Podcasting

How to use music to tell a story in your creative podcast

When I craft my episodes, I like to believe that every sound effect, sound bite, and voice line is made for a specific purpose. Not only that, every sound bite that I don’t use as well: this includes the silence, the gaps, the lack of wet mouth noises (we don’t like those right haha!).

Let’s go through each one:

Music divides the episode into sections.

I like to write my scripts with pauses. Actually writing those pauses down. At the very least, it tells the voice actor (eg. myself, for Tempered Fables) when a section is done for example.

For listeners, it could be useful information to know that the section finished. It could be a new scene coming up next, or a new feeling being evoked. We could help them out by introducing different songs for each section!

Fantasy music for a dream. Tribal music for a village out in the meadows. Hardcore Orchestra for an action scene (is Hardcore Orchestra a thing? I just made that up. Sounds like an epic band name). Not all stories happen in only one scene, so this can help for transition.

Faster music = increased excitement

Beats per minute (or BPM for short) is used to measure our heart rate. What a coincidence that we also use it to determine the speed of a song!

Fast music is great for action scenes, climactic scenes where the feelings are rushing for a conclusion, and scenes where there is some form of panic. Armageddon might be happening, and people are trying to run away. A ghost might be chasing the main character and they might be driving away on a high-speed chase (the ghost in his own ghostly combat vehicle of course).

If I had slow music for each of these scenes, it wouldn’t work. We won’t get excited, and that mismatch might cause us to tune out of the episode. Speaking of slow…

Slow = tense, intimate

I love writing intimate moments into an episode. It tests the voice actor’s ability to be intimate just by the use of their voice. They start making use of silence to really slow down the conversation, or they start to weave in and out of the music to produce a certain tense effect. Well, the sound producer does that bit, but we listeners won’t know.

Slow music is sloooooooooow.

I could think of a few slow scenes in my life: reading a book with massive exposition, petting my pet dog Gizmo while he’s sleeping on my leg, saliva drooping. Being in bed and not wanting to get up. The ideal coffee morning.

When that time comes, the voice actors have to unleash that in-bed voice.

We can emulate that real-life effect by playing with the sound in the background. Sure, we don’t get background music while we’re going about our everyday lives, but the purpose of slow music is to introduce that same feeling.

Sometimes it’s the most intimate moments. Others, it’s when there is tension in the air (could be someone dropping the truth, you never know).

Brighter notes = happy

Major notes! They put a smile on my face.

We like major notes because they uplift our mood. We like them because they’re happiness in your ears. It’s the same effect in a podcast.

When I have a slow, bright song playing in the background, it could be for a revelation, or good news in a lovely conversation.

When I have a fast, bright song it could portray an energetic pixie, or the episode’s main character running through a field of flowers, excited by everything.

But Yin and Yang must balance, and you can’t have bright notes without…

Darker notes = solemn

Minor notes. Saddening. Tragic.

They keep you down. There is no light in a minor chord.

If there is a sad scene, a bright and happy song won’t fit at all. Listening to a sad scene allows us to relate to a character in that scene, because of the trouble they’re going through.

It could be family death. A dark, secret past that they never knew. Maybe they were backstabbed by their best friend (figuratively, not actually backstabbed…but I guess that could work too).

There has to be a good reason why the listener hears sad music in the episode.

A slow, sad song could be shock, a powerful plot twist, or a realisation.

A fast, darker song can evoke panic, or a breakdown of one’s mental health.

We’re playing with emotions here. We have to take it seriously.

1-instrument songs are powerful

1 instrument songs are fascinating to me. I love using them in Tempered Fables. My intro is one, and some of my favourites are only a piano or violin.

They are powerful. I don’t know the science behind it, but they are. I think it’s because there are always two instruments at play in a 1-instrument song:

  1. The instrument itself, and
  2. Silence.

I love the use of silence.

It’s ironic since I like to talk to people. I’m like one of those energy vampires, I gain more energy the more I talk to everyone. Of course, the conversation has to be empowering.
Sorry, I was sidetracked:

Silence is when the thoughts come out to play. Silence is where you can really hear yourself.

For a podcast episode, it’s perfect. Listeners can write the story for you. You don’t have to narrate anything.

What do I mean by that? Let’s take a fictional example:

A man comes back home to find his family murdered.

Finding clues left by the wife, police investigation believed it was an escaped convict.

But the man finds a letter, and it turns out:

He was the convict, and he killed them while he was asleep.

(CUE SAD PIANO MUSIC)

He had no memory of who he was before he married them. His nightmares haunted him, and in his sleep he killed the family and walked out in the middle of nowhere.

I wrote this premise above in 5 minutes. I might use that in a later episode, hmm.

Anyways! Notice that I didn’t write what he thought, how he felt, etc. when he read the letter. I’m leaving that up to the imagination of the listener.

I tell them the message of: “What would you think if you were in this man’s shoes?” by reaching the climax of the scene and an immediate hard-cut to a piano. For example:

It read:

“Dear John,

If this letter has reached you in some way, I have either died or been murdered. It’s most likely the latter though.

I knew you wouldn’t be able to control your nightmares when you told me your past. But I fell for you anyway, and loved that you want to redeem yourself.

You’ve blocked the memory for decades, and it led to our loving family together. I only hope that our family live for generations to come, all out of goodwill and harmony.

But, if not, as long as it was by your hands, I won’t mind. It may have been necessary.

Please take care of the children for me.

From,

Jane

P.S. I’ve always liked your old name better. It sounds nice.

Duff McMuffin.

(CUE SAD PIANO MUSIC)

The man was the murderer? What would he think?? What IS he thinking? How does he feel about killing his own family How does he feel about his past coming back to haunt him?

None of the questions above are written, but they can be assumed by the listener. Naturally, as the song plays, the listener may go into a long thought process of answering these questions on their own.

I don’t have to say a single thing at this point: I just let the listener write that part for themselves.

Silence is powerful. You can tell the difference between a good narrator and a great one from the way they use silence to tell a story.

It sounds like I’m recommending the opposite of using music to tell a story, but really there’s a fine balance: you should have both.

Let me know what you think!

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