Why Your Cue Doesn’t ‘Work’

Why Your Cue Doesn’t ‘Work’

18th of October 2021

In April 2019 I was in Moscow with the British Council, talking to some wonderful composers on a course based at the Moscow Film School. The students had an intensity of purpose and an ear for bullshit that immediately made me wish I’d thought more deeply about our subject, apart from a vague intuition that some pieces of music (or ‘cues’ in the jargon) ‘worked’ and some didn’t.

This expression of things ‘working’ or not is very common in fields where the solution to a problem is not mathematically right or wrong (although maths may well later be involved) but, ultimately in the eyes of the decision-maker. So when anyone tells you that something ‘doesn’t work’, how can you respond? Especially if, for you, it definitely does.

On the hoof in Moscow, I decided to break the question into three areas, two of which are the most often discussed and fretted over by composers, and the third, which is, in my opinion, almost always where the solution lies.

Nikolay Skachkov - conductor
Michael Price and Tom Sweet - British Council

So stage 1 – does it ‘work’ musically? By this I mean the technical pitches and rhythms stuff that is incredibly meaningful for composers and absolutely not for anyone else. This is the bricks, joists and plasterwork of a house, which although clearly essential to having a structure that stands up, are taken for granted by an observer, and no amount of telling them that you’ve used a particularly skilful jointing technique in the gable end will make them like your building any more. Trying to convince someone that they should like something rarely has the intended effect.

Stage 2 – does it ‘work’ sonically? Maybe this takes us a small step closer to the heart of the matter, in that a non-musical person will be able to point out how the sonics of a cue are making them feel emotionally, or at least talk about their emotions and you can triangulate back. But again hoping that by taking a literal approach and rolling off some bass if the cue is too “oppressive” or adding some 12k if there’s not enough hope, will almost always end up in them feeling that you haven’t really changed anything, and are not listening.

Step 3 – and this is where things get interesting for me. Ask yourself the question, what does that cue mean? What does it mean to the person hearing it, against their images? What does it mean to an audience member hearing it for the first time? And, crucially, why is it there.

Once we start thinking about what the cue means, or suggests, or evokes in the listener, we start to be in the wider world of culture, aesthetics and storytelling. The musical and sonic content is only the material we use to provoke a response, and understanding the context of the listener is crucial. Why is a certain cue ‘old-fashioned’ to one person and ‘glorious’ to another. What signifies sorrow to a director? It could be anything from Barber’s Adagio to Nick Drake to absolute silence, depending on the world of the film and the lifetime of hearing music that the director themselves bring to the project.

Cinefilm - Moscow

So, to those young composers in Moscow, for whom I have great admiration, I apologise that I didn’t have a better lesson plan, or a simpler answer to the question of “Why doesn’t my cue work?”, but in asking instead “what does it mean?”, we open the door to a fascinating world of musical possibilities and new discoveries.

Спасибо вам, мои друзья

Red Square, Moscow
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