An introduction to music research
An introduction to music research

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An introduction to music research

3.6 Nature documentaries

Figure 9 Doug Allan filming a humpback whale mother and calf, during filming for Planet Earth, Tonga, 2005. Photo: © Bridgeman Education.

You are now going to examine a couple of extracts from a BBC Nature Documentary, The Blue Planet, with music by George Fenton. One interesting aspect of the use of music in nature documentaries is the way in which it often ‘characterises’, even anthropomorphises, animals in ways that are familiar from feature film (or TV dramas). This might seem at odds with the stated aims of many documentaries: to present a scientific objectivity in relationship with its subject. Evidently that aim conflicts with the desire to entertain and to help audiences empathise with the documentary’s subject.

Activity 10

Watch two extracts from the ‘Open Oceans’ episode of The Blue Planet, with music by George Fenton (video 2). What effect does the music have on your view of the animals? In the case of the first extract (which presents us with a crab), what kind of characteristics are you encouraged to ascribe to this animal, and what role does music play in creating that character identity (alongside other elements such as the camerawork or the narration)? With the second extract (an attack on a shoal of sardines by striped marlin, juvenile tuna, and a sei whale), ask yourself where your sympathies lie. How does the music encourage us to side with one side or another? What does it suggest about the characteristics of the animals, and how does it accomplish this?

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Video 2
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Here are a few thoughts about the two sequences, though there is scope to say much more:

The crab in the first extract seems to be presented as something of a maverick. This is partly achieved through the cinematography (passages with close-ups and quick edits that create a confrontational and arresting character), but the music also plays an important role. Clearly, there are suggestions of music of the Far East – or, perhaps more accurately, musical signifiers that signal ‘the Far East’ to western popular culture. This is evident in the instrumentation (gongs, cymbals and a plucked Chinese zither-like instrument that sounds like the Guzheng) and the use of parallel harmonies. The music, then, appears to link this animal with a non-western cultural perspective; it is an outsider of sorts, and thus something of a maverick.

With the second extract, our sympathies probably lie with the sardines. Fenton’s music is written in the minor mode, which has an obvious effect on our reading of the scene, but there are some particularly interesting characterisations happening here. Aside from the allusions to Debussy’s La Mer, the marlin are given a graceful theme that seems to emphasise their beauty and power – but their music also features brass snarls, which are a standard connoter of evil or menace (and great power) in Hollywood film scores. The tuna, on the other hand, are given a sprightly repeating ostinato (with the odd militaristic snare drum), which might seem to indicate a certain ‘child-like’ obsessiveness of purpose (they are, after all, juveniles). When the whale appears, the musical movement slows down markedly. In fact, you might have observed how the music’s surface activity throughout the sequence parallels the size of the creature on screen: slower music seems to equate with more massive body weight. The whale’s appearance triggers a distinctly ‘tragic’ register in the music, as it appears to finish off the poor sardines who are seemingly obliterated. The music, in combination with Attenborough’s emotive narration, encourages us to sympathise with their fate.


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