Tuesday 3 September 2013

Yet More Sound and Music Cliches

Chris Packham and friend


When talking about how life began, ramp up the stirring orchestral music with constantly rising figures and lots of brass while the camera ranges over mountains, clouds and volcanoes, and the voiceover becomes ever more portentous. Subtext: for “nature” read “God”.

High-profile nature docs (usually made in the US) have award-winning photography, a British or Irish actor doing the voiceover and an over-dramatic orchestral score. The actor speaks RP, or has a faint Scottish or Irish accent. If female, she speaks in low, whispery tones. There is hardly any, or no, science. There is no mention of Darwin or evolution (we want to sell into all markets). There’s no sight of a human being, so no interviews with anyone who studies, or looks after, the animals or landscape. The narration is reduced to a string of cliches. Sometimes the animals are anthropomorphised. (The pilot fish… patrol… the wreck.) Sometimes some drama is created. (Will the orphaned seal... make it back to land?) It all looks like a poster. 

In American documentaries including people, everything is very smooth. Not a beat is wasted. We go from voiceover to interview to action slightly too fast, slicing off the end of one and the beginning of the other.

Low-profile nature docs are narrated by Steve Backshall or Chris Packham and nobody makes a big fuss about them. In Brit documentaries, you see the presenter bumbling about, and a few “mistakes” and corpsing are left in. You also get ten minutes on "how we filmed the Arctic wolves".

Never mind what or where it has been filmed – it can be red crabs on Christmas island, monarch butterflies in Mexico… You apply a generic title – here it happens to be “migrations” – to which you add the portentous tones of Stephen Fry annunciating every phrase as if it were the Second Coming… and then drench the whole thing in deafening quasi-celestial orchestral muzak. It’s like being sat on by a blue whale. (The Times on Migrations, 2011. They mean "enunciating".)

No nature documentary can be made without urgent drumming (2013). Galloping cheetahs, tectonic plates, rising mountains, battling baboons…

I predict the most catchy track, Ísjaki, will be the soundtrack to “every missed goal, every whale-pod journey, every sunshine-through-rain moment on every TV trailer well into 2014”. (Kitty Empire in the Observer on Sigur Ros, July 2013)

In jungles, there’s always a bird that whistles D F A G over and over again.

makes a creaking sound, even when it’s just sitting there. Sometimes it makes an “icicles on twigs tinkle together in wind” sound.

When we see an icefield, a moaning wind starts up. (And powdery snow blows across the surface.)

Popping sound: cells divide, fledglings leave nest, towns on map light up (Indonesian islands “popping up” on a map in Singapore Airlines ad. In another ad, it has a faint ding-dong doorbell after the word “house”.)

Tick tock ting bing (or pizzicato arpeggios) – we're talking about time going faster in weak gravity (but clocks don’t tick any more, or strike).


The villains are playing poker while the kidnap victim is tied to a chair. There’s a knock at the door. Soundtrack plays a snippet of  the series/movie theme, slowly, in a minor key, on a wind instrument (clarinet, oboe, bassoon).


We see a castellated tower through bare branches – rooks go “Chak!”. (Sometimes riders in Tudor dress appear, with falcons on their wrists.)

Allegri’s Miserere OR Zadok the Priest (but never more than the opening bars) (Just heard Allegri’s Miserere behind pix of a 12th century building.)

Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater (18th century) accompanying pictures of the Book of Kells (9th century).

Tune played screechily on a penny whistle – we are in Medieval Times.

There’s a genre of tall ship music.

BBC. Pizzicato violins. Could be baking. History. The Apprentice. A documentary. Gardening. Anything. (‏@IanMartin)


The BBC has one CD of light music tracks it uses for everything.

Why is klezmer used to illustrate something amusingly revolting, like mouldy bread? (There was a brief fashion for using it in ads, over car breakdowns.)


Robots make a loud hydraulic wheezing sound.

All large machinery emits the screeching of metal on metal, as if it was collapsing.

And why do all cars chirrup when they're unlocked in movies and on TV? They don't round our way. (@GraemeGarden1)

Everyone on TV’s mobile still makes old-fashioned tone-dialling noises. Apart from Scandi-detectives, whose phones are all on “xylophone”.

What's with the ripping of paper noise when a graphic goes on and off screen, ITV? This isn't some children's computer game from the 1980s! (@MrBLawton) Goes with slide projector changing slides noise, ripping record off turntable.


In Radio 4 documentaries, a deep-voiced actor puts on a funny voice to read out a passage by Samuel Johnson or Pepys.

Someone, please, do a supernatural TV drama that doesn't involve a spooky little girl whispering. Pretty please. (@mrgodbehere)

More here, and links to the rest.


  1. Used to be Carmina Burana over everything, that seems to have passed its peak. I have become convinced that all cookery progs have very loud sound effects (probably added afterwards): overt rustling of paper bag as tomatoes are taken out (because cook buys in paper bag territory rather than cellophane in supermarket) glugging noise as any liquid pured, loud click of mixer etc.

  2. Ha ha I'm sure you're right! Never watch them.

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