Will Oldham: “You’re Doing Music Wrong.”

Will Oldham, musician, actor, guy-who-takes-his-craft-extremely-seriously:

People are constantly contacting me saying, “I’ve been editing my movie, and I’ve been using your song in the editing process. What would it take to license the song?” And for me it’s like, “Regardless of what you’ve been doing, my song doesn’t belong in your movie.” [emph. mine]

A good song is a fully articulated capsule of theme and story. So is a good movie. What are the odds that the songwriter’s fully articulated capsule of theme and story aligns exactly with yours? In the event that they don’t align, whose theme/story — the professional’s or the amateur’s — do you think will override the other’s?Previously: Don’t Let Your Students Use Music In Their Video Projects.

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I’m Dan and this is my blog. I’m a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. More here.

12 Comments

  1. What are the odds that the songwriter’s fully articulated capsule of theme and story (can be changed, shifted, and built upon in ways unknown by the artist)?

    Is this a copyright post?

  2. @David, let’s suppose the percentage of people who recognize authentic communication when they experience it is rather low. I dunno, 10%, for the sake of argument. What do you recommend?

    @Willy, very small, I imagine, especially with novices.

    The most relevant data point here is Kutiman’s remix work, where an extremely articulate musician has appropriated the music of (mostly) inarticulate hobbyists. I can’t think of any data points running the other direction.

    When novices appropriate the work of an expert in their video projects, the expert’s vision typically overrides the novice’s, and then what has the novice done to improve her own storytelling skills?

  3. I’m walking my Speech students through the AFI curriculum (The Door scene). Attempts at the scene have been halfhearted by most groups for many different reasons, but this last attempt was better by nearly everyone. We’ll be shooting the scene again after they storyboard it and only once they have a near-to-perfect scene without it will I give them the option to include music.

    On the other side of this coin, though, they recorded two speeches earlier in the semester where I actually made music a requirement. I wasn’t clear enough about the idea of conflicting messages, though. A song with lyrics behind a speech is a horrible choice. But making students decide between that string piece and the lilting guitar/piano melody is a worthwhile place to put students in (though tough to objectively assess). They need to decide which one better matches the tone of their anecdote. I use This American Life for examples, as well as a few old student pieces with a couple of background music choices for comparison.

    Students might need to apply music and see how it doesn’t work in order to begin to understand how to communicate their message. When they see it not working is almost as valuable as when they see it successful, given there’s a teacher there to guide them through the Whys.

    Things aligning *exactly*? Not bloody likely. Things aligning enough to get students interested in the process? Quite frequently. I’m not entirely disagreeing with you, but I think there’s room here for students to experiment. I’m a musician so I take music very seriously and I hate when students use it to tell stories that they are too lazy to tell themselves, when their words carry no emotional impact so they let the reverb and harp do it for them. Watch movie previews, though, and you’ll see exactly the same thing. How many times have you heard the music from Requiem For A Dream or NIN’s Just Like You Imagined underneath some lame fight scene or lovers’ dialogue that doesn’t mean anything otherwise?

    But for our students, isn’t that part of the learning curve? Training wheels aren’t horrible if you need them. As for the “professionals” I mention above, they have no excuse.

  4. I guess I am wondering, why all the fuss then? I mean, I completely understand what you are saying regarding helping students find their voice and tell their story–heck, I am still finding mine. I realize that as teachers our ability to tell our story in the form of a lesson can be greatly affected by our ability (or inability) to communicate effectively. The problem, as I see it, is that one can be a great story teller and put all necessary time and energy into the process (as you seem to do so well), but most of that work can be lost on the audience.

    When I watch a movie or listen to a song, I don’t see the things that you see. I try, but I don’t understand why certain shots are done certain ways or why a particular piece of music was or wasn’t used. Can I learn that? I don’t know.

    But if my audience won’t know the difference, should I take the time to learn it? I suppose I my thinking is based on this ratio:
    (necessity of improving A/V communication skills)=(improved understanding by the audience)/(time spent improving A/V skills)

  5. @David
    Watch a few episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. You’ll soon see that its just a rotation of cheap dialogue of boring relationship drama with a good sound soundtrack.

  6. On David’s note: Last year an Algebra class advised me to change the background for each powerpoint slide, informing me that there were all these colorful, interesting backgrounds available and I was just using that green gradient all the time.

    They also said their favorite font was Comic Sans.

  7. @ David
    I hope I am understanding what you are writing correctly. I think there is a difference between your audience being able to intellectually explain technical aspects of video and music and recognise/appreciate them.

    At a basic level, if we were to put a badly designed worksheet in front of a school pupil they would know it looked rubbish. They are bombarded with examples of good design everyday. They are professional consumers of good design but they may not be able to explain what is wrong with the layout.

    Apologies if I have the wrong end of the stick

    John

  8. @ David
    I hope I am understanding what you are writing correctly. I think there is a difference between your audience being able to intellectually explain technical aspects of video and music and recognise/appreciate them.

    At a basic level, if we were to put a badly designed worksheet in front of a school pupil they would know it looked rubbish. They are bombarded with examples of good design everyday. They are professional consumers of good design but they may not be able to explain what is wrong with the layout.

    Apologies if I have the wrong end of the stick

    John

  9. mmm. Interesting idea/post but I don’t think you really mean it. Just ‘against’ the indiscriminate use of songs in movies. Which is more than fair enough. I think we can agree on being against the indiscriminate use of anything (except love).

    Music is, for me anyway, incredibly visual – haven’t you ever been taken somewhere ‘in your mind’s eye’ by a song?! If someone wants to use this as inspiration to create a movie or to enhance a movie because it matches thematically (or not), and it works then bring it on.

    Also: music or other textual elements added to the visual text of the film don’t have to “align”, rather combine. Sometimes they can clash – for effect or emphasise a point.. Ramblings for thought…

    Btw. Will Oldham used to be one of my faves, before I discovered the genius that is Jason Molina (Songs: Ohia). Listen to Two Blue Lights and tell me you don’t want to make a short film.

    Btw2: I think Will has done a few soundtracks, but like Neil Young in Deadman, the music was written/played specifically for the movie(s).

  10. @John
    I agree that if something is done poorly, it doesn’t take a trained eye to notice it. But many students do exactly what H. describes when dealing with design: they spend 80% of their time finding the backgrounds (none of which are the same or have anything to do with their presentation), they work on transitions and crazy sound bites. They think its great, but it looks bad and the content of their presentation is garbage.

    So, if I have good content, but don’t really know how to design effectively, how much of my content will be lost on my audience? Can I still be effective without worrying about my design?

  11. Music is a very strange animal, and it’s an animal that can most certainly destroy you if you don’t treat it with respect and give it distance.

    – Charlie Shafter

    Sound like a classroom to anyone else?