Music, narrative and space

I’m thinking about music. Which is slightly scary for me, as I’m not very good with music. I have no sense of rhythm, I’m not tone deaf, but I do struggle to tell the difference between notes, and though I enjoy singing, people around me don’t enjoy my singing. This might have something to do with two of my favourite musicians being Bob Dylan and Shane McGowan whose own singing voices are a matter of some division among critics.

But while I may not be terribly qualified to think about music, I have become aware of how important music is the storytelling that occurs in some of the most applauded video games. When I hear the words music and video games in the same sentence I think first of the god-awful bleeps and beeps that I used to turn down in the eighties, but music in games has come a long way since then. Something I think I was only actually aware of when I started playing Dear Esther for this research. I was so impressed with how the music added to the atmosphere, and helped tell the story that I was not surprised to learn that the composer, Jessica Curry, had been nominated for a Bafta for her work on the game.

Then, when I was telling people I was planning to play Red Dead Redemption, everyone I spoke mentioned the music as an impressive feature of that game, most pulling out one particularly impressive example, which indeed take the number two spot in this list of the top twenty songs in games. This is the first time in the game that the (excellent) ambient music gives way to a very “front of mind” song, licensed from Swedish (with South American roots) singer Jose Gonzales. The simple fact that so many people talk about this moment in their appreciation of the game indicates that the music contributes to an emotional, memory creating, response in the player.

We talked about this at work on Wednesday, briefly mentioning the way music is used in the Bowie exhibition at the V&A, and the hope that the experimental opening of Leith Hill Place might include an innovative soundscape. However we concluded that cultural heritage doesn’t use music enough in interpretation, and where it does, it doesn’t do so that imaginatively. My boss said she might be up for sponsoring an innovative (and repeatable elsewhere)  use of music in interpretation. (So if anyone out there has an exciting ideas that would fit in a National Trust property around London and the South East, get in touch!)

It definitely seems to me that if I’m planning to learn from how games tell stories, I can’t ignore music. But I have some questions that need answering, and I think these are questions occasioned by the broad range of cultural heritage sites that my organisation, the National Trust, looks after though they would also apply elsewhere.

  1. Many examples of music and sound in interpretation occur through headphones. This tends towards an insular, individual experience. Lots of people enjoy audio guides but many people seek a more social learning experience in museums. How can places use sound and music in a more open, participatory manner? (This is one of the questions the Ghosts in the Garden tries to address.)
  2. Similarly, many people visit outdoor locations in part to enjoy the sounds of being in the open air. Can we design musical experiences that make space for, or even amplify some of the ambient sounds that may be occurring around the listener in the non-virtual world?
  3. Lots of the music we hear in cultural heritage interpretation is bought off the shelf – existing recordings, licensed or borrowed from royalty free collections. Occasionally (for Ghosts in the Garden, for example) new recordings are made of music historically connected with the site. More rarely (I’m aware of a piece created especially for Ham House last year, and another in development at Mottisfont) have new pieces of music been commissioned to help tell the story of site. Why doesn’t this happen more often?

Luckily I don’t have to try and an answer these questions on my own. I’ve already met colleagues at the university that are already asking similar questions. The At Home with Music project has already worked at National Trust sites, and this post from Ben Mawson suggests he’s recently been dealing with exactly the same narrative frustrations that started me on this research. I’m hoping I can enlist their help, and that they don’t mind my singing.