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Musical Worldbuilding in Films and Media

By Ethan Toavs, Composer for Media


 

When creating a fictitious world for a piece of media, it is often a creator’s goal to immerse the audience into that place. This tends to be done in the form of worldbuilding - the creation of an internally consistent world in which the characters and story exist. When it comes to worldbuilding, you may think of complex magic systems or fictional governments and political machinations. But have you ever thought of how music can play into this?


It is difficult to understate the importance of music in visual media. From bringing out the drama of a scene, to helping guide the emotional progression of the viewer, music tends to be heavily involved in shaping the overall experience. This is the case, indeed, for worldbuilding as well.


Music can establish a tone or distinct sonic “identity” for a place within the story, creating contrast between different locations in a story and offerings many insights into the world that the characters in habit.


There are many ways that a composer can go about achieving these goals. For the sake of simplicity, I will focus on the basic building blocks of a piece of music - Melody, Rhythm, Instruments, and Sound Design - and give examples that demonstrate each of these elements in action. Also for the sake of simplicity, I will exclude harmony from this analysis, in order to avoid relying on technical music theory jargon.


Melody


One of my favorite melodic examples are the glorious saxophone solos from the game, Sim City 4, the score of which was composed by Jerry Martin. They contain a mixture of jazzy solos and these rapid, almost shrieking passages. They have a somewhat sophisticated and classy feel to them, as is to suggest that the player is creating some kind of “high” society. And yet, they simultaneously embody both the sheer chaos of city life as well as the complexity of the game’s city management.


Another fascinating example is from the score to Beyond Good and Evil, composed by Christophe Héral. Perhaps the most popular cue of the game, “Propaganda,” employs a rap-like vocal lead that is almost vulgar in tone and timbre. There is also a countermelody played by the string orchestra that embodies a similar feel to the melodies and countermelodies of traditional Arabic music - an influence that is not heard in other locations of the game. The in-game location where this music plays is the home of a political resistance group, and this music communicates that well before the player actually learns about it.


Rhythm


The score to How to Train Your Dragon, composed by John Powell, is one of my favorite rhythmic examples. One of the score’s defining characteristics is its almost Celtic-like rhythms. This helps to communicate both the hectic feel of the viking society and the sense of adventure that are prevalent throughout the film.


Another fascinating example is from a standalone album, Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 1, composed by Craig Leon. The piece, “She Wears A Hemispherical Skullcap,” has some particularly fascinating rhythms that are disjointed and unpredictable. The rhythms are also heavily quantized, making it sound inhuman. This album was composed with the intent of depicting what the folk music of an alien race might sound like, and these rhythms are very effective in advancing that goal.


Once again, the score to Beyond Good and Evil provides a nice rhythmic example. The cue, “Safari,” uses a lot of bouncy, syncopated rhythms that create an energetic but off-kilter feel. This cue plays at the character’s home, complimenting the joyful chaos of the her family.


Sound Design


For sound design, an interesting example comes from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, composed by John Williams. The cue, “Augie’s Great Municipal Band,” includes timpani and snare drums which have been heavily processed via sound design to sound almost electronic. There is also a heavily processed horn-like lead instrument that I cannot quite identify. It shows that there are fully developed cultures with their own musical instruments. This cue, despite it being only a minute long, adds a fascinating flair to the the setting of Star Wars - showing that there really is a lively world that these characters inhabit.


The album, Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 1, also has some incredible sound design work. The sound design for “Donkeys Bearing Cups” is, for lack of a better description, absolutely wild. This is a case where no description is capable of doing justice to it. If you are going to listen to any examples I provided here, this album should be your first pick.


Another example is from the score to Elemental, composed by Thomas Newman. The sound design in this score is absolutely gorgeous. Many of the plucked string instruments, such as sitar, dulcimer, and guitar often have a great deal of reverb on them. Other effects, like phasers and choruses are also subtly used. This treatment creates a very ambient sound that really enhances the “fantasy” of the film.


Instrumentation


Instrumentation is perhaps the most common and versatile element that is used for worldbuilding. Due to the sheer number of musical instruments that exist across our world, and how technology allows easy access to these instruments, a composer can easily and quickly expand a project’s sonic “palette” by adding an unexpected combination of instruments.


For instrumentation, let’s look again at the score to Sim City 4. It uses a pretty eclectic set of instruments to create a distinct sonic “character” for the game. You have your typical rhythm section of guitar, bass, and drums; various synthesizers and synth strings; saxophone and other solo woodwinds; and some Indian instruments like Sitar and Tabla. This instrumentation helps to create a sort of “placeless” feel without stereotyping the game as being limited to a particular location. This is important for a game that is all about the player creating a world of their own.


Unsurprisingly, the score to Beyond Good and Evil also has some fascinating instrumentation. Its composer uses instrumentation (and other regional influences) to suggest that the world of BG&E has evolved from the cultures of our real-world. Like Sim City 4, Beyond Good and Evil employs a wide range of instruments, including from a string orchestra, marimba, tabla, synthesizers, various east Asian instruments, and even a Hammond organ. Many of these instruments only appear in one or a few cues from the score, and help highlight the differences in the various locations in the game.


Quite possibly the most popular example of this would be the Cantina Band from Star Wars: A New Hope. This piece uses trumpet, saxophones, clarinets, electric piano, steel drum, and synthesizers. It gives the location of the cantina scene its own distinct flavor, and shows that there is a bustling society outside of the microchasm of the protagonists.


Key Takeaways


Worldbuilding is a useful tool to immerse the audience into a piece of media, and music is an often overlooked aspect of that. Composers utilize the basic building blocks of a composition in order to create a distinct sonic palette, breathing life into the world of a story. Using musical elements outside of their ethnomusicological context, such as instruments from other cultures, can create a lot of fascinating possibilities. Ultimately, it is crucial to not underestimate the role that music can play in captivating your audience.


 

About the Author


I am Ethan Toavs, and my music is all about exploring new worlds! I specialize in combining cinematic styles with influences from a variety of cultures. If you are a filmmaker or other creator who wants music that breathes life into the worlds of your characters and stories, then please reach out to me. Have thoughts on this blog post? Feel free to chat with me about it in my Discord server!

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