rather lengthy amount of time. That’s often how I make my editing decisions: are my ears getting bored? Because it happens, no matter what the content is, and music can help alleviate that.

Of course, music can also be a crutch. In his piece on music for, Jonathan Mitchell writes:

“If you want to add music because you think the person talking is boring, you don’t really need to add music — what you need is better material. If you want to add music to mask background noise, what you really need is to make a better recording.”

This is absolutely true. I’ve listened to some of my old pieces and realize that I’d put in music to make something boring interesting- whereas all it did was draw attention to the interesting music without making the story any better.

At the same time, music is obviously an important and effective element to many types of storytelling. In the This American Life publication Radio: An Illustrated Guide, Ira Glass has this to say:

“Music is the frame around the picture. It makes it more real than real. More than just two guys talking.”

To which the book author Jessica Abel adds,

“To my surprise, this is actually true. Even Phillip Gourevitch can use a little outside help. With music, his words ring with truth, sound heroic and urgent. Without it, he’s a smart guy talking about some stuff.”

Radio is, ultimately, a form of entertainment. And we are so used to having our entertainment framed with music that not using it once in a while can put you at a huge disadvantage. Like it’s less real.

While the quote at the top of this post about emotional fascism is an obvious risk, so too is the risk of boring people by not using music when they are accustomed to having it. Look at movies like Pulp Fiction or TV shows like Breaking Bad. Music is used to ease or heighten the tension of a given scene. It’s a cue for how we should feel about what’s happening- whether the action is quirky or dramatic, humourous or hopelessly sad. Remove the musical element and it may be closer to what happens in real life, but it is less representative of how we are used to consuming the stories that tell us about real life.

Ultimately, everything about radio is musical. Silence, sound effects, pauses, cues- they all serve to draw the listener in to some sort of emotional arc. I wish I could say that I always knew the perfect solution: the exact right musical choice, the exact right words to use, when a breath is just a breath and when it’s an insight into the psyche of the person being interviewed, but unfortunately that is not the case. And so I’ll keep on listening and going based on trial, error, and experience.

Further reading/listening:

Filed under: radio

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