I’m not sure if I’ve talked about this subject before, but I’ll be talking about background music (or, rather, the lack of it) today. This was mostly because I ended up watching this absolutely fascinating video about the soundtrack to the classic 1982 sci-fi masterpiece “Blade Runner“.
As the video explains, the soundtrack to this film is an integral part of the film for all sorts of interesting reasons. Naturally, this made me think about making art, making comics and writing fiction.
After all, in their traditional form, these mediums can’t include background music. In purely practical terms, this is probably a blessing (given the money and/or stress involved in licencing background music or hiring a composer), but it also means that comics, traditional art and prose fiction can’t really do the same things that films, TV shows and computer/video games can.
So, I thought that I’d take a quick look at one of the most basic ways that you can make up for the lack of background music in art, comics and/or prose fiction.
One of the most important features of background music in films, television and games is that it helps to set the tone of what is happening. If you hear ominous and suspenseful music during part of a horror movie, you know that something frightening is going to happen. But, of course, you can’t do this in art, comics or fiction.
So, what do you do instead? Simple, you use the background elements to do the same thing. Whether this is carefully choosing the lighting you use in a painting or using a slightly faster-paced narrative style with slightly less complex language during a thrilling scene in your novel, changing some of the background elements slightly can really help to set an emotional tone in a smilar way to how this is done through background music.
To show you what I mean, here is the example painting that I used in yesterday’s article. It’s a piece of gloomy 1980s/90s-style sci-fi horror art that I made a few months before writing this article. It relies heavily on gloomy lighting, a slightly limited colour palette etc… to create a slightly ominous atmosphere which compliments the events of the painting:
Now, here’s a digitally-altered version of the same picture which changes a lot of things (eg: the background, the colour saturation etc..), whilst keeping the events of the painting the same. As you can see, it loses a lot of the ominous tone of the original version:
To give you an example of this kind of thing in prose fiction, here’s a lush, vivid description from the first page of “Lost Souls” By Poppy Z. Brite: ‘The sky is purple, the flare of a match behind a cupped hand is gold; the liquor is bright green, made from a thousand herbs, made from altars.‘
And here’s a quote from a later part of the book during a more fast-paced moment. The sentences are shorter and the descriptions are considerably less complex: ‘He edged around the front end of the car and pulled his door open. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Ghost do the same. They threw themselves in and both doors slammed at once. Steve thumbed the lock button. Ghost was ranting at him.‘
Although neither scene includes any background music, you can probably imagine the first one having a much deeper, more complex and more ambient soundtrack. Likewise, the second quote would probably have a much more muted and fast-paced soundtrack. Yet, the changes in atmosphere and tone are achieved by the way that each scene is written.
As for comics, there are all sorts of ways that these techniques can be used. As well as changing the “look” and detail level of the art to reflect the mood that you want to get across the audience, you can also do things like having dialogue-free segments during fast-paced or suspenseful moments etc.. Likewise, changes to the panel layout can also affect the tone of your comic.
For example, the second panel of this comic update of mine is a long, flowing thing that seems to consist of four panels blended together. Since there are no obvious panel borders in this scene, it creates a slightly dreamy and ethereal atmosphere which might make you think of a similar type of background music.
So, yes, novels, art, comics etc… can’t include background music, but they can do a lot of the same things that background music in a film does.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂