Regarding ‘Judgemental’ Music

I have recently been enjoying a few science and nature type programs on BBC Iplayer, specifically ‘Africa’ and ‘What is Life?’. Now, whilst I have been absolutely blown away by the footage in both these series, and I am immensely enjoying the ‘Africa eye to eye’ part of each ‘Africa’ episode where they show the camera crew on location with their filming rigs etc. I haven’t always been enjoying the music. I appreciate a good soaring tune whilst watching a bird fly, or a stopping-starting slightly comic tune for penguins making their way across slippery rocks with much sliding and slipping, but what I don’t like is music which tries to make the audience make a value judgement about the animals or people in the shot. I don’t mind this in film fiction, here it is practically obligatory to reenforce a sense of evil, menace or general wrong-doing, but I’m not sure it has a place in documentaries. Let me elaborate.

In the first episode of ‘Africa’ we meet a trickster bird who fools Meerkats into thinking a predator is approaching and then steals the grubs they have dug from the ground, he is described as a merry prankster and the music reflects this. In this scene the ‘story’ is very much about meerkat vs bird in a battle of cunning, and not about predator vs prey – the bugs/grubs/worms don’t get a look in, they’re merely a catalyst for the action.
This would be fine, one doesn’t consider as bird evil for eating a worm, just as one doesn’t consider a lion evil for killing a gazelle, it’s just the way nature works. However, later in the episode we meet the Armoured Ground Cricket, the African rains  have attracted both it and the Red Billed Quelea. Whilst the Quelea are described as arriving in ‘spectacular numbers’ and later as ‘pilgrims’, the Crickets are ‘a plague’. The shot cuts from baby Quelea in a nest to the cricket and instantly there is a change in the music, from soothing softness to menacing, rustling, insectoid sounds. The cricket approaches the nest and attempts to eat the Quelea chicks, whilst being subjected to ever more ‘evil sounding’ music. OK, yes, it’s a super creepy insect which squirts it’s blood if alarmed, but is there really a need to portray this scene so emotively?

And I found myself again making a music-based value judgement in ‘What is Life?’ presenter Brian Cox had just visited a graveyard in the Philippines for their ‘Day of the Dead’ festival, where they with joy, rather than sadness, light fires in the graveyard and talk and share with their ancestors who they believe keep existing in a soul-form after death. The camera showed a fast-forward film of the graveyard with the families coming and going in the dark, lighting fires and celebrating, but this was accompanied by very (in my opinion) incongruous ‘creepy’ music. This fast-forward section lasted maybe 10 or 15 seconds, but it was enough for me to wonder why the producers or music director had decided to put a Western stereotypical ‘creepy’ soundtrack to an Eastern graveyard which the people there associated with good memories of their loved ones, and not spooky ghosts/ghouls/vampires etc.

Anyway, I’ve had my rant – has anyone else been made to ‘take sides’ or feel an emotion they found unnatural by music? Let me know!


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