Soundtrack and Indoctrination

A friend who is passionate about gay rights drew my attention to this cartoon by the American Jehova’s Witnesses:

I think my friend was inviting me to join him in abusing this piece of child indoctrination, and was therefore quite surprised when I came back with “mind if I analyse the soundtrack?”

Through my explorations in this blog, I have become even more fully aware of the potency of sound in an audio-visual context to reach beyond the the conscious, cognitive understanding and manipulate us at a deeper level.

I have not engaged in much musicological discussion yet, as this is an area with which I have been more familiar for longer than sound design and so there would be less in the way of discovery.  However, of course, ‘non-diegetic’ music is a very powerful tool of influence on any audience.  It seemed to work a treat on several people I know in ‘Brexit: the movie.’

Take a look at the first few minutes and listen to the portentous, cinematic music – drawing heavily on musical tropes conventionally aligned with heroism in Hollywood – underscoring the ‘ordinary people’ speaking of overthrowing the ‘undemocratic’ European Union:

  • repeated, rhythmic string ostinati,
  • sustained brass melodies,
  • tonic pedal bass,
  • use of minor mode,
  • regular use of suspension generating tension as well as the illusion of musical propulsion in a tonally static context,
  • emphatic percussion hits, swells and ‘rises’ (I notice a particularly ‘foregrounded’ hit following a big swell at the end of the introduction at 2:29, synced with the animated title text, which interestingly drew my attention to the similarities between the logo, with the arrow emerging from the ‘x’ in Brexit, to the male symbol… what is it about masculinity that we being invited to associate this message with…? but I digress!).

Film composer Robin Hoffmann, who produces an ongoing advice series on various aspects of of the job, has discussed this very topic.  He says:

‘Remember that music has the power to manipulate emotionally and therefore alter the perception and eventually opinion of the audience. Very often this happens even on a subconscious level for the audience. This is why music has and is being used extensively on propaganda movies. So, while this can be a great tool, it also puts a bit of responsibility on the composer’s shoulders. As long as things stay fictional, such manipulation is often wanted and sometimes even necessary to “sell” the exotic locations/worlds sometimes depicted in fictional movies to the audience. But as soon as you’re scratching the surface of scoring real life events, especially on socially critical or political documentaries, you should radically tone down anything emotionally manipulative…’ (Hoffmann 2017)

The full piece, which is an interesting read, can be found here on March 14th 2017.


Anyway, back to the Jehova’s Witnesses.

The first thing we hear is the muted sound of children playing.  We hear it over the titles, giving us the subject of the ‘lesson’.  Then we see the little girl alone in a classroom, looking at the children’s drawings.  The sound of the children is distant and outside and she is inside – our very first message.  There is an outside world; it is separate and apart from the characters in this little story, the ones ‘privileged ‘ to be in ‘Jehova’s Kingdom’.  We never see it.  But inside, the girl is free safely to interrogate ideas presented to her by this other place.

Next we see the picture of the ‘two mummies’.  What do we hear immediately afterwards?  The school bell.  Now we do know that it is a school bell, but the sound is also redolent of an alarm.  There is a subtle hint about what we are supposed to think of the two mummies here.  It is timed to accompany the look of uncertainty and discomfort on the girl’s face.

The next sound is home.  Mum is clearly an artist.  Home is peaceful and industrious; we hear the sound of creativity as the girl arrives home (a fruitful place of creation – or Creation? – which by drawing ‘appropriate’ pictures herself she, the girl, shows she is being trained to belong to).

When the girl says “Kerry drew two mummies,” there is a fraction of a second of silence, the first silence we have heard, drawing our attention to the words.

There is no diegetic sound under this whole dialogue.  Sonically, the space is being cleared for the key point, “But what matters, is how Jehova feels.” (0:44).  And this moment is where the non-diegetic musical score finally begins.  (Is it non-diegetic?  Or is it the music of heaven found with the discussions of the woman and girl?  We shall see!)

The music, the organised, pleasing, regular sound, is clearly deemed to be Jehova‘s.  All the random, unstructured foley sound heard up until this point, happening as a by-product of human activity, is, by contrast, meant to be heard as ‘of this world’.

We have a brief moment of a held G played by strings, then a slight swell, as mum picks up the Bible at 0:43.  The music is anticipating something – and it turns out that this G is the dominant note, resolving into C major as the book is opened and we are transported into ‘Jehova’s’ world.  It underlines the change of visuals too, as the colour turns from grey to warm, sunset colours.

The music is played on flutes and strings: sweet, triadic, a descending sequential chain of suspensions leading to a settled place.  There is a fair bit of alternation between chords I and IV – the ‘amen’ function, if you like, and a movement that keeps the music stable within its key.

Note that the flute melody peaks at 1:01.  This is where the mother says the words “male and female” with some emphasis on those words.  A powerful bit of semiotics in this scoring here, making full use of the psychology of melodic structure; the anticipation and realisation of expectations as the arc of the melody crests provide something that feels like an answer to a question.

The music is very much in what I think of as an ‘American pastoral’ tradition.  In Hollywood soundtrack, this gentle, consonant, orchestral sound is so often heard with panoramic agricultural landscapes featuring warm sunlight and expanses of fertile land, or reminiscence, or stirring messages in the dialogue or voice-over.  We can roughly trace the musical language back to some of Aaron Copland’s most iconic work (Appalachian Spring may be the best known).  In my opinion, the USA has a markedly patriotic culture as a whole, and there is a tendency to associate that which is American with that which is wholesome in their mainstream cultural output.

The foley sound in this section reinforces the pastoral musical hints – we hear birdsong, burbling streams, things associated with that which is natural.  Can we infer an indirect comparison with what is not deemed to be natural here: a family built from a lesbian relationship?  Again, the subtlety of this message bypasses conscious thought potentially and, although the tone of this cartoon at face value might be thought to be measured, the subtext diving straight into the subconscious of the young viewer seems pretty extreme to me.

Now, this sound-design layer of the soundtrack gives us a little foreshadowing of the next part of the message.  While the sweet, pastoral music continues along its bland way into the airport images, the sounds above it turn to less appealing, man-made ones.  Straight away as a viewer I felt less comfortable.

This leads into the next bit of their message.  The things that you want to ‘take onto the plane’ that are ‘not allowed’.  As the man carrying the (red!) bag full of forbidden items steps through the airport scanning machine, the alarm starts (1:19) and the soothing music stops.  The girl’s voice, heard for the first time since mum started her ‘lesson’, says in a high pitch “he can’t go on the trip!” – the change in voice and in tone emphasises this plunging into a new soundworld.  The flashing lights (that lack any realism in a straight analogy with the airport!) are also red, like the bag.  The colour of danger, of fire, of blood.  The jerk of the effect is all the more enhanced for having been preceded by a minute or so of bland c major flute, harp and string underscore.

The ‘Jehova’ music returns almost immediately as we are reassured that Jehova wants us to be his friends and live with him “for ever“.  There is an interesting little bit of sound design in this next sequence (1:33-1:34).  As the camera pulls backwards over the heavenly hills back to the man with the offending red bag, there are two ‘swoosh’ noises to coincide with cresting the hills.  It is a sound of power and could possibly be intended to imply that Jehova (who wants us to make it to his paradise, it has just been stated) is now transporting us back to this gateway.  The gateway is situated this time within the natural, ‘paradise,’ scenes, which lays the analogy bare.  The ‘swoosh’ happens again as the camera zooms in on the errant man, as though Jehova is focusing his attention on him – and we see him, of course, consulting a Bible!

At 1:43 the scene returns to the present reality of home, and mum talking.  Nonetheless, the ‘paradise’ music remains.  Mum is saying “that means anything that Jehova doesn’t approve of.”  She is bringing the heavenly message into our world, the music is saying, with her refusal to accept homosexuality as legitimate.

Then, at 1:46 the man dumps his bag of ‘disapproved of’ things and there is a satisfying foley representation of the bag landing, before a glittering Mark Tree welcomes him to paradise.  These tinkles are magical sound, in Hollywood tradition, and are heard often in the Romance genre when the moment of resolution in the form of a kiss arrives.  The union of God and his children has long been spoken of using a marriage analogy; the Church as the ‘Bride of Christ’ is familar to most Christians.  The ‘magic’ tinkles of the Mark Tree are also commonly heard in Christmas movies when a child’s dreams are made true for us in moving picture form.

Thereafter, we return to the here and now – home.  The girl wants “everyone to get to Paradise” and “so does Jehova”.  Now the underscoring changes to another familiar Hollywood style.  It is gently busy and there is internal emphasis of the rhythm.  The texture in the orchestration is light and playful but still fuller, using pizzicato cellos, glockenspiel and clarinet.  Now we are purposeful: this kind of style is usually used in Romantic Comedy to accompany a narrative moving on, a goal has been established.  Often in Hollywood, we see people at work towards something positive when we hear this sound.

The composer employs harmonies that give a flavour of Mixolydian: 2 bars of dominant chord are followed by two bars repeating the melody sequentially, but springing up to the chord of the flat 7th.  The effect of this progression is friendly, and like moving up steps towards a goal.

What is the goal?  At 1:58 mum ask “what can you say to Kerry?”  The clarinet plays a little melodic sequence, taken up by other wind:

The Tune!

Again, both the structure of this melody, based on the neutral intervals of major 2nds and perfect 4ths and 5ths, and the choice of orchestration, remind me of Copland in nationalistic mode – the wide open perfect intervals like the stretching of the American plains.  They are, more obviously, reaching up towards heaven as the girl makes her plan to tell Kerry that she must reject her home and parents (essentially!).

A cute little tune, a bit like an advertising jingle, concludes the cartoon, as mum says “That’s awesome! Let’s practise!” and we conclude in C major with an added 6th.  The added 6th to me is the most static of the blue notes, as it has no burning desire to resolve to another note.  I attribute this partly to its being a member of the pentatonic family – it sits happily with a major triad as part of that scale of five semitone-free notes that sound consonant (even heavenly!) to human ears.

Major 7ths and 9ths (even though 9ths are also in the pentatonic scale) pull towards the tonic because of their proximity to it; minor 7ths potentially destabilise by pulling down towards the submediant note and even hint at a new tonic base on the existing chord IV; the more exotic or astringent added notes, such as a #11, have even more of a dissonant tendency to imply irresolution.  But the added 6th, while it could flop down to the dominant note, sits complacent and I always think lends a self-satisfied (and distinctly ‘cheesy’) air to any harmonic world!  The ‘JW’ logo appears as it lingers.


So, all in all, there are many messages to be found if you scratch just below the surface of this soundtrack.  I think that for being insidious, this is all the more potent.

I should like to say, though it is not relevant to this discussion, that I am religious myself, but in a very different way from this group.  I should like to find an example of spiritual ideas presented in a more honest, authentic and exploratory manner in audio-visual media as a starting point for open discussion of the ‘bigger picture’ and what gives our lives meaning.  I’ll report back if I find such a thing, and take a look for contrast!

Hoffmann, R. 2017 Daily Film Scoring Bits. [online] March 14th 2017.  Available from: http://www.robin-hoffmann.com/dfsb/daily-film-scoring-bits-archive-jan-jun-2017/.  [Accessed: 26th November 2017]

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