Any gamer, cinephile, content-producer, well… anyone, really, can tell you the importance of a sound-track. It can influence your perception of what’s going on and form a tremendously important part of the experience; Amnesia: The Dark Descent is constantly unnerving, not least because of the array of noises that trickle into your ears as you play, and it was only on my second watch of The Dark Knight Rises that I realised how crucial the swellings of Zimmer’s soundtrack was to the pace and excitement of the film. (Mind you, that isn’t surprising, the man is a genius. I mean, Inception. Come on.)
Of course, this is hardly a recent realisation – Herrmann’s soundtracks for Hitchcock (Psycho, North by Northwest, Vertigo, the list goes on…) have been lauded for decades, and in fact, the tailor-made sound-track that appears – in modern film – to be reserved for intense, big-budget movies was simply the norm in the early days of cinema, before the popular music scene held the sway it does today. Before that, however, we get into murky territory, as music was exclusively regarded as an entertainment in its own right, but hey, that’s a discussion for another day.
However, as music is introduced more into the everyday workings of our lives, this presents interesting opportunities for the evolution of the idea of a ‘soundtrack’. Music has become portable, and hence can influence our perceptions of reality as we experience it. This began in a fairly limited capacity with radio, which could narrate your morning commute, but even then, as the choice of music was made by someone else, any real synthesis with your sensory experience would have been difficult. Music was for listening to and enjoying for its own sake, it just so happened that you could do so outside of your own home, an innovation that held benefits above record players, which, although portable versions were made, were clunky and awkward.
It has only been in the previous few decades, that era where technology has been fertilised by the rapid evolution of electronics and computers, where music has become truly personal. Utterly portable, walkmans, CD- and MP3-players have allowed you to accompany your life with a sound-track of your own choosing, with an increasing degree of ease. (Sure mixtapes existed, but that’s hardly the same as flipping between albums at the press of a button of the touch of a screen.) Even radio has evolved with the internet to see the development of ‘stations’ such as Spotify, Grooveshark or We7, where you choose the music.
Now, although this provokes worrying points about our generation’s disconnection for reality, social alienation, yadd yadda, you can essentially augment your experience of life by providing your own sound-track. For example, from my own experience, walking the streets of London at night is improved by Conqueror by Jesu, the bright sunshine of the San Francisco shorefront is suited by Incubus’ Light Grenades, the Andalucían hills by Neurosis, Scottish cliff tops by Pelican, the list goes on. Emotional reaction to landscape, people, smells, sights, can be enhanced and intensified by the right music.
This, in turn, incorporates music into how you remember events or places, and acts as a Proustian stimulant, or links things in your mind – it becomes part of the package of memory. For me, Bon Iver’s debut album will forever remind me of the end of my first term at Univeristy, ‘Round ‘bout Midnight’ by Wes Montgomery of the Wheatsheaf pub in Oxford, ‘Stormy Monday Blues’ of my friend Sam.
It’s true, the same could be said of any sense; touch, sight and sound all contribute to a memory, but there’s something incredibly personal about music, due to the extensive potential for intervention and change. For example, recently I was playing ‘Plants Vs Zombies’, a thoroughly enjoyable cartoon defence game centred on the zombie apocalypse by Popcap, see screenshot right. (Highly recommended, available on steam.) The sound track, in order to compliment this aesthetic, is simple and happy, linked here for an example. However, I decided to mute the in-game sound track and replace it with one of my own: Storm Corrosion’s debut album.
The music I chose, an ambient project created by Steve Wilson and Mikael Åkerfeldt, frontmen of Porcupine Tree and Opeth respectively, was pretty different. (It’s a great album; you can find the opening track here to give you an idea. I may very well review it properly at some point.) Suddenly, a simple, childish game became a psychotic episode, a metaphor for a façade projected over creeping existential fear. Music is taken for granted as part of how a game, or film, an experience presents itself, and is recorded in human memory, and changing that element, replacing what is expected and replacing it with something unexpected, can fundamentally alter the experience in itself.
However, this change can only really take place on a personal level, and so social experiences are rarely this easy to alter. You can change the background music at a party, but it will ultimately remain in the background, rather than an integral part of the experience, which is solved by the use of headphones, but this in turn isolates the listener.
Who knows? Maybe internal soundtrack chips that you can implant into your brain, through which you can wirelessly share music, are just around the corner? Well, they’re probably not, but hey, that’d be cool.
For now, here’s a challenge. Play a game with your own soundtrack, take a walk and really pick what you play on your MP3, apply your own music to a film – give it a go, post a comment if you come up with something interesting, or even better, hilarious.